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Op Eds

Colonialism, Course Offerings, and Continued Silence on the Philippines

By Eleanor V. Wikstrom, Crimson Opinion Writer
Eleanor V. Wikstrom ’24, a Crimson Editorial Comp Director, lives in Adams House.

“This is where I write an op-ed calling Harvard a colonizer,” I texted two of my friends in the Harvard Philippine Forum. It was mid-August, and one of the friends had just reported that her emails to petition for the addition of a language tutorial in Tagalog — the most spoken language in the Philippines, as well as the native tongue of my mother’s family — had been “thoroughly ghosted.”

The colonizer joke wasn’t new. It started when I was seriously considering applying to Harvard in my junior year of high school and noted the absence of Tagalog in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences course offerings. At the time, this was more an annoyance than anything, molded perfectly to complement my shame about being a “bad” Filipina for my inability to speak the language.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something larger at play.

What about the fact that Tagalog is the fourth most-spoken primary language in the United States, following only English, Spanish, and Chinese? What about the outsized frontline role of Filipino American nurses during the pandemic? And what about the c-word itself — the colonial state which the United States operated in the Philippines for half a century, fighting a brutal war to suppress insurrection, and ultimately reforming the archipelago in its own image? Did none of these merit institutional acknowledgment? Was I overreacting for believing that they did?

The negative space of the FAS language offerings and my self-doubt in acknowledging its severity embody what the poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong calls minor feelings: “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic.” Minor feelings involve a sensation of lack — a blank course offerings webpage, an unanswered series of emails — and the awareness that this lack is socially constructed, building resentment towards those responsible for its construction. They’re characteristic of the Asian American experience, where the model minority myth and survival mentality of immigration operate in tandem to swallow any discontent into silence.

I knew intrinsically that something was wrong with this situation: I knew it was unacceptable that Harvard does not teach a language with numerically significant daily usage while clearly possessing the resources to teach ones that were functionally dead, like Latin, or that the history of a country which built the U.S. empire is almost entirely overlooked in the course catalog. And I knew how this lack intersected with my experience of history: the erasure of Filipino traditions under the hegemony of American “soft power” abroad, the origin myth of the United States as an anticolonial underdog obfuscating a tangible history of overseas empire, the psychological scars of self-denial that colonization leaves behind.

But true to the definition of minor feelings, I could not point my finger at their source without bracing for my lived reality to be dismissed. I had no evidence of an administrator who rejected course offerings on the Philippines and verbally cited an investment in American empire as the reason; thus, my feelings were minor and not valid. Minor feelings were starting this op-ed four separate times since March and each time convincing myself that I had nothing to say, the unused words slowly fermenting to leave a bitter taste in my throat.

But here’s the thing about minor feelings — they only grow. And at some point, they’re not so minor anymore.

In March of this year, following the horrific shooting of six Asian women at an Atlanta spa, two Harvard deans and the University’s President sent emails promising to “stand with” the University’s Asian American students, faculty, and staff. But Harvard’s words were just words. In the Age of the Internet, where provocation is monetized, we have falsely come to equate speaking with action. We are more concerned with seeming political than being so. Void of deliverables, those slippery platitudes melted away in the same way that the parade of aesthetically pleasing hashtags and the passion of Instagram-story infographic warriors did a week later: into a conspicuous and familiar silence. It was an institutional lack so great, so impossible to excuse, that the minor feelings exploded, soured and stinging, past the point of containment.

The absence of any conversation on Tagalog, I realized then, was not a personal shortcoming. It was preordained; it occurred within Harvard by design.

The question of course offerings on Tagalog and the Philippines — or, more accurately, the lack thereof — is not whether Harvard has a duty to help its minority “ethnic” students learn about their own culture. It’s about what institutional silences signal about our reckoning with national history and complicity in the narratives that maintain oppression, a conversation that implicates us all.

Tongue-tied where it really matters, Harvard’s silence on deliverables speaks for itself. It tells a story of the questions which this institution, and America as a whole, are not ready to be asked or to answer. But this semester, alongside other members of the Filipino American community, I find that my own tongue is loosening, my throat cleared of the bitter, minor feelings that kept it blocked. And I’m ready for this conversation to begin.

Eleanor V. Wikstrom ’24, a Crimson Editorial Comp Director, lives in Adams House.

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Op Eds