January 22, 2015

Brown Bodies – Changing the Narrative

West side resident and former East High School student body president Inoke Hafoka is among the many Pacific Islanders who felt compelled to participate in the I Am Beyond project, which seeks to address the negative stereotypes that have been associated with the Pacific Islander community.    Photo courtesy of the I Am Beyond organizers.
West side resident and former East High School student body president Inoke Hafoka is among the many Pacific Islanders who felt compelled to participate in the I Am Beyond project, which seeks to address the negative stereotypes that have been associated with the Pacific Islander community.    Photo courtesy of the I Am Beyond organizers.|| West side resident and former East High School student body president Inoke Hafoka is among the many Pacific Islanders who felt compelled to participate in the I Am Beyond project, which seeks to address the negative stereotypes that have been associated with the Pacific Islander community. Photo courtesy of the I Am Beyond organizers.|| ||
By The West View

Siale Angilau’s death in the Federal courthouse last April created a buzz in news stories, with associated comments full of words such as “dangerous Tongan,” “brutal gangster,” “violent street thug,” “ruthless Polynesian,” etc. Such phrases, sadly, have more do with our community’s accepted stereotypes of Salt Lake’s Polynesian youth than the actual thousands of talented, eager, and capable individuals who are working daily to break the chains of social stigma that we as a community have placed upon them.

The problem of racial profiling, of course, is not unique to Polynesians – Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and various other minority groups continue to be affected by the negative cultural biases that are falsely attached to their person. Sadly, these “ideas” are deeply ingrained in our social way of thinking and are projected onto our youth long before they enter public schooling. Thus, stigmas such as “low achievement,” “gang susceptible,” “poor contributor, “ etc. are all things minorities are labeled with, setting them down a “tracked” path to social and academic ostracism. One has to wonder if Angilau’s fate perhaps would have been different, had he not been part of a community that had symbolically “branded” him from his birth.

USA Today covered a story on May 26, 2014 called “Crips in Utah: Gang Culture Covers an Unlikely Turf.” In the article, Ron Stallworth, a member of Utah’s gang task force, is quoted to have said in light of Angilau’s passing, “Frankly...I'm surprised something like this didn't happen much sooner…” Stallworth then goes on to refer to the move of Polynesians from California to Utah by saying, “a natural consequence of that move [from California to Utah] was the transfer of the gang culture.'' In a conversation with local resident Belinda Saltiban about the article, she pointed out the flawed thinking that not only Stallworth exhibits, but that many within the community share. “His sentiments expressing how ‘natural’ it is for Pacific Islander males to be a part of a gang culture is problematic and laden with imprints of racism. There is nothing ‘natural’ for males in our community to transfer into gang culture,” said Saltiban.

I believe that Saltiban’s comments hit at the core of one of the fundamental ideological problems within our community: the assumption that “brown bodies” are dangerous. Saltiban states that such an idea is “reminiscent of cultural incompetence” that continues to perpetuate a legacy of racism “imposed on those whose bodies are ‘threatening’ because they tend to look different.” Such an ideology, Saltiban says, “manifests itself in the surveillance of our communities; it negates the achievement of Pacific Islander men and women who dare to surpass previously established expectations.”

To counter the negative assumptions held against those of color, social media users from the Pacific Islander community engaged in a campaign titled “I Am Beyond” where they uploaded to Facebook photos of themselves holding a dry erase board on which was written a quote, message, or statement about how they are living beyond the stereotypes placed upon their community.

West side resident Inoke Hafoka chose to be involved in the campaign and held a sign with the statements: “I am beyond the presumptions that associate PI men with negative stereotypes and lifestyles. I am beyond the school-to-prison pipeline. I am beyond the standardized assessments and statistics that inaccurately define our value in society.” His statements are then subscripted with the words, “I am changing the narrative.”

Hafoka isn’t the only one “changing the narrative.” Glendale resident Moana Uluave, recent MA graduate of Harvard University school of Education, is using her academic prowess to combat social inequality through her powerful usage of writing. According to Uluave,“The most dangerous person in the US is a brown body armed with a pen.” Agreeing with Uluave’s statement, Saltiban said, “When brown bodies engage in counter-narratives as intellectuals, scholars, educators, and activists (stories that are largely absent in the public sphere), it forces long held assumptions of the ‘naturally’ violent gangster to be questioned and re-examined.” As a counter-narrative to the racially charged statements surrounding Angilau’s death, Saltiban added, “the brown body is ‘dangerous’ with a pen because writing moves voice to action, action to change, and change to liberation from unjust and oppressive power.”