Social media has a way of amplifying all kinds of discussions about “being Filipino,” and the latest “smoking hot” debate has to do with the curious case of a wine bar called Barkada. The joint was set up by four friends, all white males, and it opened this July in Washington DC.
The hapless owners got so much flak for “appropriating” a Filipino name—without having any visible connection to the Philippines or anything on their menu or interiors that could be identifiable as Filipino. The foursome ended up having to take down the name and are currently in search of a new one.
When I first came across the news in an Eater Washington DC article, I was curious but not overly affected, and even felt sympathy for the poor owners as I read their apology on their @barkadadc Instagram account. They seemed like great guys who were simply looking for a name “that embodied a sense of friendship and bond between people.”
In a Washington City Paper feature, Sebastian Zutant, one of the owners, says, “I pushed for the idea that it didn’t matter if our name was in a different language or not.”
And it so happened that “Barkada” resonated better for them than English words like “posse,” “homies,” or “clique” —which didn’t seem to fit the bill.
Their choice of word could actually be seen as a compliment of sorts, celebrating that special brand of friendship and camaraderie that seems to have no precise equivalent in English.
According to Eater Washington DC, another owner, Nick Guglietta, said that he received positive feedback from friends of Filipino heritage, with regards the name choice. The group felt that was enough of a green light to go ahead with “Barkada.”
But then the article also states, “…the owners recognize they should have done more to evaluate the decision.” These well-intentioned owners are certainly paying the price with the negative publicity and the bureaucratic headache of having to change their wine bar’s moniker.
Thanks to the above articles being shared on social media the brouhaha has reached our shores. And as Filipinos, we couldn’t help but comment on the issue, with a large number, not surprisingly, weighing in on the side of the poor owners chastised for daring to use a Filipino term. In response to Barkada’s IG apology, the comments seem to be overwhelmingly supportive, with statements like: “I am Filipino and I like the name Barkada,” “Filipino here and not offended,” “We Filipinos, ACTUAL FILIPINOS, do not have any problem whatsoever with your name!!”
The debate has also generated a lot of name-calling towards those would-be Barkada bashers. They’re “snowflakes,” “too sensitive,” “toxic Filipinos,” with much outrage leveled at “cancel culture” and “being woke.”
I’m afraid what this name calling does is sidestep or diminish the reasons why people raise such issues. Perhaps we should listen to those “too sensitive” souls to try to understand why they feel so aggrieved. Is it really because they’re entitled and “fake woke,” or is there something about their growing up as a minority in a Euro and Anglo-centric culture that would make them particularly sensitive?
The experience of living as a Filipino in the Philippines is not the same as living as a Filipino in the United States or Europe. I’ve lived in France and the United States, on and off for close to 20 years. I studied and worked in a thoroughly white world where my being a Filipina didn’t really matter at all except inside my own home—and that never felt completely right.
On Facebook, ANCX’s Andrew Paredes gives a sober assessment of the situation: “I wouldn’t mind four white guys using the word Barkada for their bar if their business actually promoted Filipino cuisine or sold Filipino alcoholic beverages as part of the menu. But no: It is usage of the term without cultural context. Hence, the classic definition of cultural appropriation. Hence, not overly PC at all.”
Commenters have argued that if Filipinos can appropriate English or foreign words to name their businesses, and even their own children, then why should we chastise those poor white guys? The Americans and British don’t feel particularly aggrieved when we use their names. Isn’t that kind of appropriation the same?
No, it’s not.
Their culture has been a dominant global force for centuries, ruling the realms of music, movies, television, publishing, design, fashion, cuisine, and the list goes on. They are not invisible. In fact, they are so loudly visible that minority or immigrant cultures are crowded out, left unheard and unrecognized, with only a few chances to shine here and there. And that’s what co-opting the Barkada name feels like for many— just one more instance in a long, long history of token acknowledgements of Filipino culture in the American context.
In an ironic twist, the DC Eater article points out that Barkada’s only connection to the Philippines is by way of the wine list, which features wines from our former colonizer, Spain. And since the word “barkada” actually derives from the Spanish “barco,” perhaps the owners should’ve just named the bar Barcada and be done with it. (They already carry Spanish wine!)
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As Paredes says, using the name is really fine, but it’s a missed opportunity (because opportunities like these are so few) for some of that Pinoy barkada vibe to be more visible in this posh setting. I know it’s wishful thinking as the owners may not feel comfortable depicting a culture that’s not theirs, and yes, it can be a challenge to find a good wine to pair with sisig. And I don’t think San Mig beer would look right on their wine menu.
So my beef isn’t really with the hapless owners who are dealing with the fallout of their unfortunate name choice. It’s when “born and raised in the Philippines” commenters start calling people “snowflakes” for reacting negatively to the name—that got to me. Suddenly I was back as 13-year-old me, shy and unsure of herself, on her first day of high school in France, being stared at by 1,000 plus white students (except for my brother, and one lone Black American). I made some great friendships there, but I always felt I had to keep my Filipino ways to a minimum, only sharing my culture in small doses. But I toughened it out, and when I got the chance, really got to embrace and engage in it.
I bear no ill will towards the owners of the bar formerly known as Barkada, but yes, I do feel aggrieved by that unfortunate choice of name. And I’m certainly no snowflake.