“I am in no way optimistic but I remain a prisoner of hope”

“I am in no way optimistic but I remain a prisoner of hope”
~ Cornel West

Today I received an email from one of our Pacific Islander youth, the email is simple only a couple of lines, but piercing to the heart. She writes “I know you don’t know me and I understand if you don’t reply, but I have heard you speak a couple of times here in California and I have always wanted to ask you how you remain hopeful in this cruel world. I am only 16 years old and I feel like I was born into a world that was not made for people who look like me. I am half Samoan and half black and in my world that equals not fully human. My parents tell me that my life has just begun but why do I feel like its ending?”

What does one say to a young person who fully recognizes the injustices that are targeting her very existence in this world? How does one begin to make sense of the harsh realities that she was born into simply by being brown, black, female and living in America, yet yearning for her to remain hopeful enough to continue living and to actualize her grandparent’s legacy, her parent’s sacrifices and her own desires and dreams? The paradoxes and contradictions that our young people face on a daily basis are daunting. On a good day they are referred to as the “chosen generation” on the very same day they are often called the “lost/destructive generation” but regardless of how we choose to define them, one thing is for sure, they are undoubtedly the “next generation”!

I have no idea who this young woman is, but somehow her pain is familiar, so familiar that I can name it and feel it. We have become so desensitized in many ways to the pain that young people have to go through on a daily basis, that we have become blinded to it, insomuch that we have accepted it as the norm for young Pacific Islanders. We often place all the blame on them not realizing the ways in which we have contributed and created the situations they now find themselves in.

We have criticized them for not knowing their language and culture, yet we don’t take the time to teach it. I have been in numerous meetings where administrators and teachers clearly do not see a need for multiple histories or epistemologies or anything that is not in par with mainstream culture and values. Yet, the minute our young people show any sign of resistance in this mainstream classroom they are labeled as having a behavior disorder, tracked into ESL and special education courses and their Pacific cultures blamed for their so-called failures. The same culture that they are not allowed to practice or even emulate. The same culture that they hardly even know!

We have accused our young people of being caught up in the “bling bling” world, yet they are being targeted by every corporate marketing campaign who promises immediate acceptance with the stroke of a lip gloss, overpriced t-shirt/pants, shoes that can make you fly, and jewelry that demands envy. They enter into classrooms where capitalistic ideals are the norm, they become consumers before they become students, and still we wonder why they gravitate toward the bling? Why they think that success only needs to be reheated in the microwave…5…4….3…2…1… done!

We get annoyed by their constant need for attention, their low self-esteem moments and we demand that they should be proud of who they are, yet they look around their environment and everything tells them that to be a beautiful young woman one must be skinny, white, tall, blonde, straight hair, etc., etc., basically everything that they are not. Then they come home and the minute their hair looks unruly, we are the first to plug in the iron. When they are out in the sun for longer than a second, we throw a lavalava around their head, make them wear long pants and long sleeves while yelling “don’t get dark”! We spend hours massaging the noses of young babies so that it doesn’t look like a “Polynesian nose”… all of this while telling our youth “be proud of who you are”!

We promise them that they can have it all…the “American dream” yet the moment they walk out of the house they are hit with the realities of racial profiling, tracking, lowered expectations, racism, sexism, classism, and the list goes on and on. They turn to us (parents, educators, community leaders, church leaders, anyone) seeking answers and the most common response whether spoken or unspoken is “something is inherently wrong with you, it must be your culture”! Again, the blame placed on the young person and his/her native culture that he/she has never learned nor even understands. We continue to wonder why this generation, who should have been the “chosen” one appears to be the “lost” one!

When do we finally say “enough is enough” and that we will no longer allow this next generation to move through this world ashamed of their native cultures? When are we going to engage in deconstructing this popularly damaging theory that our young people are a deficit simply because they are of Pacific Islander descent? When do we demand that our children learn their native culture and values from a lens other than that of whiteness/capitalism/colonialism? When are we going to stand up to those who have always been in power, who have passed legislations/laws/policies that have been aimed to limit the dreams and potential of our young people? When do we hold ourselves and those in power responsible for the conditions that we have helped to create that have been extremely damaging to our young people? I hope the answer is NOW!

I have never been an optimistic person, I am too much of a realist to be optimistic, but I would be in denial if I was to disregard the resiliency of our Pacific Island people. We have been through so much, if our history has taught us anything, it is that we will always survive, and for that I will always remain hopeful!

It is this next generation that will lead our pilgrimage as Pacific Islanders, I hope we will stand by them, guide them, support them and love them and in the end, I hope they will never have to question why we were full of hope, even in this cruel world, I hope they would understand that we never gave up, and when it became a choice between living or dying, we chose to live even in the midst of death…and likewise I hope they will do the same!

Thursday, November 5, 2009