Disaggregating the Spectrum
Breaking the “model minority” myth to be myself
by Jason Tengco at NaFFAA.
When asked “If you were a fruit, which would you be and why,” my young self would have said I was a banana: yellow on the outside, but white on the inside.
Born and raised in the suburbs of San Francisco, I grew up with many affluent and mostly white peers. My parents didn’t teach me about my Filipino American history and culture, and instead told me to focus on my studies. They didn’t speak to me in Tagalog, afraid that I would gain an accent or that my English-speaking skills would suffer. In my teenage years, I was so ashamed of being Filipino American that I used papaya soap to try to lighten my skin, wore color contacts to lighten my eyes, and shopped at stores like Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister just to fit in.
On top of the shame that I had with my ethnicity, I was also closeted, and students often bullied me for acting less traditionally “masculine” than other boys. These moments made it harder for me to be my complete, genuine self and to be proud of my unique identity.
Growing up, I often felt that you were either born privileged or not privileged, white or “other,” straight or gay. It wasn’t until I started college at UCLA, surrounded by fellow Filipino American and LGBT students, where I realized that there is a spectrum of unique identities. But many of these students had felt marginalized merely because of who they were. Furthermore, they often felt like they were part of the “model minority” myth, where our needs as Asian Americans weren’t prioritized because we were seen as doing better academically and economically compared to other minorities, and therefore didn’t need as many resources or attention. At the time, we were engaged in a campaign called “Count Me In,” which called on the University of California system to disaggregate their data into distinct ethnic subgroups beyond merely “Asian” or “Pacific Islander.”
After graduating from UCLA and moving to Washington, D.C., I had the privilege of working at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), where we sought to improve the quality of life of AAPIs by increasing their access to the federal government. We encouraged federal agencies to tackle the “model minority” myth by disaggregating their data to better identify the needs of our diverse community, including in areas like education, health, civil rights, and federal hiring. We understood that the AAPI community is not monolithic, but rather is extremely diverse: we represent over 30 ethnic groups, and speak over 100 languages and dialects.
Although diverse, the Filipino American community can also be very divided, given that the Philippines is made up of more than 7,000 islands with numerous distinct dialects. These regional, cultural, and language-based divisions often continue with factions here in the United States. The organization that I now work for — the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) — strives to unite and empower our community’s diverse individuals and organizations by focusing on leadership development, civic engagement, and advocacy. One of NaFFAA’s initiatives, what we call our “Diverse Segments Council,” tackles this by advocating for the needs of diverse communities, including LGBT individuals, women, veterans, and young professionals.
As we close out Pride Month, let’s take the time to remember that each of us can play a role in pushing for disaggregated data to help identify and address our community’s distinct needs: whether it’s through the U.S. Census or federal agencies, in the forms we fill out at work or school, and even through the stories we tell, emphasizing that the AAPI and LGBT community is made up of a spectrum of unique identities.
I look back at the person that I was 15 years ago — closeted and ashamed — and realize how far I’ve progressed to become the person that I am today. It took me some time, but now I’m able to embrace my Filipino American identity and skin, and am proud to be the youngest and the first openly gay executive director of NaFFAA. If asked today what type of fruit I am, I would proudly say a Philippine mango: yellow on the outside, and yellow on the inside.
Jason Tengco is the Executive Director of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA). He previously served as the Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and graduated from UCLA with honors with a B.A. in Political Science.