Practical Actions in Postcolonial Academia

I’m about to admit something I rarely talk about. Depending on my mood, If you confront me in person, I may even deny it. But today I’m feeling generous and I’m going to let you in on the secrets of my world.

In about 95% of any chair I sit in, my feet can’t reach the ground.  If I sit with my back flush to the backrest and place my feet forward, more times than not, my feet dangle off the ground like Kermit the Frog. On airplanes, I need to make sure to have my bag under the seat in front of me so I can rest my feet comfortably. Under my desk at home, I have a six-inch cushion to prop my feet on so I can ergonomically fit on my specially scaled desk chair at my un-specially made work table. Often in meetings, I have to sit forward without a backrest, so I don’t sit slouched, nonverbally communicating disinterest. I am interested, I just can’t sit comfortably. I know some of you giants are probably balking at this spatial luxury but stick with me here. I’m admitting all of this to make a point: on a daily basis, I need to adjust to fit into a world built for someone else. So even if I get invited to sit at the proverbial table, the table where decisions are made, projects are born, and power is brokered, my feet still dangle and I need to find ways to adjust.

This is how I feel about being Filipina American in an academic setting built mostly for white men. Last weekend I attended a conference by the Pacific Asian North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM). It was a space that I didn’t even realize I needed until I got there. This was the first academic conference where I was encouraged to unapologetically be me. In other academic conferences and in my own school, because of the way the structures have been built, I’m implicitly directed to be a white male.

At this point, some may be offended by this statement. “But we want you to be you.” While I appreciate the well-meaning sentiment, the microaggressions I experience on a regular basis tell me more about an institution’s commitment to WOCs than nugatory words. While I hear progressive encouragement for me to “be me,” I am met with the following events that have recently happened to me:

*I made a statement in response to a paper presentation. Soon after, a male POC makes a similar statement, but since he’s my senior, it seems to be received as a new idea. Meanwhile, I think to myself, “I just said that.”

*I’m talking with a male who is looking for a preacher for an event. I offer. He chooses a man to preach.

*I send interest to do a book review at the same time as two of my white male colleagues to a journal. They are quickly given books to review. I was initially responded to and then never given a book.

There are many more of course. These are the pedestrian events that happen on a regular basis. The other ones are too painful for me to voice in public. But as women of color in academia, each microaggression adds up. Last week I broke under the weight of carrying all of the external narratives placed on me. How can I live my own narrative under this weight? It’s navigating the fine line between “being uniquely me” and “not belonging.” Internal colonization lies to me and tells me “They don’t want you or need you because you are different” while a postcolonial perspective says, “they need me because I am different.” In honesty, it takes a lot of energy to live in the postcolonial mind frame. The chairs are built for the colonizers, and some days my back hurts from all that adjusting, and I get tired of sitting so uncomfortably.

So to my dear Filipino American Kaibigan and other friends who may find their feet dangling in chairs built for someone else, here are a few thoughts on how to find a way to plant your feet and stay at the table. This list serves as a reminder to myself as much as it is my offering to you.

Joyce’s Practical Actions in Postcolonial Academia.

  • Find your peopleProfessionally
      • While academia is a mostly white male, there are spaces for women of color. Other women have gone before. Finding PANAAWTM helped remind me of that.
      • One thing I have learned over the years is that if your group does not exist…create one. I’ve started two groups on my campus because they didn’t exist and I needed them to.  It’s so much better to create the group, then to keep operating in solitude.
      • While I have not personally been connected to this group, I’m grateful that Forum for Theological Exploration works to support POCs in theological academia.
      • For other Asian doctoral students like me, there is the Asian Theological Institute.
      • For community development practitioner connections the Christian Community Development Association has been an oasis for me to find and build relationships with like-minded Christians.
    • Personally
      • I remember refusing to do a Ph.D. as a single person. This is because, during my MDiv program, I remember the single Ph.D. students as either being always sick or mentally a little off. The married students seemed fine, however. I think it’s because they had a family to ground their identity. I did fall into one of the two categories. I’ll let you try to figure out which one I ended up.
      • Lucky for me, I have cousins nearby. They take me out of the academic bubble and remind me that I am more than my vocation. I can’t talk to most of my family about my work because it’s not their world, but sometimes that’s a gift in an of itself.
      • I keep as close as I can to my friends outside of academia. Regular phone calls, Facetime, and WhatsApp, helps me find my identity beyond my work.
      • Appreciate and cherish our cheerleaders. All of them. While my parents can’t fully understand what it means to publish in a peer-reviewed journal versus a pop magazine, they celebrate with me no matter what…at least to the extent that they get it.
        • Academic allies: My advisors, professors, and colleagues may not wholly understand my experience, but they do support me and see me. It’s easy to throw the whole academy out the window when the academy structure feels oppressive, but we need to cherish the people in academia that do see us and support us along the way. On that note: thank you, Dave Scott, Jude Tiersma Watson, Young Hertig, Amy Jacober, Joshua Beckett, Matt Jones, David Eng-Wong, Tamisha Tyler, Irene Cho, Jen Guerra, and Julie Tai.
    • Just like you and similar to you
      • While I have a hard time finding other Filipina Americans in my field, I do have other women of color I’m connected to. Both the practitioners and academic women of color keep me grounded as we remind each other who we are in our postcolonial narratives.
      • Find the Facebook groups with similar passions and contexts. I find that aligning myself with POCs, WOCs, WOCs focused on justice, Progressive Asian Americans, Bridge Builders in Racial Reconciliation, are all varied but specific groups that help me stay in my location.
      • For all the times I implicitly hear “You do not fit here” I need to double the voices around me that say “We see you and we need you here.”
  • Remember your narrativeLike the milestones that reminded the Israelites of what God did at the place in that time, keep playing back your milestones. Remember how far God has already taken you and what it took to get you this far.
    • A friend of mine repeatedly retells the milestones she witnessed in my journey so I can remember God’s goodness to me.
    • Reading back on journal entries helps here as well.
  • Take up space at the pulpit, in your seat, as you stand
    • “Stop making yourself smaller” As an Asian American woman, my hospitality and desire to make others comfortable means that I often shrink so as not to take up space. This is a great way to be unseen. I’m less than 5 feet tall. How much smaller am I gonna keep making myself?
    • “Stop apologizing.”  This one will take extra energy and work to notice when we do it and work on catching ourselves before apologizing. Many women have been socialized to apologize in various ways.
      • A friend of mine pointed out that when I post something on social media and then take it down, it’s another way I apologize. (ooh, that one hit me in the gut).
      • Learning to take up space without apology feels counter to who I have been, but it does not mean I can’t find a way to do this in an authentic way going forward.
  • Know your locationLearn more about your history. Keep digging, I’ve been studying Filipino American history since my undergrad years, but there is always more to learn.
    • A new friend just connected me to this group, the Center for Babylan Studies. This is where I plan to learn more about Filipino Indigenous studies.
    • Keep your location in front of you
      • Podcasts. This Filipino American Life has been life-giving in keeping me grounded to issues of Filipino Americans. It’s not theological, but it does speak to the cultural side that is not addressed in my theological spaces.
      • Art, poetry, fiction: these have all kept me connected to what is beautiful about my heritage. I celebrate with other Filipino Americans as they express themselves in art and in turn, they celebrate me.
      • Asian America scholars from other disciplines: Psychology and Sociology have offered great research for me regarding Filipino American identity. Reading cross-disciplinary has given me a greater depth in my own research on Filipino American theology.

I can’t change the chair just yet although I am creating the blueprint for when I’m ready. In the meantime, I will keep turning to these practices while asking, “Can we add some more adjusting features to this frickin chair?”

Feel free to add your own practical actions below. This was specific to my context, but you may have other practices I haven’t written about that could help the rest of us. We all need to touch the ground somewhere.

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