S.H: Project IGNITE: Michael Tuncap and the Unsung Legacy of the Pacific Islander

Decades in America still left Michael Tuncap, Director of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion at Green River Community College and Pacific Islander, feeling like an illegal alien. As part of a race that is repeatedly underrepresented in academia, politics, the media, and society in general, he brings the courage and pride of being who you are, the genuine article, to center stage during Project IGNITE.

UWT’s Filipino American Student Association and Asian Pacific Islander Student Union’s Project IGNITE commenced at 6:30 pm on Nov. 20, 2013 in William Phillip Hall. Guest speaker Michael Tuncap Ph.D.C, Director of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion at Green River Community College, began the event with a 3,000 year old chant. Crouched in the back of the room, his haunting voice was the only sound in the otherwise silent room. He slowly moved his way forward, rejecting the conventions of western culture by not immediately approaching the podium, but circling around to the front row of seats to address attendees face to face, welcoming all in his native tongue. He climbed on top of a chair, speaking out to those gathered below, demonstrating power and the courage to be different.

Project IGNITE  is intended to spread awareness of relief efforts in the Philippines after Super Typhoon Haiyan. Tuncap spoke specifically of the everyday hardships Pacific Islanders face in western communities. Part of Project IGNITE is the Never Forgotten program which is meant to commemorate lives lost in natural disasters, but Tuncap questioned, “How can someone be forgotten if their story is never told to begin with?” The history, legacy, and the everyday standing of Pacific Islanders in America are largely underrepresented or untold entirely.

Leaving the island of Guam in 1986 when his family relocated to Washington, introducing Tuncap to a brand new world, the world of the minority. From first to twelfth grade, he never once had a Filipino teacher, principal, coach, or guidance counselor, making him feel like society was telling him and his fellow Pacific Islanders there was something wrong with them. They looked different, spoke different, and believed different things than the majority of mainstream America, and in the U.S. different is equated to lesser.

To demonstrate discriminatory tendencies, Tuncap had the room run a social experiment called the Boat Game which basically asks participants to save only seven out of ten people from a hypothetical tsunami, essentially condemning three to die in the wave. The choices of bus driver, drug user, custodian, accountant, ex-convict, dental assistant, engineer, car salesman, HIV patient, and gangster seem like awfully superficial gauges of survivor worthiness, but it is exactly this superficiality which perfectly demonstrates the ideas of color blindness and race consciousness. The overwhelming majority of people voted the ex-convict, drug user, and gangster off the boat which perfectly made Tuncap’s point about how those who physically fit those classifications may not always embody the characteristics of those definitions.

Tuncap chokes on emotion when recalling his mother filling out his college application, doubting his own ability and opportunity too much to do it himself, but he was accepted, and throughout his academic experience, he has found that “When they put native brothers like us in schools like this, we transform them.” Tuncap has since excelled throughout academia and his professional career. In 2009 he spoke at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, bringing the environmental devastation of Guam brought on by United States colonization to light for the international community.

White privilege can blind the supposed “majority” which, in reality, is hardly a majority anymore, to the hardships and challenges of everyone else. Where do Pacific Islanders fit in the race conversation? They are not Black, they are not White, they are not Latino; according to Tuncap, it took 150 years just to get a survey category for Pacific Islander and “other” for the U.S. Census Bureau. He warns that in the words of Malcolm X, “We have been bamboozled. We are playing ourselves and every day we are getting played” by the media and society. Tuncap ended his presentation with a call to ignite the passion inside each and every soul, not to let the discussion end there, but asking everyone to use their education to raise the standing of Pacific Islanders in America and across the globe, “After the vigil is done, the real work begins.”

Michael Tuncap meditates before beginning his chant to begin his presentation. Photo by Chelsea Vitone.

Michael Tuncap meditates before beginning his chant to begin his presentation. Photo by Chelsea Vitone.

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