What the Backlash to ‘My Family’s Slave’ Obscured

Kohei Hara / Getty
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Randy Ribay writes:

In what I believe is the first photograph of me that exists, there is a woman standing behind me who is neither my mother nor my lola (with whom I lived with for the first year of my life). Instead it was a woman casually referred to as the “maid.” In my visits to the Philippines over the years, I had noticed many such “maids.” These women were all but invisible. I was told that these were the poorest of the poor, those from far-flung provinces who had so little that they moved to the cities to clean, cook, launder, and care for the slightly less poor for the sake of survival, for the sake of sending something back to their families so that their children might have more someday.

I had completely forgotten about the woman in that photograph until the morning when a number of Filipino friends sent me Alex Tizon’s article “My Family’s Slave” published online by the Atlantic on May 16.  When I had the chance to read it, I had to fight back tears so I wasn’t crying in front of my colleagues and students. It struck me as beautifully written, not because of flowery language, but because of its brutal honesty. I found it nuanced and unflinching. It read to me like a confession, a balancing act of hatred for the worst parts of self/family /culture/immigration and love for the best parts of Lola Eudocia, as noted by @sarahjeong. Throughout it all, I felt the author acknowledged how fucked-up the entire situation was, especially his own complicity.

But the most important thing about the article, in my opinion, was that it called out the arrangement for what it was—slavery. I finished that article empathizing with Lola Eudocia’s tragic life, and a number of questions haunted me throughout the day: How complicit am I in such a system? Were/are my family’s domestic “helpers” paid fairly, or were/are they enslaved? Did they choose that arrangement, or were they “given” to someone like Lola Eudocia? Should I ask my family? How widespread is such a situation in the Philippines and among Filipinos abroad today? What can we do for her family? What can we do about it globally? What else am I complicit in perpetuating?

Without Lola Eudocia’s story, I wouldn’t have been asking these questions of myself. I hoped to find others’ responses to them around social media when I logged on after work. Instead, I was confronted with a much simpler one: Is Alex Tizon a villain?

My Twitter feed was filled with threads that clearly and carefully laid out the reasons they believed he was, each one delivered in 140 characters or less. Generally, the tweets I read criticized the article as a well-written attempt to trick readers into sympathizing with a slaveholder. They equated it to the American South’s attempts to justify slavery. They called out Alex Tizon for doing nothing about it once he became an adult. They mourned the erasure of Eudocia Tomas Polido’s identity and voice. They decried the lack of statistical context. One made an argument founded on a blatantly inaccurate reading of part of the article (and was, disturbingly, retweeted and favorited by hundreds). For these reasons, the overall conclusion seemed to be that Alex Tizon and his family should burn in hell and we should all cheer for that.

These responses baffled me. I know that we all bring our own specific biases into anything we approach, yet it was like we had read two completely different articles. When I got to the end, I didn’t feel as though Tizon had denied or excused himself or his family from their sins. He named it as slavery. He confessed to his family’s cruel treatment of Lola Eudocia in great detail. He claimed his complicity and recounted his own feeble attempts to fix a situation he didn’t know how to fix. He acknowledged the shittiness of not returning her ashes in an urn. And, finally, he tried to tell Lola Eudocia’s story with the information he was able to glean from her and her family. Ultimately, I didn’t get to the end of the article and feel like he was trying to exonerate himself. I felt for Lola Eudocia, not Alex Tizon, and I thought that was a result of the text having achieved its purpose.

Of course, Alex Tizon was not perfect and neither is the article. Why didn’t he try to do more in his young adulthood? Why did he word certain things in certain ways? Why didn’t he include interviews with her surviving family members? Did he ever offer her family any kind of reparations? Do they want reparations? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and, unfortunately, Tizon is no longer alive to tell us.

But perhaps a lot of these answers are rooted in the same reasons all of us fail to do what is right in a thousand small ways every day. There’s a pretty good chance that you’re reading this on a smartphone, and I’m guessing in the last few years you’ve probably come across a number of reports about the poor working conditions in the Chinese smartphone factories or about the Congolese who mine the rare earth metals that power those phones. Knowing this is all unspeakably unjust, what have you done?

I’m not pointing this out to let Tizon off the hook or to put you on trial, but rather to suggest that asking why he wasn’t better at doing what was right every step of the way isn’t the most fruitful line of discussion. We are all complicit in a number of evils. We all perpetuate oppression throughout our daily lives. (Granted, some more than others.) This is not a reason to give up all efforts to reduce the extent to which we do so, but it is a reason not to spend all of our time cataloging an individual’s sins.

I think it’s also important to note that those defending Tizon are mostly Filipino, while those whose immediate response was overwhelming criticism are mostly not. Many are justifiably upset when men coopt conversations about women’s rights, or when white people try to take over Black Lives Matter issues. Yet, that is what is happening here. Many people are calling out a foreign culture with unabashed confidence that their assessment of the situation is an objective truth. As @RinChupeco questions, do they know the history of the Philippines and its hundreds of years suffering at the hands of imperialism? Are they familiar with its customs and values? Do they know what it feels like to call someone “lola”? I’m not asking any of these questions to imply that outsiders should never voice their opinions on the matter, but rather to wonder if they first listened to those who are part of the community.

I haven’t looked through the entire Twitter history of everyone who criticized Tizon’s article, but my guess would be that if I did, I wouldn’t see a whole lot of previous attention paid to the Philippines on many of their accounts—and I’m guessing I won’t see many  more after this story stops trending . Ultimately, the anger I feel regarding the pushback isn’t because the criticism itself is invalid, but because the critics—for whom this topic might just be the Controversy of the Day—hijacked the conversation away from my community, just as @luiinthesky and @nicasiosilang lamented. This article was poised to spark a necessary and difficult conversation for Filipinos in the Philippines and abroad, and I’m not sure it will anymore. The spotlight has shifted, and it seems too heavy to move back. Here we all are, writing think-pieces and Twitter threads back and forth trying to measure the villainy of the deceased author and his family instead of confronting these issues and exploring how we can dismantle the widespread, systemic horrors of the modern-day slavery that allow Lola Eudocia’s story to resonate with so many of us in the first place.