Filipino children recite "Jingle Bells" in the classic
Philippine film Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (1976).
In a November issue of the Asian Journal, an article entitled “Why Are Fil-Ams Doing Poorly in School?” compares the “poor” academic performance of Filipino American students with the stellar achievements of other Asian American groups. Among other startling statistics, the data gathered by the National Federation of Filipino-American Associations (NaFFAA) reports that “Filipino-American public high school students in the city of San Francisco had the highest dropout rate among other Asians. Those who stayed in school barely passed.” It continues,
“In San Francisco public schools, the report revealed, the California Standardized Test scores of Filipino-Americans in 6th to 8th grades were “Below Basic” in both English-language arts and mathematics. In the 9th to 11th grades, 42 percent of Filipino students were in the “Basic” and “Below Basic” levels in the Star Math test. California schools have five performance levels: Advanced, Proficient, Basic, Below Basic and Far Below Basic.
In Los Angeles, the dropout numbers for Filipino-American students represented 56 percent of all dropouts in the county.”
The last statement, Fil Ams representing 56 percent of all dropouts in LA county, is probably an error. The article’s author, Dennis Clemente, likely (hopefully!) meant Fil Ams represented 56 percent of dropouts among Asian Americans in the county, or he likely meant Fil Ams dropped out at a 56 percent rate within the ethnic group. Whatever the case, the data is troubling.
Furthermore, when it comes to science and math, Clemente notes,
“A 2006 Seattle School District study also found that in the 10th grade WASL test, 73 percent of Filipino-American students failed the science component and 55 percent failed the math component. Both are subjects required for graduation.”
In a December article, the Asian Journal continued the theme of Filipino American student academic underperformance, but this time it addressed their low-rate of enrollment in higher education (four-year or higher academic institutions). Melany De La Cruz-Viesca, a friend of FilAm Funk as well as a former member of the legendary L.A. poetry troupe Balagtasan Collective and current assistant director of the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, iterates the crisis young Fil Ams are in when it comes to higher education:
"'We’re not going on to graduate programs or doctorate programs. I think in a way Filipinos are getting stuck and I’m curious to try and find out why that is. Are more Filipino students going to community colleges first before transferring, or are they being tracked into these high school programs that do allow them to go to a four-year university? More and more, I think we’re getting stuck at community colleges or they just finish with an AA degree before getting a job.'
'It’s really telling because if you see Koreans and Taiwanese, they are going on and receiving their graduate and doctorate degrees,' added De La Cruz-Viesca."
Why Are We Running the “Race“?
One question I would like to raise is the comparative value of the (phantom) category of race (here, we are talking about “Asian American”) and its uncritical usage in the two articles. The articles essentially ask, “Why are Fil Ams underperforming in academics when other Asian Americans are doing better (or overachieving)?” I would like to ask, “Why compare Fil Ams to other Asian Americans in the first place?” In the same vein, why compare Koreans and Taiwanese together? Essentially, what “glue” holds these groups together—what characteristics give them comparative value? Is this a biological issue? If so, how is this different from the practices of biological racial taxonomy used to justify racial segregation and differential treatment at the turn of the 19th century? Or maybe this is an immigration issue? If so, for the sake of analysis, why can’t Fil Ams be compared to Mexicans, Haitians, or Brazilians? Why are we concerned with how more “successful” Asian Americans are doing? Why does it matter? The second article's criticism of the state's lumping of all Asians together is a step into the right direction, as the state's determining of racial membership holds a certain aura of authority. We must be self-critical when we redeploy the state's same logic.
A second set of questions I have concerns the meaning of “success”. What does it mean to be “stuck” with an AA or community college degree? Why is receiving a graduate degree at a high rate (especially when compared to Asian American groups) a marker of ethnic achievement? When and why has “success” become a foot race?
Yes, a foot race can be the appropriate analogy if academic “underachievement” of Filipino Americans can be attributed to social ills impacting the Fil Am community. Certainly, there are social ills. But also, there might be (and this is where further research is needed) a hyperbolic sense of crisis imbedded in these articles. Just how detrimental is it to the Fil Am community to receive an AA degree at a higher rate than other groups (as the second article demonstrates), rather than a PhD degree? And, what kind of job market are Fil Ams saturating? Is it lower-paid or middle-class? Is a working-class income (or near working-class income… I understand the arbitrariness of these class designations) such a disavowed concept? Or are Fil Ams really at risk of slipping into the abyss of poverty as the articles strongly suggest? Simply put, is there a sense that Fil Ams somehow deserve to align with the upper strata?
What is interesting about Clemente’s article is that in his inquiry about Fil Am’s “underachievement," he does not interrogate so much the impacts of this phenomenon as much as he offers reasons why young Fil Ams are doing poorly in school. He even questions the role of Filipino genetics, a gesture to the practices of turn of the 19th century biological racial classification mentioned above. Clemente asks, is it genetics or environment? His section, “Hiphop over homework” spells out the environmental threat hip hop plays in poor academics.
Hip Hop Pathology and Alternative Knowledge
Perhaps not as dangerous as the genetics card, the environmental argument of “hip hop pathology” poses a sinister blame game nonetheless.
Not being very specific on what he means by hip hop, Clemente paints a (and I say this crudely) “ghetto fabulous” Fil Am way of life, and apparently it has something to do with “Hiphop over homework.” He states,
“The [NaFFAA] study reported that Filipino students focused their energies more on working so as to be able to buy expensive clothes and cars. Also, they were much more into dancing and singing than studying and earning academic awards.”
Clemente goes on to tell a “success story” of Miguel Cutiongco who attends Harvard as a model of a Fil Am who “made it.” Troubling Clemente’s own genetics proposition, the author points out that Cutiangco’s parents are highly educated, having graduated from the University of the Philippines and Northwestern University. Not many young Fil Ams will relate to Cutiongco, even the most academically-talented students who dot the many community colleges, state colleges, and universities around the nation. Cutiongco’s story is just simply not relevant to most Fil Ams.
What many young Fil Ams will relate to is the hip hop story, which many of us know is not antagonistic to academic “achievement.” Especially on college campuses with Filipino student organizations, hip hop has been extremely central in day-to-day life, with dancing in particular forming a well-known social life among Fil Ams in college. At times this social life gets in the way of academics (this we know for sure), but just the same, this social life also helps us survive and thrive. This social life, as many of us can attest to, has given us a sense of meaning, passion, and wisdom. In some of us, it has even sparked a sense of social justice. For example, in a recent interview, Kimmy Maniquis, a choreographer of Kaba Modern in the mid-1990s, notes that Kaba Modern has been a positive space for community development and organizing. Today, Kimmy is a successful community organizer in Long Beach. Kimmy’s is just one of many stories of Fil Am organizers, educators, artists, performers, and even politicians who gained experience and wisdom within hip hop spaces.
Hip hop has been so central to young Fil Am life—to pathologize it would be to disown the rich texture of our community. This disowning would be a fruitless attempt to exorcise the collective soul of Fil Am youth (and for older Fil Ams who have been immersed in hip hop for some time now). Geologic speaks of our community's rich texture in “Commencement Day”,
“Up in assemblies nobody would listen
Instead rock the mixtape and Walkman
Discrete with the headphones
Threaded through the pockets and the sleeve.
You received education through the music you heard.
Cafeteria tables enable beats to occur.”
As the song goes, sometimes school sucks. The blatant historical lies and the irrelevant lessons just don’t interest young people. Geo continues,
“History repeated you repeat it to regurgitate
Slave-owning dead white men.
Folks, you know they make curriculum
Designed to make obedient drones.”
It is important to be clear that Geo is not criticizing the abstract concept of education itself, but rather the politrickin educational institution that fails students, an institution that is directly linked to the “Benevolent Assimilation” (a code for cultural extermination and colonial social engineering) of Filipinos by white Americans during U.S. colonization. The images of Filipino students reciting "Jingle Bells" included in this entry visualizes the absurdity of U.S. education, where white teachers taught songs about snow, Christmas trees, and white American heroes.
Given this history of U.S. educational duplicity, the notion of “knowledge” is already a fraught concept: “knowledge” for whom and for what ends?
And if hip hop is the story we can relate to, can hip hop offer mental "intelligence"? Can our hip hop performances express our corporeal “genius”? Can our “achievements” be gauged by our knowledge as artists, archivists, dancers, emcees, and poets? Rather than “Hiphop over homework” can hip hop be our homework?
In “Commencement Day,” a song that issues a reality-check to new graduates, Geo educates his listeners about material history, a history deliberately obscured for Filipinos, a history that many young Fil Ams seek and usually fail to find in the classroom. Referencing the Colt 45 pistol used to kill Filipinos during the Philippine-American War in the early 1900s, Geo’s lessons address “us” as Fil Ams rooted in history: we are the here today because some of us survived the Colt 45—our bodies are the proof of our survival. And today, alive in the U.S., we are negotiating the idea of “success.”
“Ay yo we made it
45 caliber proof
And your teachers ain’t believe
That you can handle the truth…
As you recognize
The thresholds of negative stress
The crossroads between
Complete failure and success…”
A Filipino student recites "Jingle Bells" as documentary
footage of WWII atrocities overlap her image.
Hip Hop as Culture to Work With, Not Against
Unlike Clemente, I want to be transparent when I use the term “hip hop.” As demonstrated by the Fil Am student organizations, hip hop is not simply a dance style or musical genre but it is also (more importantly) a cultural and social space which is historically-rooted (rather than a pastiche of aesthetic expressions). Hip hop as a space mobilizes community. This vision of hip hop, rather than pathologizing it, offers a productive opportunity to work with Fil Am youth rather than talk down to them.
Instead of demonizing hip hop and disavowing this central form of expression so dear to young Filipino Americans, perhaps we can view it as a legitimate and valuable resource for alternative knowledge. How can the already-existing elements within our culture enhance our “success” and “achievement”, both in academic life and in the “real” world?
It is important to do well in school, and it is my hope that the dismal data in the NaFFAA study improve. There is no doubt about that. But at the same time, I believe that “success“ is not only limited to classroom learning and higher education statistics. Other sources of knowledge, forms of intelligence, and “success” texture the lives of Fil Ams.
"Success" can also be re-visioned as the gaining of knowledge relevant to our own bodies and history--in other words we can successfully "win" back knowledge that has been buried. Unfortunately, "knowledge of self," which is so central to the theme of this blog, usually does not come from the classroom. For some time now, for Fil Ams, “knowledge of self” has come from hip hop.
In the classic track “Blue School,” Geo spits about the rich “wisdom” outside the traditional classroom and in the hip hop space. Hip hop has figuratively become a part of Geo, and his questions are answered on the dance floor:
“In the Blue School, class is in session,
Ask a question, cuz class is in session…
…And now my arteries connect to the amplifier wire
The music make the flames in my inner fire higher
I reinvent the language in the image of a dancer
Contorting where the floor becomes an answer.
“Primitive” Bodies, “Primitive” Knowledge, and the “Blackening” of Fil Ams
Recent journalism touching on Filipino American embodied (as opposed to cerebral) intelligence is not limited to the Asian Journal article. In the controversial 2007 L.A. Weekly article “The Fil-Am Invasion”, which portrays Fil Ams as somehow “taking over” the Hollywood hip hop club scene, paints a picture of Fil Am corporeal excessiveness, an image not too far from Clemente’s “singing and dancing” depiction of Fil Ams. In the piece, Sam Slovick writes,
“These Fil-Am kids are serious about having a good time, and that’s about it. It’s cultural. It came from the islands. The celebratory communal music and dance go way back to tribal roots. The DJ is spinning hip-hop, of course.”
As I tackled in a prior entry, Slovick’s fixation with Fil Am “tribal” bodies is connected to white historical fascination with Filipino primitive “otherness.” The Philippine Reservation at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair stands as the paradigmatic example of white “gazing” upon “tribal” Filipino bodies. The Philippine Reservation was about biological racial taxonomy: the marking of Filipinos as “less than” whites and certain Asians (see Robert Rydell's All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916). Slovick’s depiction of Fil Am kids’ “tribal” “dancing around” astonishingly resonates with the historical consumption of Filipino bodies. The only difference is that instead of communing with tribal drums, we are now communing with hip hop.
Slovick and Clemente have effectively replaced a Filipino primitivism with a black primitivism, although the two primitivisms have traveled with each other since the turn of the 19th century‘s practice of racial taxonomy (see Cedric Robinson's Forgeries of Memory and Meaning). For Slovick and Clemente, hip hop has become code for a blackened racial position. It’s something that young Fil Ams “naturally” gravitate towards, distracting them from the important things in life, like school (over)achieving.
A friend to FilAm Funk, sociology scholar Valerie Francisco spells out the “blackening” of Filipinos that Clemente deploys. Her citation of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s acknowledgment of this “blackening” is useful here:
“Eduardo Bonilla-Silva wrote a book called Racism Without Racists where he effectively argues that Filipinos belong to the “collective black” in the US racial order and, I would argue, the US social imagination…
We can’t ignore that Filipinos as well as other Asian Americans who are, in a sense, “blackened” (either by US foreign intervention in their countries–Vietnam, Burma, Laos, hella other Southeast Asian countries) aren’t also doing as well as the poster-child (East) Asian groups…”
The True, the Good, and the Beautiful
Fil Ams’ supposed “deviance” from Asian American academic overachievement illuminates how racial categories position Filipinos in curious ways within the landscape of U.S. racial membership.
The task, therefore, may not be about pinning down Fil Am racial membership, either to lament their shortcomings to a model minority Asian Americanism or to demonize their “primitive” black cultural participation. Perhaps it would behoove us to see what is happening “at the bottom”, to understand the intelligence and genius of what is already there. The alternative classroom of hip hop has at many times been the pathway to Fil Am “success”, even if that “success” may not look like a PhD or MD degree.
During martial law, Imelda Marcos funneled billions of pesos to beautification projects to superficially “cover-up” the slums and construct prestigious cultural centers to impress foreign visitors in the Philippines. Imelda’s beautification initiatives ultimately failed, making no long term impact on Philippine society. To this day, she retorts that she only wants to promote the true, the good, and the beautiful. But in reality, Imelda has not been able to face the truth.
Contrasting Imelda’s maxim, hip hop often tells the startling, the bad, and the ugly. In other words, it tells the real truth—raw and naked.
The startling, the bad, and the ugly can be a transformative thing, alarming us to the work that needs to be done. It does not conceal or pretend. It awakens and demands. Hip hop’s alternative knowledge has been a staple of Fil Am life for decades now. How much value is a college degree if one graduates without “knowledge of self”? How many of us are still singing "Jingle Bells"? Geo‘s “Commencement Day” suggests the ongoing education of “knowledge of self”, one that continues even after you toss your graduation cap into the air:
“Now you stand at the summit
Future facing the wind.
Now it’s time to let your true education begin.”