An open letter to Darren Criss from a broken-hearted Filipino-American
Update: I’ve written a piece that talks through the healing this formerly broken-hearted Filipino-American has experienced seeing Darren Criss come into his own and explore his identity further. View that here.
When I was growing up, there wasn’t a single Filipino person in the media proclaiming their heritage. There wasn’t anyone who really looked like me in general. Which is why whenever I, my friends, family, and other Filipino-Americans, found out that someone’s parent (or cousin or sibling or grandmother or great grandmother) was Filipino, we latched on. We rooted for them. We became their biggest fans because who else was there for us to root for?
Most artists didn’t acknowledge it too much, but that was alright. All that mattered was that we knew that, even if they never talked about it, they were still part us. Which meant that maybe I too could achieve the dreams or successes they had. It showed me another way out that didn’t result in becoming a maid or a nanny or a nurse or someone in the service industry. It meant maybe I could be a singer or dancer like Enrique Iglesias or Nicole Scherzinger or Bruno Mars or Hailee Steinfeld. Maybe I could be a speed skater like J.R. Celski. Maybe I could be an actor like Darren Criss.
Which brings me to you, Darren. What I read in your Vulture interview last night hurt me, as a Filipino-American fan of yours. I first watched you during your Starkid days on YouTube and followed your success as you blew up on Glee. Seeing you succeed on that show was inspiring. I was in high school/college when it was on, and even though it was never addressed on the show, it made me so proud to see a Filipino-American shining.
Because, again, when you’re given bits and pieces of representation, you take what you can get.
So I took this. We took this.
I saw you in concert a year or so ago when you came to SF to perform with Seth Rudetsky. It was such a wonderful show, and I remember so many moments where you shouted out that you had a Filipino mom or were Filipino or asked how many Filipinos were in the audience.
And we ate. it. up.
We screamed and yelled for you. We waited outside for you, eager to catch a glimpse of your car. Filled with joy that we were finally able to scream for someone who looked like us out there in Hollywood, representing us like we always dreamed of being represented.
And by the way you laughed, how you smiled, the things you said when interacting with us, it made me believe that you enjoyed this relationship too. That you relished in the fact that you were apart of this community that has undoubtedly supported you throughout your career. Who has trekked out to your shows, no matter where they were, because when else were we going to see a Filipino-American actor/singer performing on stage? One who has gained popularity on national television across the globe?
To top it all off, you were then cast as Andrew Cunanan in the Assassination of Gianni Versace (one of the few Asian-American roles that’s been properly cast in so long as I can remember…). I couldn’t believe it. This was major. The reviews were pretty outstanding from the get-go and when I watched the show myself, I thought, Wow, this is for sure going to be one of those award-circuit shows. Maybe he’ll get an Emmy. A SAG award. Some type of recognition for sure. Maybe I’ll finally be able to cheer on a fellow Filipino-American. Maybe he’ll pave the way for us! Maybe he’ll even shout us out in his acceptance speech.
I was hopeful and practically jumping out of my skin.
All of this is to say that when I read the way you spoke about being Filipino, how your favorite thing about being half-Filipino is that you “don’t look like it”, it didn’t just hurt. I felt the hopes, mine, everyone’s, slip away. And once the hurt dissipated, in its place I found profound sadness.
A lot of what you said in that interview rubbed me the wrong way to be honest, but as a Filipino-American who considered themselves a fan of yours, the sections around race hit me hardest. I was particularly struck by the extent to which you went to make sure the readers knew you didn’t consider yourself a part of a community you’ve both pandered to and represented (whether or not you wanted to). A community that has embraced you (and helped your bank account in the process).
“I have the luxury of being half-white and looking more Caucasian, so it doesn’t weigh on my conscience as much, like, “Ugh, why aren’t there more roles?” I think as an actor, you just study and you wanna bring your A game all the time and hopefully it doesn’t even matter.”
You other’d us while placing yourself in such close proximity with the whiteness you so proudly wear. Why would you do that?
When you talked about how Ryan Murphy offered you the role and you said that he’d better cast a Filipino-American because otherwise “they’d cry bloody murder”, it came off like a flippant joke. The interviewer was the one who said “Rightfully so”, reinforcing how righteous it would be to cry “bloody murder” if yet another Asian-American role was whitewashed. You didn’t seem to take it seriously despite how serious the situation is.
“I was joking with Ryan when he wanted to do this, “Of course I’d love to, but even if you decide to do it with somebody else, good luck finding somebody in your camp that’s the same age range, looks like him and is half-Filipino, because if you don’t cast somebody who’s half-Filipino, the community’s going to cry bloody murder, so don’t not do that.”
And then when you spoke about not even considering yourself Asian-American, I just felt the knife twist further, deeper, harder.
“Do you identify as Asian-American?
No. I think that’d be unfair. I think that’d sound like I’m reaching for the minority card on a college application. I think that would be unfair. Yeah, my mom’s Asian-American. She’s from the Philippines and came here and then married a white guy, and here I am. But maybe it’s because of the way I look. Maybe if I looked a little more pan-Asian and I was put in that box then I would be like, “Yeah, I identify as Asian-American,” but maybe because the obstacles that may come up haven’t that I don’t think about it. But that’s a really interesting question. I’ve never thought about that. For better or for worse, I guess not. But I guess I am. What do you think? Am I? On paper I guess I kind of am.”
Just because you look white does not make you fully white.
And just because you haven’t faced the struggles other people of color have does not mean that you get to just forget about us and distance yourself from the community.
It means you use the privilege you have in passing as white to uplift those of us who don’t.
“I always say one of my favorite things about myself is that I’m half-Filipino but I don’t look like it. It’s always like an ace up my sleeve of like, “Oh really? How nuts.” So it never really has. I just look like a Caucasian guy, which is nice. I’ve got the multiethnic thing going on. People think I’m like Italian or Mediterranean. No, my mom’s very Filipino. I grew up with a Filipino mom. Anybody who’s grown up in that world knows that’s a thing you share.”
And it’s not as easy as just being a great fucking actor and then things will fall into place. You make it sound like the onus is on us, the people of color banging at the gates, when it’s on the people who are keeping us out to be the ones trying to make a change.
Because you can be extremely talented and still never be given a chance to succeed. There are serious systemic issues in place that block us. You can’t just work hard and then one day achieve your dreams when people keep tearing those dreams from your hands.
“Luckily, Jon Jon did the thing we all hope for, which is you’re just a good actor. He just fucking knocks it out of the park and that transcends his type, and what you hope for any actor, really, if you took race out of the equation, like, you get cast as the hot blonde ingenue and hopefully you’re a good actress, and then they go, “Oh, okay cool, well, we can make her this look,” and everybody gets surprised even though they’re, guess what? A good actor.”
So we need people like you, people who have achieved mainstream success, people who can pass as white (unfortunately), to tell the white men and women in power to shut up and listen. To help us make room, to hold open doors so we can come in and plant ourselves in rooms we’ve never been given a chance to see.
We need people like you to dismantle the current systems in place and help us build new tables where we can finally have a seat.
And if you don’t want to assume that responsibility, then don’t pander to us when it’s useful to you. Don’t talk about your favorite Filipino restaurants to eat at or the quirks of your Filipino mom. Don’t ask us how many Filipinos are in the audience. Don’t reach out to us like we’re all apart of the same community and then step back when you’re embraced by the white man and say, “Woah, hey, I’m not like them! I didn’t struggle like them, I don’t look like them, no. That’s not me. I’m like you!”
That doesn’t just hurt me. It hurts all of us. You are only continuing to play into the white supremacist ideology and system that’s been put in place since the founding of this country and has continued to oppress us, and everyone who doesn’t fit into that mold, for centuries.
You can’t be white, Darren, no matter how much you love that you look like a white man. So might as well use the power and privilege you have to make room for actors like Jon Jon who are and have been trying to be recognized for their work for years. Use your privilege to elevate our voices, pass the mic to us. Use your privilege to at least call attention to the systemic injustices happening in your industry, if not all around the world.
I mean, for crying out loud, Ava DuVernay, the wildly talented, brilliant, visionary that she is, has done more for our community than you have even though she has no responsibility to do so (which adds even more evidence of how black women and men have continually supported the Filipino/Filipino-American community despite strong anti-black sentiments within the Philippines).
Use your privilege to include us in the conversation for once.
I: “I think it’s however you want to define it, but I do think that phenotype probably plays a large role in how you relate to that identity.
DC: Yeah. I think if it was thrust upon me I would embrace it, because I love that I’m half-Filipino. But I’ve never been put in that corner, like, “We need an Asian-looking guy. Call this guy.” That’s never been a journey that I’ve had to navigate. Anyway, back to the show.”
And most importantly, open a book, listen to our conversations, hear our cries, and educate yourself before you damage us even more.
Note added 1/9/19:
Having written this piece almost a year ago, and seeing that more people than I ever imagined have read/shared this, I wanted to clarify a few things:
- I was responding, specifically, to what he said in his Vulture article and wasn’t commenting on Darren Criss as a person overall. The hurt and disappointment I felt after reading that was too much to let pass, which is why it turned into this piece here.
- This isn’t about “canceling” Darren, simply because I don’t really believe in “canceling” people and have strong feelings about the dangers of this “cancel culture” we’re in. It’s more so about what he said specifically in that interview and wanting him to do better and be better when representing us at this large of a scale.
- Having difficulty establishing your identity, being uncertain about what place you can and should be taking up is something I’m super familiar with and I have a lot of empathy for him and everyone else going through this process. While I’m not biracial (to an extent, I really think all Filipinos are since we’re such a huge mix of things but that’s another point), I am lighter skinned and have constantly been told I don’t look Filipino. Or that people don’t know how to categorize me. Or that I’m not “Asian-enough”. Or that Filipinos aren’t Asian.
And while I don’t pass as white, I recognize I have a lot of privilege over many people of color, over people in my own family. It’s something I’ve wrestled and dealt with for years, and I understand the complexity of trying to figure out who you are. Especially when Filipinos/Filipino-Americans are constantly battling a colonial mindset that has intrinsically taught us to hate ourselves and idolize whiteness. Can’t even imagine how hard this all must be when you’re under the public eye.
So I wasn’t trying to simplify his identity, but as someone who has light-skinned privilege (and straight-passing privilege, among others), I have come to understand and am continually learning that that isn’t an excuse to not be actively dismantling white supremacy and lifting up the people who make up your ancestry. Because we have to take care of our own, take care of each other, and he has the privilege to do more. He has the responsibility to do better. We all do, and after reading that article, I felt compelled to say something in response because of how much it stung.
- While I’m super glad he shouted out his Mom in his speech at the Golden Globes, I do wish he brought her (though I don’t know him or his family, so there were probably extenuating circumstances that prevented that from happening). Would have been great to see a Filipino mom (especially in traditional dress) on the red carpet.
Ultimately, of course, I am happy to see him winning because it’s a win for us as well. And while I’m still pretty hurt from what he said, I do genuinely want him to improve, learn from a mistake he made (which we all make), and simply do more and do better.