When I was covering a political movement for MauiTime some years ago, an activist lamented to me that Filipinos were too “docile” to be a part of their movement. History aside (Filipino hero Lapu Lapu was the first person to fight against Spanish colonization, Filipino labor organizers led the famous Delano Grape Strike, and Filipino leaders were instrumental in fighting for better conditions on Hawai‘i’s plantations, among many chapters in a long and rich history), they were proven wrong in November 2018, when Sheraton workers went on a historic 51-day strike, winning better pay, benefits, and job security after months of corporate negotiations led nowhere. The devoted group, represented by the union Unite Here Local 5, was 70-75 percent comprised of members who identified as Filipino, union organizer Cade Watanabe told me at the time.
I’ve since come to see that activist’s ill-informed comment on Filipino docility as a “microagression” – an indirect, subtle, and unintentional statement of discrimination against members of a marginalized group (not-so-fun fact: 99 percent of Filipino Americans report experiencing a recent racist incident, found psychologist E.J.R. David in 2013). Knowingly or not, this person was pushing a stereotype of Filipinos that is degrading, and one that I’ve struggled against my entire life.
You see, growing up half-Filipino by blood meant constantly looking for representation that could prove the stereotypes wrong – it meant constantly searching for inspiring role models that looked like me, came from a family like mine, and could share my background, history, and heritage.
I looked for that mentor my entire time as a student in the Hawai‘i’s Department of Education, and never found them. Even here on Maui, Filipino and local-born teachers were few and far between. I grew to believe the stereotypes.
Thankfully, this is an inequitable situation that is being addressed. While October’s Filipino American History Month celebrations often promote fun activities and foods that are easily tokenized, like pancit, polvoron, tinikling, and balut, it’s also an important time to reflect on underrepresentation in society, and what that means to affected groups like Filipinos and those who share a history of oppression and colonization like Hawaiian, Indigenous, Latin, and African American peoples. This Friday, the University of Hawai‘i will be holding its annual Pamantasan Conference in Hilo, where Filipinos in higher education will come together to talk about ways to open the doors for more equitable representation within the University of Hawai‘i System.
After all, despite Filipino students making up 21.5 percent of UH Maui College enrollment in the 2019 academic year, a recent brief by the Pamantasan Council found that only 4.7 percent of the instructional faculty of the college was Filipino as of fall 2018. Similarly, 33.9 percent of UHMC students identified as Hawaiian, but only 14 percent of the faculty.
On the other hand, Caucasian students made up only 19.8 percent of the 2019 student body, yet 57 percent of instructors identified as Caucasian/White in fall 2018.
Especially on land where Western education was used as a means to suppress and colonize, representation matters. The youth deserve to be taught and mentored by a diversity of individuals that reflect the range of life experiences and backgrounds they bring to the classroom.
So, by all means, enjoy and celebrate Filipino American History Month’s polvoron-eating contest – just please, don’t forget the hands that made the food.
Image courtesy Facebook/Kabatak