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On Writing Pasefika Presence: The Pressures of Representation

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Initially, this column was just supposed to be a way for me to express myself — a way for me to coherently organize my thoughts about Pasefika and my experiences as a Pasefika student at Harvard, an elite, predominantly white institution. And in a way, it’s been very therapeutic, empowering even, to use this platform as a space not only to exist but also to actively assert my presence as a Pasefika student. But, at the same time, writing this column over the past school year has been a mentally, emotionally, and physically draining experience for me because of the pressures of representation.

The burdening pressures of representation have haunted me since my very first week at Harvard. Coming in as a first-year, I was well-aware that I was going to be one of only a few Pacific Islander students on campus — in fact, the only undergraduate student straight out of American Samoa. So, I knew that the pressure to represent my home and my community was inescapable.

At first, the pressure was so subtle that it was almost unnoticeable. It manifested itself in silly questions from my peers such as whether American Samoa was located in the Pacific or the Caribbean or if English was spoken there. It reared its head in strange looks I got as I walked around in my lavalava and absurd comments about how it looked like a “cute, colorful towel”.

Most of the time, my peers were genuinely curious about where I was from and didn’t mean any harm with their questions or comments, and because of the pride I have in where I come from, talking about home was always something I did with joy and excitement. But over time, having to constantly explain myself, my home, and my cultural identity grew tiring — exhausting even. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I would later come to understand that having to constantly explain myself meant that I was constantly trying to prove that I belonged here — constantly trying to reaffirm and validate my presence at this elite institution.

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The pressure to perform representation was not limited to conversations with my peers at Harvard. In fact, arguably most of the pressure to perform representation came from my interactions and conversations with people in my own community every time I went back home. “Malo, Gabby! Keep representing us well out there and making our islands proud!” was the type of thing I would constantly hear from aunties and uncles, old friends, and even people that I’d randomly run into at the store while grocery shopping. Even though I was designated as their representative against my will, there was a part of me that was filled with pride, love, and joy at the thought of my community entrusting me with such a huge responsibility.

So, I started writing this column and justified to myself that I was writing it because one, I loved writing, and two, I loved talking about the Pacific. So, why not combine the two? But it would be dishonest of me to say that the persistent need for validation of my presence on this campus along with the pressures to represent my Pasefika community did not play a major role in my decision to put my ink on these pages.

Writing this column quickly transformed from a liberating haven for me to share my thoughts and ideas about Pasefika into a confining cage of the politics of performing Pasefika representation. As I wrote, I became deathly afraid that what I was writing did not accurately represent my Pasefika community, which is actually an impossible task in the first place considering the diversity of all of Pasefika. I spent days stuck on the same sentence or phrase, wondering how my peers here might construe it as to be representative of all of Pasefika. But perhaps worst of all, I stayed up each night after submitting each new piece for publishing, imagining the horrors of my beloved Pasefika community rejecting me for misrepresenting them, for letting them down.

I continued to bury this pressure, stress, and fear until last November, when I found myself having to visit Harvard’s mental health services for the first time in my life. After a wildly unexpected mental breakdown of uncontrollable sobbing and vomiting, I found myself sitting across the room from a CAMHS therapist, trying to understand what had gotten me to this point in the first place. And after a lengthy conversation with her, I came to the realization that not only was I being crushed by the pressures of performing representation, which had in fact been amplified by writing this column, but I continued to ignore and normalize the violence that this pressure was inflicting upon my mind, body, and soul.

Stories like this aren’t uncommon on this campus. Time and time again, students from underrepresented, underprivileged, and marginalized backgrounds are called on to be representatives of their communities. We are called on to bear the responsibility of continuously validating our own existence and the existence of our communities in spaces that were created to exclude us.

At the same time, we are expected not to acknowledge the physical, mental, and emotional violence that these exclusive spaces inflict upon us. Over my time at Harvard, I’ve learned that I am supposed to pretend that the oppression and microaggressions I experience on campus do not exist, especially since I was “ever so graciously” admitted in the first place. At home, I am supposed to put on a facade of perfect physical, emotional, and mental health, because what struggles could I possibly be facing at a school that is paying my tuition and giving me access to an abundance of resources? To be good representatives, we are to meet these expectations without showing how much we are struggling because that makes not only us, but also our communities seem “weak,” “overly-sensitive,” or “hysterical.”

I understand that, regardless of what I have said in this piece, I will still be held accountable as some sort of representative of Pasefika in virtue of belonging to such an underrepresented community at Harvard. But, I shouldn’t be. Because Pasefika is infinite, expansive like the Pacific Ocean, and it cannot be captured through one person’s words on paper. Regardless, I made the decision to continue to write this past semester because of my love for my Pasefika family and the pride and joy that I have seen this column’s assertion of Pasefika presence bring to them. I continue to write in the hopes that one day, Pasefika presence will not have to be continuously and forcefully asserted in order to remain visible.

Gabrielle T. Langkilde ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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