Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell officially declared October 2014 as Filipino-American History Month. As October comes to a close, one must ask: Who really are the Filipino-Americans — the group that composes half of the Asian/Pacific Islander population in Alaska?
We seem to see them everywhere, right? They are our co-workers, our neighbors, our classmates, our friends and our family. We see them working in post offices, airports, hospitals, food industry, fishing industry, churches, education, and the list goes on.
As many of us might see Filipinos in our communities celebrate with smiles, bright-colored clothing, fancy galas, high-priced banquets, dancing and food, what we do not see is what is beneath it all — the high rates of depression, low graduation rates, low college admission rates and many families struggling to make ends meet.
But why is that?
The model minority myth portrays all Asian Americans as smart, successful, excellent problem solvers and high in socioeconomic status. Pop culture, social media, research and literature have all endorsed the model minority myth as we see Asian Americans play roles, such as scientists, math geniuses, engineers, computer nerds and the like.
Also, the model minority assumes that because of Asian Americans’ high socioeconomic and social status in society, Asian Americans do not experience racism or societal oppression, which reaffirms the belief that anyone can be successful simply with hard work and the right cultural values.
While many of us find the model minority myth to be an endearing and positive image of Asian Americans, research has shown that the model minority myth is damaging and problematic because it creates a set of standards and expectations on what an Asian American is and should be. Historically, the model minority myth has disadvantaged and is detrimental to Asian Americans because systems such as schools, communities, and governments that endorse this myth fail to give attention and resources to the Asian American groups who are statistically not doing well.
So what’s really going on?
Many Asian Americans — primarily those who are not of East Asian heritage (such as Chinese, Korean, and Japanese) — achieve significantly less educationally, economically, and are ignored or made invisible by service providers (i.e. teachers, counselors, psychologist, etc.) who assume they are doing well.
For example, 40 percent Hmong and 38 percent of Laotian populations do not complete high school. Here in Alaska, a recent study done by researchers at the University of Alaska Anchorage found that 60 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders in Alaska reported feeling depressed within the last month (compared to the national average of 10 percent to 15 percent) and that racism is a major contributing factor to their depression.
Research specifically with Filipino-Americans has found that they have low high school graduation rates and low college admission rates. Also, Filipinos attain low-income levels, especially when their level of education is taken into account, and often have to live together in one household to combine income with other family members and make ends meet.
Studies also show that 98 percent to 99 percent of Filipino-Americans experience racism, and that these experiences may lead to depression symptoms.
To make matters even more troubling, research also shows that most Filipino-Americans do not choose to seek out mental health services. The few Filipino Americans who do seek mental health services report feeling frustrated and misunderstood when seeking help, creating a general mistrust with the providers. This results in Filipino-Americans resorting to other less reliable sources for information on health, such as the Internet.
So, while October is a month to celebrate Filipino-American history and culture, we must not forget the realities that our Filipino co-workers, neighbors, classmates, friends, and family may be facing. As this joyous celebration of Filipino-American History Month comes to a close, our relationships with our Filipino-American brothers and sisters do not have to end.
Rather than celebrating our culture by simply attending a Filipino function or gathering, we invite you to really get to know us beyond our brightly colored traditional clothing, dance skills and tasty food.
Filipino-Americans are a very diverse group of people (with over 150 languages), and our culture and history is rich with stories of struggles, hardships, strength and resilience.
Come to know our stories and realities, including the ones that do not fit preconceived notions of who we are.