Before I lost my voice though, I was speaking about thesis topics and writing for different audiences and picking a topic which will benefit the communities you are tied to in one class. Throughout my discussion I brought up my own work on decolonization, and also used events taking place on Guam such as the impending military buildup to illustrate my points. One of the students didn't like my points or where I was coming from.
He explained himself as attending UOG a decade ago, and emerging from some classes, fired up, angry wanting to change the island, wondering why we cling to this colonial relationship with America, when they have mistreated us and the Micronesians around us so poorly. Achokka' ta guaiya i Amerikanu siha, yanggen un atan i estorian i islas Micronesia, annok na ti parehu i sinienten i Amerikanu put Hita. Guaha na ma fa'taotao hit, lao guaha nai lokkue' annai ma fa'ga'ga' hit, or even worse, ma fa'lansa hit, or in other words, they treat us like a weapon, kulang manotdot hit gi i punton i lansan-niha. Ayu i kumekeilek-na i sinangan "tip of the spear."
But as time passed, as he left college, got a job, he matured, he softened up his positions and he began to see things the way they really are. He began to realize that there is no point in fighting the system or changing the system, but that the important work is the smaller stuff you do within it. So my discussion of political status to him was pointless and stupid, a waste of time and something which didn't matter. There is no better system, no better way of doing things and so talking about it was taibali.
Throughout my talk he continually interrupted me and insisted on shifting the discussion to what he thought and try to tell me how I was wrong or how I was naive. Towards the end of the class it was obvious that other students were frustrated with the amount of space he was taking up.
Amongst all of this student's comments the one that struck me the most was when he tried to argue that what he was doing as a public school teacher was "real" work compared to what I was talking about or what I care about, and furthermore he tried to articulate what "real" people think or care about, what they want and what they are capable of.
He said, I'm doing real work in the real world, teaching kids social studies. My immediate response was a chuckling, yes, that's nice, I live in the real world too, I do real work too, I'm not sure I know what any of those things you are saying mean.
Naturally he brushed this aside and continued on. The invoking of i minagahet na cho'cho' was designed to give him credibility for his following remarks, which were all a picture of how "real" people on Guam exist. He continued saying that no one cares about anything you are saying, these are not issues that people care about, so what is the point of any of this? People just want to watch tv, eat food, relax, live their lives, none of this matters to them. What is the point?
This was not the first time I'd heard this sort of remark, in fact for those who are trying to bring issues of political status or decolonization into Guam's everyday discourse, you hear it all the time. These are matters only intellectuals, people in ivory towers, floating above the world of real problems care about. People with privilege talk about these things, the people who actually build things and make things happen could care less.
This isn't relegated to shutting down decolonization discussions or maintaining the decolonial deadlock. I heard this all throughout my grad school life too. I wrote in 2006 a post called "Are You Living in the Abstract World?" In Ethnic Studies, because of its progressive, activist roots as a discipline is always struggling to deal with its relationship to the "real world" far more than any other academic field. There is always an uncomfortable and uneasy dance that has to take place around any instance of privilege, abstraction or disconnect from the streets or the community you are serving. If often seems like Ethnic Studies takes on this stress as a proxy for all other disciplines, because few other students or departments seem to care about those they are writing about, or their relationship to power, privilege and the grass roots.
In other words, I've come very accustomed to these conversations, ya bei sangani hao, kalan esta o'sun yu' put Siha.
What made it different things time, was that I articulated my response to this particular student in a different way than I usually do, and one which helped the rest of the students present think through their own position as potential academics, who will bear various levels of responsibilities as people with higher education degrees, professors, people with a wider breadth of knowledge, professionals and so on, and thus be in important positions to help their communities with their voice, social capital and knowledge.
I didn't say this to the students, but what I had wanted to tell them immediately after I was confronted with the invocation of this student's real world street cred, was that: whenever anyone starts to invoke that proximity to the real world or to real people, you should always na'paranaihon maisa hao. You should always take a moment and pause and consider carefully what they are about to say, what sort of view on reality, what sort of version of it they are about to assert as the real thing. And if you are interested as I am in taking advantage of what we in Ethnic Studies call "teaching moments" then you won't respond with the counter to their opinion, but you will instead reveal the structure of the reality they are working to create with their assertion of realness.
Umaburido hao? Siempre an hu eksplikayi hao mas put este na hemplo, nina'laklaru.
So for instance, when this student was arguing a very common sense, very pragmatic argument, that you'll hear from pundits and people all the time, namely that people don't care about "big things" but instead care about "bread and butter" or "kitchen table" things only, my response wasn't to say the opposite. I didn't argue that "fafatta ilu-mu! Everybody and their pare' cares about these issues, they are the number one concerns according to every single poll Ron McNinch has ever done!"
I didn't relinquish the importance of what I was saying, but I also didn't fall into a for or against trap, but instead took the opportunity to reveal why the structure of what this student was saying was both bad and wrong.
I said, that these ideas are important, and maybe they aren't what people spend their every waking moment worrying about, but the fact that they don't think about it has no relation to whether or not it affects their lives. The colonial status of Guam affects everything on Guam, everything. It is my job and it should be the jobs of all academics or people who have the privilege of spending time reading everything they can, writing papers or teaching minds to help people connect the dots.
I added that the privilege that we get as academics or people who get to ask these sorts of questions and investigate problems and seek answers far beyond what those in government or in the media get to (or want to), means that we have the paradox of serving the community, but not necessarily serving them what they want. One task of academics is truth, but truth as we all have felt and all know, is often the enemy of desire or expectations.
The "real" people of this student's world, the people he was arguing that we really knew, that he really understood, were not much to speak of. In fact, this student seemed to actually have a really really low opinion of "real" people. For him they didn't seem capable of much, in fact were far less than humans and much more like animals. All they wanted was to eat and be entertained and had no aspirations beyond that. They didn't seem to care about the world around them, and didn't seem to both care or know how to affect that world. I told this student, that although this perspective on "real" people may feel real, its pretty useless, pointless and gives an almost pathetic authenticity to those "real" people. They are the "real" ones, who are so real they couldn't understand anything dealing with the economy, war, political status, but are perfect when it comes to anything dealing with chewing food or changing channels.
The idea that "real" people don't care or don't understand or can't do anything about the world around them is stupid, because as we should all know, regular people have plenty of ideas about why the world is the way it as, and usually have several answers to how things can be changed or fixed. The ideas that they have however might not be very nuanced or even useful for improving their positions, but this doesn't mean that they have no idea whats going on around them or don't care. In fact most narratives that people use to explain the world around them are framed around assigning blame for why things suck or why things are getting worse.
For instance on Guam, I told the class the most basic ways that this happens is that, Chamorros blame Filipinos. Filipinos blame Chamorros. Everyone blames the Micronesians. Alot of ideas that people have about the world, and who's fault it is that things are bad are racist, they assign the kachang i tano' to this group, and they infuse that belief with personal or shared stories of betrayal, disrespect, dislike, irreducible difference and so on. Aside from the obvious problems with these arguments, is that any significance or connection that they might have to the problems of the world, or in seeking solutions is weakened and watered down, because one thing which racism always does is make those who generally have less power or are simply just another segment of the population, seem to be suddenly all-powerful!
In the United States we can see this in the way that undocumented workers are blamed for so many of the countries problems. They exist as a signifier which ties everything from low wages, crappy jobs, poor American productivity and quality, Spanish language stations, shows and signage, jobs going overseas together and the largely marginalized migrant or undocumented worker is like a faceless Latino Illuminati group that is responsible for all. In the minds of those who subscribe and gain positive identity from that racial fantasy, the undocumented worker has so much control, so much power, the American worker, the American corporation is helpless before their might! The ability for these people to affect or change the system is stunted since what they see as the cause of all these problems is undocumented workers, and so the universe of other possible factors get swept off the kitchen table.
I told this student that since we are all already or going to be educated people, who have written or will write thesises or dissertations, papers, articles, public lectures, etc. it is up to us to replace these sorts of explanations or narratives that tie people to the world, with something which is more productive, more useful. Just because "real" people feel a certain way doesn't mean that its true, just as when I say something have argue I have facts or research to back it up, it doesn't automatically make it true, just because I have my own metrics for establishing the "realness" of what I say. It is our job to do the best that we can to push into our classrooms and into the community, better answers which derive from clear and well-thought out processes.
So, when I argue against the military buildup and call for decolonization and change of Guam's political status, my reasoning for this is not, "because I hate the United States." Its because when I look at Guam's history and present, I see the current relationship with the United States as one of the largest factors that holds the island back, that keeps it from seeking to develop itself in more sustainable ways, that prevents it from trying to take better care of itself or improve itself. My final thought to the student was that although people may not care or seem to care, it is because the dots have not been connected. Political status is something everyone may feel, the island is America one second, the tip of its spear the next, and a foreign country the next, but they don't see this as having any impact on their lives other than possibly the island being disrespected or not being recognized properly. They do not connect it to the economy, the government, the environment, the media, education and everything else.
When you do provide the history, when you do provide an image of the island, its place in the world where political status is at its center, people do begin to care, people do begin to see the impact in their lives. At least this is the hope and something that animates me and keeps me going despite the negative feedback and resistance I encounter. I wouldn't be writing this blog post if otherwise.
Returning to the "real" world argument one last time, I hear that so often used against me, first in terms of not really being down with the struggles of real people, and second as not really being a Chamorro because of the way I talk or think, and I frankly both of these points are stupid to me. Whenever anyone does this, its important to confront them, to transgress their assumptions and hopefully reveal the structure of their stupidity. For instance, anybody who says that real Chamorros speak poorly, incoherently and are not articulate (which I have heard so many people imply or say outright) should be corrected, since they are very much holding us back with that attitude.