Jewel, a YIP intern, reflects on her own experiences in education, the need for ethnic studies, and how interpersonal and institutional interactions have influenced her academic life.
Invisibility was an unavoidable part of school life for me.
I grew up in a majority Filipino elementary school and was devastated when I was told I was moving to a new school. I was a small sixth grader who “accomplished” getting every single teacher to mistake me for Raven, the only other Filipino girl at my new, majority-white private school. Not exactly the most prestigious and sought-after achievement out there. Raven and I were instantly best friends, and unsurprisingly, this meant that we were constantly confused for each other, to the point where we referred to ourselves as twins! At first, in high school, I ran into a similar situation and found myself a new twin (a triplet if you’re keeping track). I admit I faltered and accepted my fate for a while, but soon I lost the comfort I had in dealing with things that way. I broke free of my pseudo-sibling bond and established myself as my own person by finding support through Asian clubs, teachers, and opportunities to learn about my culture and other Asian communities. I found myself learning more about my culture than I knew I could. But I still felt like there was something missing.
The feelings of isolation and “otherness” weren’t only caused by my interactions with my peers, it also came from the curriculum. My middle school experience was lacking in diversity, in my class itself and in the content of the classes. Knowing your own culture’s history seems obvious to me but so many people aren’t taught about theirs, even if not included in the lesson I think that the topics should be presented for young kids to learn.
I wish I had known about the Goddesses of pre-colonial Philippine mythology or historical leaders like Larry Itliong or Yuri Kochiyama. I’ve always wanted to learn beyond the small amount of online research I’ve done but it never seemed like it would come up in an academic setting. Sure, the Philippines would be mentioned from time to time, but the actual history and people were often overshadowed by the American or European event we were studying. Any lesson plan about Asian American history was limited to East Asian interactions with America, if there was any section on Asian history at all. While I didn’t expect Filipino history to be in regular lesson plans, I wondered why I had never come across an elective for it considering the high Filipino population in the Bay Area.
My desire to learn more about the history behind my cultures has been an incredibly fulfilling project so far, but I know that without purposefully seeking the information I’d never have learned any of it. Understanding the communities I came from and the relationship I have to each of them has taught me more about myself than I ever imagined. I learned about the historical and cultural significance of clothes, dances, and myths I’ve grown up with. Without online research I wouldn’t have known why my grandparents immigrated to North America, why the United States has such a big influence on the Philippines, or how Filipino people have been treated in the U.S.. This history and context of being Filipino in the U.S. being so difficult for me to find feels like an attempt at erasing my ethnic identity, especially when white history is a requirement for everyone. Which brings me to the dialogue around Ethnic Studies.
I’d never heard of Ethnic Studies until my junior year of high school and I certainly didn’t know specific courses like Asian American history existed. The knowledge I gained was a key part in understanding how to combat racism against Filipino communities. I began to understand how stereotypes against Filipino people were created and became able to separate that projection of racism from my own self image.
In addition to the benefits of learning about my own identity in an academic setting, I believe that it would be an important step towards fighting ignorance. Learning the uncensored facts about the gross obstacles minorities have had to face in this country, and in the greater context of the world, could make people that don’t belong in those communities understand the differences people have to face with their identity. Especially if these classes were taken throughout the elementary school, because at the end of the day Ethnic Studies is still history, just not solely white history. Why isn’t Ethnic Studies taught like any of the other core subjects when it arguably applies the most to our lives?
I hope to pass the stories of my experiences and cultural knowledge down to younger kids, in hopes that they have someone to go to when they feel small. Maybe I can provide a silent comfort in the shared experience of becoming someone’s twin, knowing random facts about old white men but none about their cultural heritage, or any more of the countless other jabs at their identity.
Jewel is a senior in high school, Japanese and Filipino American, sometimes artist, aspiring psychologist, and food enthusiast.