Saturday, May 5, 2012

Jessica Sanchez and Racism BY ALLEN GABORRO (May 4, 2012)

So all you financially-content and self-satisfied Filipino Americans out there still think that we have finally been accepted as equals with the rest of mainstream America. The idea that America in all its diverse forms and wondrous totality has disposed itself of its racial attitudes and thus have cosmically embraced Filipinos for being the best we can be is an advancing fairytale. It is advancing because more and more Filipino Americans are starting to believe it.

I don’t normally comment on something as culturally-ailing and hauntingly-kitsch as “American Idol” is (I can be a shameless snob at times) but due to the booming FilAm appeal of contestant Jessica Sanchez and her near elimination from the show I will do a role-reversal here and write a little something positive about it.

There are two fabulously speculative and subjective voting blocs on American Idol. There is the three-person panel of celebrity judges whose mandate of expertise is stuck halfway between showing off in front of the audience and coming across like they know what they are talking about; maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Then there is the pervasive national audience which makes its collective wisdom heard by voting through texting, social media, and telephone. I wonder, are either the celebrity judges or the national audience fair arbiters of singing talent? In the dumbed-down context of American Idol, it probably doesn’t matter.

In judging any kind of talent at length, personal prejudices and preferences and skewed consciousnesses come into play to construct a picture of reality that will fit into those haphazard prejudices and idiosyncratic mental registries. Faced with the task of sparing the contestants or of having them thrown to the lions, the judges sometimes allow the worst of their individual predilections to get the better of them.

Consider Jessica Sanchez and all the agitation and hubbub surrounding her close shave with competitive dismissal. If it were not for the grace of the three celebrity judges, Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler, Sanchez would have been a goner. Now I know I am not an authority on whether she is really a talented singer or not. She does sounds good to me but what do I know? I’m a Filipino American so I might be accused of having a conflict of interest here.

What I do know is that three non-Filipino music luminaries made an emotional, hands-down ruling on Sanchez’s performance while the wider national audience voted her down. Can so many people be wrong at the same time? Talent of any kind, like beauty, can be in the eyes of the beholder. But what made so many turn down Sanchez while a like-minded trio decided she was so good that they should turn the vote on its head and throw her a lifesaver in the form of the “Judges’ Save”?

As Filipino Americans, you should know what is coming next. What we have here involves the contentious question of race in America as well as in American Idol. Assuming that she could sing appreciably and that she looked attractive to anyone watching, why else would so many people give Sanchez the hook when the three wise judges said she deserved otherwise? Did the multitude of voters kill her off just for the hell of it?

It is never easy to say this, but more times than not, intelligence, talent, hard work, or the combination thereof is barely a match for racial discrimination. Can we say for certain that racism was at play in the Jessica Sanchez narrative? No, but Filipino Americans bear all the risks if they completely dismiss the possibility that racism had something to do with the episode.

Why should I say such a thing? Haven’t Filipinos hurdled that obstacle by now? Racism in America, as recently conveyed by the Trayvon Martin case, is deplorably alive and well. It is a sad commentary that in an era where we finally have the first African American president, that the color of his skin remains an issue with so many Americans. You can try and convince me that the color of Jessica Sanchez’s skin had nothing to do with her downturn on American Idol. But you will never convince me that she, as a Filipino American, did not sway voters’ minds because she lacked talent.


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