Kathleen McCoy: Professor's field of study sprang from his own life

Hometown UOctober 20, 2012 

Some 15,000 very diverse students attend the University of Alaska Anchorage, working on everything from professional certificates to doctorates. Research labs decipher how plastics in the environment affect human fertility, or which compounds in Alaska blueberries may forestall dementia. The university has launched a private equity fund to support qualifying startup businesses. It has one of the top debate teams in the U.S.

This column will offer a regular look at some of these people and the work they're doing. This week, we meet E.J. David, a professor studying the psychology of overwhelmed minority populations.

The most important things in E.J. David's world are tattooed on his shoulder. Among them: the faces of his wife and two kids, and a basketball.

He was born in the Philippines and raised in Barrow. He married his middle-school sweetheart, an Athabascan from Ruby. Their third baby should have arrived by now, so he's looking for a spot for a new tattoo. At 32, he's never owned a suit.

Asked how he ended up as a college professor, he says it's a result of his own experiences with the subject of his study and writing: the internalized oppression and devaluing of colonized people.

"It's not like I have the pedigree to become a scholar," he says almost sheepishly. "This is way beyond what I ever dreamed of as a kid. But I've lived the life I'm writing about; it's personal."

He recalls an island childhood, living with his mother and sister in a one-bedroom house without a phone or running water. For 11 months of the year, his father worked in Alaska, sending money home.

His dad also sent audio- and videotapes, offering fatherly advice from afar and amusing E.J. with tapes of American cartoon shows.

Young E.J. studied it all, the blond, blue-eyed children in commercials, playing with beautiful toys and visiting heavenly places like Disneyland. Tellingly, English is the official language of the Philippines, so E.J. had no trouble with that, but he obsessed over his clothes and how he looked.

He already knew his Filipino heritage was worthless in the face of this bright, shiny U.S. of A. That's the way they raise them back home -- to lean forward into America and forget where you came from. Stay out of the sun so you don't get too dark; bleach your face; lose your accent.

E.J. joined his dad in Barrow at age 14. Other village Filipinos made fun of him. Despite his efforts to be unmistakably American, his accent and clothes gave him away. He self-corrected and soon found himself ridiculing the more newly arrived immigrants.

And so it went; he was the perfect recruit into a worldview that negated his own heritage.

There was little money, no thought of college and, really, no ambition for it. There was only basketball; grades mattered to the degree they kept him eligible for the team.

By graduation, he was surprised to learn he had finished well enough at the Barrow high school to be eligible for a UA Scholars tuition award.

That got him to Anchorage and UAA. In psychology class, he wondered about the anti-Filipino behavior he'd both suffered and imposed on others. It wasn't just a kid thing; he'd seen adults do it too.

In class, he finally put a name to it. An assigned text, "Native American Postcolonial Psychology" by Eduardo and Bonnie Duran, became his bible. He pulls it off his office shelf today, cracking it open to reveal green highlighter on nearly every page, a fervent grasp at this new idea.

He graduated from UAA in three years. A master's degree and doctorate followed quickly at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A fellowship gave him the financial wherewithal to start his own research projects.

Now he teaches in UAA's new psychology Ph.D. program, clinical community psychology with an emphasis on rural, indigenous issues. He directs a program designed to bring more Alaska Natives into the field of psychology.

He's revising his first book, "Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino-/American Postcolonial Psychology," which was inspired by Duran and Duran. His second book, "Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups," due out in 2014, extends the pathology discussion to any over-powered minority, from ethnic communities to women to gays. The book's forward is written by Eduardo Duran.

What's next?

He sighs. "The one thing I've learned from doing all this research and trying to understand it as much as I can is really simple:

"I was not born feeling ashamed of myself. It's not in my DNA; it's something I learned later.

"If I can learn it, I can unlearn it."

David says he will continue to try, in a scientifically rigorous way, to prove that people can unlearn to hate themselves, and teach them how.

 

Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

 

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