About a year ago, I stood before the faculty and students of my psychology graduate program and declared, “Before I move on, I want to first acknowledge my own positionality as a Filipino American with an immigrant background who attended a private, predominantly white high school, as this very much informs my approach to my work”.
Positionality statements such as this one have recently become a popular practice in the academic community. Positionality refers to the unique configuration of our different social identities (i.e. race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, and many more) in the context of a hierarchical society. We present these statements along with our research to acknowledge the ways in which our personal experiences color our work and encourage transparent reflection of the biases we may hold.
My Filipino identity represents an ongoing, often challenging, journey of never-ending reflection on positionality. The exploration of my Filipino American identity involves a continuous reckoning with my own social identities and the different ways that my biases manifest across my life.
The “Assimilated Asian”
High school was filled with late nights playing poker and watching football. I also spent these years mocking the broken English of my Filipino friends from “ghetto” schools, telling my white friends that racist jokes were okay “as long as they were funny”, and proudly wearing my Sperry shoes every day to match the style of my white peers.
My private Catholic high school in North Carolina embodied a space that not only granted little exploration of my Filipino identity but also generated pressure to assimilate into white culture. Embedded throughout these behaviors was an immature, misinformed narrative, driven by a desire to prove that being Filipino meant “not being like other Asians” and that the colonization of the Philippines actually represented a “positive allyship” that “rewarded” Filipinos with greater proximity to whiteness.
Fascinated by understanding the mystery of the human mind, I found myself gravitating to psychology, despite several of my Filipinx friends aspiring for nursing and medical school (disciplines that aligned with common Filipinx stereotypes). Ironically, just as my passion for psychology would transform the way I viewed my Filipino American identity, it would also result in the development of a new form of bias.
The “Campus Savior”
College was filled with late nights playing foosball and eating ice cream. These were also the years when I looked to campus organizations as a source of pride in my Filipino identity, eventually became the founding vice president of the Filipino American Student Association (FASA), and stumbled across the term “colonial mentality” for the first time. Psychologist Dr. EJR David defined colonial mentality as “a form of internalized oppression that conditions colonized people to believe that their ethnic or cultural identity is inferior to Western culture or whiteness”.
Before I read Dr. David’s words, I had never encountered such clear articulation of my high school experiences. It felt cathartic to learn that not only did my experience have a name, but that there is a body of published psychology research journals devoted to understanding it. I believed that every Filipinx American should know and talk about colonial mentality, and I felt empowered to help the rest of my community come to terms with any colonial mentality they may have.
And yet, even as the vice president (and eventual president) of the Filipino American Student Association, I felt disappointed in how hesitant members seemed towards talking about colonization and its psychological impact. Club members talked about eating Spam and leche flan, never mind that such “cultural” dishes wouldn’t exist in a pre-colonial Filipinx culture. They discussed traditions of noche buena and simbang gabi, despite the fact that such traditions originate from Spanish Catholicism. When we did a workshop on the traditional tinikling dance, our Events Chair briefly acknowledged the dance’s potential roots in Spanish colonial torture, concluding with “it’s kind of dark, but that’s what it is”. At best, colonization was characterized as an “influence.” At worst, it was sidelined as a footnote or a taboo topic.
My disappointment grew into resentment towards other Filipinx students who opted out of this exploration. In my eyes, I took initiative in delving into what I considered a “more authentic” Filipinx identity because I researched the complicated and traumatic histories of the Philippines. I felt that Filipinx students who didn’t engage in the same level of exploration as me simply suffered from their own colonial mentality. Ironically enough, in adopting such a mindset, I myself perpetuated a form of colonial mentality.
Rather than identifying and calling out the larger context of white supremacy and colonization for the intergenerational trauma that complicates Filipinx identity exploration, I placed the blame on individual apathy, viewing other Filipinx people as complacent and superficial while distinguishing myself as a superior anomaly.
Upon further reflection, I grew to accept the diverse experiences of Filipinx Americans, including the notion that not all Filipinx Americans may have a strong colonial mentality or, if they do, may not want to unpack it. I recognized the importance of respecting individuals’ autonomy and embracing the subjective nature of one’s identity. Even so, this subjective quality of Filipinx identity inspired me to pursue my passion for psychology in graduate school research, where my biases once again evolved to take a fresh, new form.
The “Academic Activist”
My years in graduate school so far have been filled with late nights playing Smash Bros. Ultimate and watching the NBA. I also take classes, teach, and do my own research on the psychology of Filipinx American identity. Beyond my academic roles, I participate (when time permits!) in a Filipinx American grassroots mass organization focused on liberating the Philippines from unjust policies driven by U.S. power. Excited about joining a community of passionate Filipinx activists, I thought my own positionality and academic research background could benefit and inform, indeed, should benefit and inform the mass movement for Filipinx liberation. It didn’t take long before I realized that my language fell flat.
One evening, members of our grassroots organization heard two speakers from the Philippines discuss the unjust practices of the newly elected President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and the continued U.S. military on the Philippines’ lands. Afterward, we split into smaller groups to respond to discussion questions.
But when it came down to talking about which issues resonated with me and what ways we can organize the Filipinx American community around these issues, I found myself stumbling over my words. I tried my best to adopt the powerful and motivating political language that I had just heard from two fellow Filipinx activists, but instead found myself falling back on familiar academic lingo. My stilted use of“macro/micro-level systems” and “identity statuses” were met with awkward silence, only to be saved by another member who jumped in and skillfully reoriented the discussion back to more familiar language.
The academic jargon that I had grown so familiar with paled in comparison to the empowering rhetoric of mass organizers. I was shocked to discover that what I saw as the “educated” perspective on social justice had little to contribute in a space where individuals directly involved themselves in the collective fight for Philippine liberation. They used a language that rallied around justice and action, equipped with a vocabulary that I had not been accustomed to. I realized then that I had fallen victim to another form of colonial mentality, one that held an uncritical deference for Western paradigms of higher education and scientific research. I viewed “academic” perspectives as the primary lenses through which the needs of the Filipinx American people could be “best met”, and in doing so I had overlooked the value of lived experiences and community wisdom.
Positionality: From Confrontation to Connection
About a year ago, I stood before the faculty and students of my psychology graduate program and declared how my positionality as a Filipino American informed the lens through which I approach my academic work. Now I realize that the opposite is just as true — that my positionality as an academic researcher influences the way I comprehend and respond to Filipinx American issues, and that my identity as a Filipino American does not automatically remove me from any biases in the perspectives that I bring to the conversation.
The Filipinx American identity is an inherently political identity, existing at the intersection of immigrant diaspora, post-colonialism, and U.S. racialization. Yet between these complex layers also exists the unique opportunity for Filipinx Americans to build resistance, solidarity, and transformation. As we embrace the diversity of Filipinx American experiences, it grows more crucial, now, more than ever, that we embrace the strengths — and the limitations — of the positionalities we carry.
Kyle Lorenzo is a Filipino American graduate student living in New York City with his parter and black pug. He loves Filipino martial arts, listening to hip-hop dissection podcasts, and playing foosball. He has an M.A. in Applied Developmental Psychology from Fordham University and a B.A. from North Carolina State University, and is interested in research related to identity development, peer contexts, and mental health outcomes among adolescents and young adults.