What it Means to be a Pacific Islander in High School
Tonga Fakalata
October 17, 2018

“We’re a joke!” she said abruptly. I could hear whispers of agreement manifest from a couple of other students. “No one takes us seriously. We don’t even take ourselves seriously!” The tremble in her voice was gone. Her posture shifted from a once bent-over position of disinterest to now sitting anxiously forward as if something inside her was ready to leap out from underneath her skin.

I watched as the entire group of students responded to her comments. Rather than rebuttalling in verbal uproar, they were silent. Her remarks to the tabling question placed an unwarranted reaction from her peers.

The Wednesday afternoon heat no longer seemed to bother them, nor did the music that played inappropriate verses in the background. The attention streamed towards the question on the wall: What does it mean to be a Pacific Islander student in high school?

To give context, as an Intern for the White House Initiative on Asian American Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI), I proposed a year long service project as a volunteer advisor for the Pacific Islander Student Club at my alma mater, Menlo Atherton High School. As an academic, my intention stems from a Race and Ethnic Studies background focused strongly on Pacific Islander multiculturalism in the United States. As a young leader within the Pacific Islander community, my work follows a social theory that analyzes the integration of indigenous Pacific Islander values and epistemology with the standard(s) and social expectations of American culture so to begin extracting common themes of self and social perception of young Pacific Islanders in the education system.

Keeping both rhetorics in mind, body and spirit, my beginnings as a club advisor has already been met with the social stereotyping and racial subtleties that my students, the Pacific Islander student body, face everyday.

When asked this question — what does it mean to be a Pacific Islander student in high school — many chose to answer from a self-reflective point of view. Strategically, I had students express their responses first on a large white canvas which then became the cornerstone of conversation. Written words  like “unique”, “different”, “hungry”, “family” defined much of how these students saw themselves. However, when the question was brought into the group dialogue, many students internalized this question as what other people’s perception of Pacific Islanders in high school were. The responses were radically different. Rather than referencing the encouraging, uplifting words written on the canvas, the language shifted from inspirational and powerful to offensive and damaging.

One young man — who isn’t on the high school football team — explained how oftentimes he gets asked if he is on the football team and why he doesn’t play. His personal experience led him to believe that ‘to be a Pacific Islander boy in high school means to play football’.

Another student shared that ‘being a Pacific Islander student in high school means that you’re gonna drop out before your senior year’. As more and more shared their experiences on negative stereotyping from their non-Pacific Islander peers, teachers, and coaches, it became clear that these young students were not only cognizant of their social environment but that they had begun to internalize these negative stereotypes as truth.

According to a 2014-2015 academic demographic report, Pacific Islanders at Menlo Atherton High made up 3% (64 students) of the total student population. However, 4.2% (15 students) of the small Pacific Islander student body dropped out within the academic year. This dropout rate was higher than any other racial group accounted for at Menlo Atherton.

To further widen quantitative analysis on the small percentage of Pacific Islander students who do graduate from public high school, they have low rates of college readiness. In San Francisco, Alameda, San Jose and San Mateo counties, Pacific Islander 12th-grade graduates in the 2009–2013 cohort had lower-than-average rates of completing the coursework required for University of California and California State University entrances. This places our Pacific Islander youth below the learning curve and most often unprepared for college academia (which includes many of our Pacific Islander boys who commit to play college football).

So, when this information was shared to them while discussing the negative stereotyping they experience, their reaction caused many to think further about what it means to be a Pacific Islander in high school, in California and even in America.

The heartbreaking reality is that our Pacific Islander youth here in the States, much like the Pacific Islander youth at Menlo Atherton, are being fed these stereotypes that take form as a football jersey, a haka dance, a grass skirt, or a class schedule that lacks college-readiness courses and curriculum.

And the most damaging part of this all is how disconnected and unaware parents are. Too often do Pacific Islander parents blindly entrust their kids to these schools without understanding the social expectations and the academic limits set on their child long before they transition into high school.

To our parents and grandparents who envisioned a better education and a better life for their young, I beg that you recognize the present; your child is now living, walking, breathing in this vision you set forth way before immigrating here. But is this the vision you once dreamt? That your upbringing would face the negative stereotyping and the systemic barriers placed before them all because of their race/ethnicity?

We must be proactive in building up our youth so that they can defy stereotypes with a strong knowledge of who they are, where they come from and the sacrifices made to get to where they are at. Only then can they begin actualizing their potential. We must be courageous enough to love our youth, for no one else can love the way we as Pacific Islanders love. Our young people are smart, brilliant, kind, innovative and fearless! Yet, these are words that they do not hear on a daily basis. Let us as a community change our language to empower our youth. Is it not enough that they are set up to fail already?

Though we may not stand on the soil of our ancestors, we carry the spirit of intelligence, proactivity and wit everywhere we go. Our stance is forever warrior like and our mana is powerful enough to heal our community and break the strongholds of labels and false identities that place insecurity and discomfort on our youth.

The change we so earnestly search for dwells within the spirit of respect that is the overarching foundation of what it means to be Pacific Islander, period. We, as elders, parents, older siblings, grandparents and community leaders must respect that our youth will lead us into an era of equality and social justice that our community has never experienced before. But in order for this prophecy to be fulfilled, we must be willing to do our part in building up our youth and not look to other communities, institutions and organizations to do so. Sow that seed of affirmation in our youth and as a community, let us witness the growth together.


Tonga Fakalata is a Wayfinder Foundation Community Activist Fellow and originally posted this story on her Tonga Victoria Blog.

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