Of State Farm and People of Color

Published June 4, 2017

There’s this one State Farm insurance agent from the U-District who sat at our table during a leadership conference last winter. He is an islander—bless his soul—and self-proclaimed businessman. That’s not all though—I’ll add a qualifier: “hard core.” See, from what I remember from his conversation, he didn’t exactly get off to a good start in his youth. Long story short, he eventually got in the business field, all because he was a “hustler.” I started to lose interest in this dude’s narrative, not because the dude is an owner of a small business, but because all his talk about “hustlin'” didn’t seem to me that he is who he is. Y’feel? Now, before people get all judgmental in the house here, I too have mixed feelings about this conversation. The two primary ones:

1. For weeks after the conversation Something is wrong with me. This small-business owner has a lot to say about being in business, both as a person of color, and as a person who has overcome hardship in his life. And he didn’t just do it to end up making the mula, y’heard? He cares a lot about his employees, even getting his old high school classmates chips, videogames, television into the workplace with him. And, duh, he’s got a small business to run y’gotta keep hustlin’. Why do I feel so disinterested in this dude’s narrative when I should be celebrating and appreciating his work and accomplishments? And why do I feel I’m not the kind of ‘hustler’ he is, despite how the people whom I worked with elsewhere would tell me otherwise?

2. Two weeks ago This businessman and his narrative strangely manifested in my head once I started reading Mayanthi L. Fernando’s chapter “Of Mimicry and Woman” in The Republic Unsettled. In that chapter, Fernando talks about “exceptional” secular Muslim French women and their relationship to Islam and secularism. (If you know a thing or two about France’s controversial headscarf ban, you know very darn well what the above markers mean for the Muslim women Fernando describes above. But that’s besides the point.) These women were celebrated among the French Republic as examples of how secular, republican values can be universally adopted by all. One of the most intriguing of Fernando’s analysis were the autobiographies of these women, who came to embrace French Republican values secularism, equality, especially sexual equality after being freed from “the clutches of Islam.” The idea is that autobiography narrate the woman’s experience of oppression in her culture, and how she was ‘freed’ and ‘liberated’ by Western civilization (193). It is her “conversion” to secular republican values that justify the universality one case proves the rule of such values. Now I understand full well that the tales of the businessman and the women can never truly be parallel. But if we wanna make an analogy here, read this yourself:

See, from what I remember from his conversation, he didn’t exactly get off to a good start oppression in his youth. Long story short, he eventually got in the business field the “American Dream”, all because he was a “hustler” embracing individual meritocracy. I started to lose interest in this dude’s narrative, not because he was an owner of a small business capitalism, freedom, but because all his talk about “hustlin'” one case proves the rule didn’t seem to me that he is who he is universality vs particularity of values. Y’feel?

Basically, I felt disinterested in this dude not because he was “exceptional” but because his narratives seem to prove the dominant U.S. ideology that hard work can get you anywhere—the “American Dream”. But not all people of color, not even college students and degree holders, can achieve the kind of social mobility that is expected of the “American Dream” (for really recent research on this, see “The Asset Value of Whiteness: Understanding the Racial Wealth Gap” by Traub et al.) What is really ironic about this State Farms businessman is if he was a palagi person, I probably would have forgotten about him and his narratives by now. The huge difference between this dude and the women from the book is that the dude is not (and will never be) part of any government agenda. That doesn’t preclude his narrative, however, from invoking ideologies of individual meritocracy and the “American Dream”—something that is still celebrated among U.S. Americans in general—even though at first glance, the narrative seems inspiring.

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“There’s a dignity to work, and there’s a necessity to work to help the country succeed. We are no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs.” – from some news article somewhere

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The analysis is bad. The writing is bad. I may have tripped up here and there. But my mind, always preoccupied with “what’s next?” seem to disregard any conventions set forth by any groups, whether dominant culture, or alternately, advocacy/social justice spheres.

Sure, I faced adversity and overcame them. But what use is my narrative if I’m simply treated as if I did it all by myself? What use is there thinking about the communities I am part of Pacific Islander, Dream Project, Evergreen High School… if my success was based on my actions—and only my actions alone? What use is school, if I thought about hard work as a way to create a better life for my family?

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But that’s the whole point of writing, right? Somebody will have to disagree with me at some point in my academic career. If the claim you end up making is not something that someone might reasonably disagree with, then your argument will be weak, too “safe”…

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A brief overview of my Pacific Islander background

“…My concern is that I am merely being categorized by society, but I struggled to see the connection between those categories and my experiences. This is precisely how I got involved in my Pacific Islander community: I wanted to define who I am. There, I furthered my understanding on the concept of identity, and discovered that having agency over my identity was going to be problematic without understanding my own story. Mario, who was my mentor in the community, and I began with basics: My sacred waters is the Puget Sound, and my mountain is Mount Rainier. I was born in Seattle, and my (adoptive) parents come from Seattle and Thailand. These simple facts are the foundation of my stories, which give meaning to who I am.

Even though I consider myself to be Pacific Islander, I do that based on the relationships that I formed with the community and cultural principles that helped shape my narratives, which I am still working constantly on. While race are boxes in which society puts me in, my stories, in my own words, affirm who I am as a person. Having learned the power of the story, I have the unique opportunity to shape an authentic narrative of my lived experiences in a multicultural society. These stories become a source of my empowerment when the dominant society plays its powers against me…”

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Of State Farm and people of color

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