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Allyship as a Filipinx American/Asian American/Non-Black POC: Standing Side by Side in the Black Lives Matter Movement

By Yvette Santos Cuenco, LMSW
Allyship as a Filipinx American/Asian American/Non-Black POC: Standing Side by Side in the Black Lives Matter Movement

The author at her alma mater UCLA where she became a first-generation college graduate. The poster reads - “1 in 3 Bruins are first-gen graduates.”

When I was asked to submit a proposal for the recent Association for International Educators and Leaders of Color & Women of Color in ELT conference, it took me a good month of reflecting on what I wanted to talk about. As Filipino American History Month (October) neared, I realized what I wanted to discuss has been with me this whole time. I decided to focus on a topic that is a core part of who I am, not just as an educator, but as a human being.

This is how my topic for the conference—Allyship as a Filipinx American/Asian American/Non-Black POC: Standing Side by Side in the Black Lives Matter Movement—came to fruition. It’s my way of connecting head to heart and sharing it in a safe space. This article will focus on my conference talk and how non-Black educators of color at international schools could reflect upon their role in their schools’ anti-racist/anti-bias initiatives. The topic heavily focuses on the United States and my own experiences; my hope is that educators from other backgrounds will find a common thread and connection to their lived experiences or those of their colleagues and students.

Thinking critically about Filipinx American/Asian American history and the messenger

A key element in fully understanding non-Black POC identity and these communities' roles in the movements for social justice is knowing their history. Historically, these perspectives haven’t always been represented in U.S. history textbooks. If there is any mention, the representation and facts are often skewed to favor the White dominant lens on historical events. In his article, “Problems of Bias in History Textbooks” (1996), Michael H. Romanowski expands on this issue. He points out concrete examples where the biased language in textbooks regarding issues related to people of color, such as Japanese American Internment during World War II, leads to bias and stereotyping.

Rather than encouraging critical thinking and analysis these texts justify the oppression of POCs by the US government. In a recent NYTimes article, Dana Goldstein compares and contrasts several recently published textbooks from California and Texas. The comparison explores key differences in the texts in discussing slavery, immigration, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, etc. Thus reiterating the importance of offering a diversity of texts and points of view for students to analyze and develop their own ideas.

In the context of Filipinx American/Asian American History, as a high school student, I found that there was not much written about my community despite the Philippines’ American colonial past. In fact, the one page about U.S. colonization of the Philippines is written much in the way Romanowski describes above. I recall the book quoted President McKinley and described the colonization of the Philippines as a benevolent act. The Philippine American War from 1899-1902 was described as the “Philippine Insurrection.” It did not include the perspectives of the Filipinos. Thinking critically about it now, this implies Filipinos didn’t have the agency (or the desire) to govern themselves and only echoes the biased notion that the United States was saving, not oppressing, another group of people. Having learned more about the Philippine American War after high school, I know that this representation was not accurate.

Reversing the erasure of history

If it weren’t for my parents buying us books about Philippine history and Filipino American history, I wouldn’t have known about October 18, 1587. This date is the earliest documented landing of Filipinos in the United States during the Manila Galleon Trade between Spain and Mexico. Hence October being officially designated as Filipino American History Month.

Nor would I have known about the Manong Generation, the population of Filipino men who arrived from the 1920s to 1930s to work the plantations, farms, and canneries of Hawaii, the West Coast of the United States, and Alaska. Or that Filipinos like Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz played an integral role in the formation of the United Farm Workers union alongside Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. I often wonder: if official history could be so skewed in the late 1990s, what exactly are our students encountering now?

The omission of history in assigned texts denies students and educators the opportunity to unpack what’s happening in the world around them during the past and present. Failing to explore the lived experiences of BIPOC perpetuates the notion that the lens of White dominant society is the only perspective to consider. Moreover, it contributes to continued tensions among BIPOC groups.

The intersection and tensions between Black communities and Filipinx/Asian American communities

The relationship between Black and Filipinx/Asian American communities is complicated. There is a long history of Filipinx/Asian American activism for social justice and detailed experiences of racism that intersects with and parallels the histories of Black communities. However, there is also the hard truth that Filipinx/Asian Americans have benefited from societal structures that hurt Black communities. This includes being the middlemen “model minority,” owning businesses in communities of color and achieving socioeconomic success but never fully being accepted by dominant culture (Min & Kolodny, 1994).

Moreover, the middleman model minority role plays upon Filipnx/Asian Americans’ own internalized racism and colonial mentality. “Why can’t they pull themselves up like we did?” is an oft heard argument, stated without a full understanding of the many layers that may have helped one’s community to experience success while others did not. It is sometimes easier to align yourself with the oppressor than to engage in the difficult work of undoing racism and injustice.

I have seen this issue at international schools where BIPOC educators choose to remain silent for fear of retribution or simply because they don’t know where to start. This is a callout to those of you who feel this way. There is support and the movement is growing. The exploration of the shared and divergent histories of BIPOC gives voice and power to a wider range of experiences. It shifts the narrative from one perspective to an open conversation about our lived experiences.

Moving forward: action steps for Filipinx/Asian Americans, non-Black POC allies, and schools

The informal responses during my talk at the conference highlighted for me the importance of continuing these conversations. I was humbled by the responses of many educators in the Zoom who said they were grateful for my sharing information. Many of them were learning about it for the first time. In order for these conversations to continue, I recommend the following:

  1. Respect one another’s spaces and acknowledge there is a time for all to come together. Honor the safe spaces established for individual BIPOC groups and be open to having larger discussions as a whole faculty.
  2. Turn inward. Focus on the internal work that needs to be done within our own communities to undo racism and bias.
  3. Avoid the oppression Olympics. Engage in conversations with the willingness to listen, understand, and reflect rather than centering the conversation on your own personal or group experience.
  4. Dig deeper. Utilize the power of reliable resources and data to solidify your role as an ally.
  5. Speak up and reach out. Amplify your voice and tell your story. Reach out to your colleagues and allies for support. Lastly, look to your students and advocate for their voices to be heard.

For international schools that often tout “international-mindedness” in their mission and values statements, it is imperative to reflect, examine, and re-imagine what this truly means for their school community and curriculum. It’s time to move away from the safety net of multiculturalism and dig into the harder work of undoing our internalized and organizational biases that reinforce systems of oppression. Only then can we truly start to conceptualize what “international-mindedness” truly means.

Yvette Cuenco (she/her) is currently the middle school counselor at GEMS American Academy and dedicates this article to her maternal grandmother, Simeona Mordeno Santos (April 17, 1932 - November 23, 2020).

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