Olivia Rodrigo is the next big thing. If you haven’t heard of her, you have probably heard of her hit song “Driver’s License” which blew up earlier this year. It was constantly played on the radio, used in videos on social media, and started rumors of a potential love triangle. The song encapsulated the entire world. You couldn’t have possibly escaped it. And if you somehow did, you must have been living under a rock. When “Driver’s License” blew up earlier this year, it was everywhere and so was Olivia. Like everyone who has experienced newfound success and fame, Olivia was thrown under a microscope that is the public’s eye. Suddenly, people had questions they wanted to be answered about her. What’s the story behind Driver’s License? Where did Olivia come from? Is she an industry plant? Neither one of those stories are what I want to talk about.
Instead, I want to talk about the debate surrounding Olivia’s racial identity. You may or may not know this, but Olivia is biracial. Olivia is white from her mother’s side and Filipino from her dad’s side. Apparently, this is a cause of debate. People aren’t arguing about Olivia’s identity, more so about how her identity is perceived. There are some people who believe Olivia is white-passing and there are some people who believe she is not. For those of you who don’t know, the definition of white-passing is when a person of color is viewed or accepted by the world as a white person. Aka they can pass for being white because of what they look like. The internet has once again taken it upon itself to compete in a debate as to whether Olivia is white-passing or not. The fact that this is even a topic for discussion is a problem in and of itself.
I’m not completely sure where this debate comes from, but I became aware of it when there were arguments on Twitter from stans on both sides of the debate. Try as I might, to avoid discussions involving Twitter stans, they always pull me into them. The people who I noticed involved in this discussion were fans of Olivia and people who disliked Olivia, most likely due to her immediate rise to the charts and popularity. I observed these people saying because Olivia is half white and “doesn’t look Asian”, she is white-passing. Then I would see Olivia’s fans countering this by saying Olivia doesn’t have East Asian features that society has conditioned us into thinking every Asian has. It’s an infuriating topic to have.
It feels on one side, people are denying a part of Olivia’s identity to fit her into a box they want to place her in. That’s so obviously wrong that I don’t need to explain why that is upsetting to hear. But on the other side of the debate, it feels like some of Olivia’s fans are using Olivia’s race to win an argument they are having with people who dislike Olivia. I think a good example of this is when Olivia’s latest single Good 4 U and BTS’s single Butter were competing for the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, some stans used Olivia’s race as a reason why she should “win”. They believed it would be nice to have an Asian woman on top of the Billboard Hot 100. While some BTS stans tried to invalidate Olivia’s identity by pointing out she’s only half Filipino, not fully Asian in order to justify why she shouldn’t “win”. And instead, BTS should win because they are a fully Asian act.
I don’t understand this, but it’s a thing that I am seeing constantly surrounding the conversation involving Olivia. Her race either validates her success or invalidates it. I find the entire debate to be problematic in so many ways. The one that infuriates me the most is that yet again people are dictating how people of color choose to identify themselves. No one should ever get to tell another person that they don’t belong to their community because they are biracial or that they don’t look like their race enough. We don’t decide what our genetics are going to be or the features we will be born with. It’s not the person of color’s fault if you mistook them for being white.
Olivia, for her part, has acknowledged many times that she is half Filipino. She hasn’t shied away from her experiences as a biracial woman or from her Filipino roots. In the television show, she currently stars in, High School Musical: The Musical, Olivia’s character’s family is represented by Asian actors. If you can’t tell by looking at Olivia that she is a woman of color, it doesn’t take much time or a lot of work to figure it out. What more does she need to do to tell people that she is a person of color? Wear a bright neon sign that says she’s half Filipino and carry it around with her everywhere she goes? Something tells me even then that wouldn’t be enough for some people. Olivia isn’t in the wrong here, it’s the people who are invalidating her race AND the people using her race to win brownie points in pointless arguments.
What makes some people perceive Olivia to be white-passing? I have seen a few ideas. One being that some Western white pop stars are stealing people of color’s features to look racially ambiguous and it’s causing confusion about what real people of color look like. Let’s take Jesy Nelson from the band Little Mix as an example. People who were unaware of Jesy’s racial identity were under the impression she was a woman of color. When it was pointed out that Jesy is indeed white, some people were shocked. Why? It’s simple really, she has been blackfishing for years. Blackfishing is when a person who is not Black, alters their appearance to make themselves look Black. They can do this by excessive tanning or any other way they can darken their skin to paint themselves out to be Black.
The most famous example of a celebrity doing this has to be Ariana Grande. Ariana has been blackfishing for years now. The only reason why people know Ariana is white is because she was on the popular Nickelodeon show, Victorious where she looked like her own race. If she was never on Victorious, I think it’s safe to assume that most people would have assumed Ariana was Black. This isn’t to direct hate at either Jesy or Ariana. But, they look racially ambiguous, whether it is intentional or not and it’s having an effect on real people of color. A person of color shouldn’t have to look like a caricature of their race just so they aren’t mistaken for being white. Newsflash people, not every one of the same race looks the same. We have different features and skin tones that make us unique to one another. But that doesn’t change our identities or the communities we belong to.
The funny thing about this entire debate is that there isn’t a definitive answer as to whether Olivia is white-passing or not. Let’s go back to the definition of white-passing, it is when someone perceives a person of color to be white. Everyone will come to their own conclusion as to whether Olivia is white-passing or not. There is no wrong or right answer. There is only your opinion. If you perceive Olivia to be white-passing, nobody can tell you are wrong. And if you don’t perceive her to be white-passing, you aren’t wrong either. That’s the beauty of having an opinion.
You can believe that Olivia is white-passing. That she passes for being white and has the luxury of reaping the benefits of white privilege. But what you can’t do is erase her Filipino identity and deny her place within her own community. Olivia may have it easier than other Asian artists because she is half white, but that doesn’t eliminate the other half of her identity. And for people using Olivia’s race as some sort of gotcha to win an argument, find something else. Her race and identity deserve so much more than to be used as a punchline in a fight. She deserves a lot better than that.
My book Living Rent Free In My Head: Essays On Pop Culture comes out on August 2, 2022. Pre-order it now for only $3.15 on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other vendors.
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4 responses to “The Ignorance of the White Passing Olivia Rodrigo Debate”
Howdy! Would you mind if I share your blog with my facebook group? There’s a lot of folks that I think would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Thank you
I don’t mind at all. Thanks.
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Here’s my few cents about Olivia Rodrigo
– There is a lot of talk about her Filipino (4th generation) heritage and it creates a perception that she is the first person of Filipino ancestry to make it big in Hollywood. I’m not saying Filipinos are properly represented but she is far from the first Filipino-American to make it big in the US. Here are a few people who made it big and did NOT shy away from their Filipino heritage. Yet oddly enough, they aren’t mentioned when it comes to representation. They have represented their Filipino heritage before it the talk of “representation” became popular:
1. Apl.de.Ap of Black Eyed Peas – he incorporated songs in Tagalog in BEP albums even if it isn’t/wasn’t fashionable to do so.
2. Enrique Iglesias (his mother is Filipino – but the US has boxed him to the Latino label. His mother is known in Spain as “The Pearl of Manila”)
3. Vanessa Hudgens – HSM 1, anyone?
4. Nicole Scherzinger of the PCD
5. Darren Criss
7. Vanessa Minilli
8. Rob Schneider
9. Lou Diamond Phillips
– Another point: No one is talking about how she benefits from being half white. If she were a first generation, stereotypical-looking Filipino, I doubt that record labels would even consider her as a pop star. She still derives some white privilege from her white heritage. There are many Filipino who are not part white, but we are not properly represented. “Filipino representation” in the US is always geared towards half white despite Filipino-AmericNs being overwhelmingly not mixed with white. Black Filipinos are even more erased. No one talks about the Filipino heritage of Apl.de.Ap and HER despite them being vocal about being Filipino.
– Another point: She has an overwhelming advantage as an American in making in to the world stage compared to Asians in Asia. Charice Pempengco, a very talented kid who hails from the Philippines, was even a guest in Ellen and was mentored by David Foster wasn’t able to break into Hollywood despite recording an album in the US.
I’m not saying she can’t represent Filipinos or Asians but people should be aware and honest she does somewhat benefit from being half-white and American that non-mixed Filipinos and Filipinos in the Philippines will never have.
To be honest, this sudden huge talk about one celebrity’s Filipino ancestry feels more like tokenism/marketing strategy than genuine representation. It’s bordering what we call “Pinoybaiting”