On the Line: Liminality in Pilipino American Education

When you’re Pilipino, you’re constantly asked if you’re Asian or Pacific Islander. Sure, the Philippines is a part of Asia, but aesthetically, Pilipino people look more Pacific Islander than East Asian. I always identified as Asian, but I never felt Asian enough. In school, I felt like I did not perform at the same level that my East Asian classmates did. I used to think that it was all my fault, and that I could have worked harder. When I took a course on Asian American Education, however, I discovered that sociohistorical factors push Pilipinos into a liminal social status and perpetuate inequality.

But what is liminality? Tracy Lachica Buenavista, Uma M. Jayakumar, Kimberly Misa-Escalante’s “Contextualizing Asian American Education Through Critical Race Theory: An Example of U.S. Pilipino College Student Experiences” defines liminality as “the literal and figurative position of being between two states that are characterized by ambiguity” (6). Pilipinos have been historically “in the middle.”

During their initial migration to the United States, Pilipinos were considered “nationals,” people who were neither aliens nor citizens. This status was beneficial to the agricultural and service industries that used Pilipinos for cheap labor in a time where minorities faced strict immigration restrictions. When the Philippines eventually gained independence, they also became categorized as “alien.” This perpetuated historical amnesia because this new status as a foreigner  covered up the American colonization of the Philippines. Today, this liminality manifests in the American education system where Pilipino students are categorized with second-generation college students but do not have the benefit of having parents who know how to navigate the American college system. This perpetuates invisibility of the Pilipino-American experience. By lumping Pilipinos with East Asian communities, they are expected to perform at the same level as students whose parents know how to navigate the American education system. They are held to the same standard while they are at a disadvantage.

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