Dr. Kevin Nadal - Professor, Activist, Author
Dr. Kevin Nadal is a professor, activist, and author. A leading researcher in Filipino American mental health and on the study of microaggressions, Dr. Nadal focused his research, work, and writing on aspects that would have helped him growing up, to “normalize the experiences that I know were common for people with my shared identities.” He has written books, articles, and given lectures on subjects like Filipino American psychology, microaggressions in the LGBTQ community, and sexual orientation and identity. It’s about intersectionality and inclusivity, representing those who may not always be centered in the conversation. Dr. Nadal launched the #ThisIsWhatAProfessorLooksLike campaign, along with his friend and fellow professor Dr. Silvia Mazzula, to show that if others saw that actual professors looked and and loved like them, they too could pursue a career in higher education. His mentors, family, husband, chosen family, Pin@y professor friends have all ground him in love and uplifted him in his work, and so he does for his students.
Were you always interested in a career in higher education? And how did you choose this career?
I first became interested in higher education sometime during my second or third year of college. Up until that point, I had very few people of color as educators. While I had a Filipina immigrant nun as a 5th grade teacher and a Filipina American History teacher in high school, all of my teachers were pretty much White. When I started to take Ethnic Studies classes and finally had various people of color as professors, I started to imagine myself as one too. I was especially motivated because I had never had a Filipino American professor. So, I decided to become one.
I chose psychology as a field because I knew that there were so many aspects about Filipino American culture that may have influenced the ways that many of us think, behave, and feel, and how many Filipino Americans are able to deal with mental health issues. When I took an Asian American Psychology class at UC Irvine, I related to a lot of the material, but I also realized that there were many other Filipino experiences and nuances that were not covered. So, I decided to go to graduate school and make sure that Filipino Americans were represented too.
Who are some of your influences/role models/mentors while pursuing education?
I've been so fortunate to have many mentors, formal and informal, who have shaped me to the person I am today. First, there are the non-Filipino mentors who laid the foundation for me. Dr. Jeannett Castellanos, a Latina professor at UCI, changed my life forever. Before I met her, I never even knew what graduate school was. She introduced me to research, encouraged me to see my fullest potential, and guided me through every step of the graduate school process. Through my Masters program, I met Dr. Alfiee Breland, a Black woman professor, who pushed me to go into a doctoral program (which I never even considered before). She especially inspired me to give voice to my Filipino American community and she helped me to publish my first paper on Filipino American identity development in 2004. In my doctoral program at Columbia, I met Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a Chinese American male professor, who gave me the confidence to recognize that I could make a difference in the world. He founded the Asian American Psychological Association (which I became president of 40 years later) and he is credited as being one of the founders of Multicultural Psychology. He showed me how to pave paths and create space when there weren't any paths or spaces for us. For all three of these individuals, I am forever grateful.
Within the Filipino American community, I never had any direct mentors in academia- primarily because there were not any at the institutions I attended. However, I admired many people from afar. Every publication I had seen written by a pin@y author helped me to realize that I could do it too. I've been fortunate to be able to tell pretty much all of those people how much their work had influenced me. These include: Fred & Dorothy Cordova, Maria Root, Roy Morales, Leny Strobel, Linda Revilla, Alvin Alvarez, Noel Alumit, Martin Manalansan, and Rick Bonus. Through their work, in retrospect, I realize that visibility and representation can go a long way.
What are your areas of research and research interests? What drew you towards research on microaggressions, Filipino American psychology, and LGBTQ issues?
When I started grad school, I began to study all of the things that I felt were missing from the literature. At the time, there was very little on Fliipino American mental health and LGBTQ communities of color, which compelled me to write about them. I felt compelled to write about the things that would've been helpful when I was growing up.
I also wanted to normalize the experiences that I know were common for people with my shared identities. When we allow dominant groups to be in control of our narratives, their experiences are centered and we are all expected to conform to them. For example, I am exhausted with White gay men getting to control the LGBTQ narrative and deciding what is considered to LGBTQ culture. All the LGBTQ books, magazines, and movies in the 1990s all centered on White men's coming out experiences - none that I ever really related to. But what about the rest of us? Black and brown queer and trans people have existed since the dawn of time and we have navigated our sexualities and genders in ways that don't require us to have these rigid coming out storylines. We also come with lots of historical and cultural baggage that make it difficult to come out in ways that are deemed normal by White gay standards. So, I began to study and write about LGBTQ people of color as a way to disspell the myths of what are "normal" LGBTQ experiences. I also founded the LGBTQ Scholars of Color Network to provide a safe space for queer and trans people of color to feel seen and validated.
In terms of microaggressions, I became first interested in the concept through my mentor Dr. Derald Sue in 2003 or 2004. I immediately loved the concept because it pretty much explained most of my experiences with discrimination. While I had encountered some overt instances of racial discrimination throughout my life (e.g., being followed around in a store, being pulled over by police officers for no reason, hearing many racial slurs), most of the discriminatory experiences I had felt were more subtle or nuanced. For example, I am still regularly asked by strangers what my ethnicity is, and I am regularly presumed to be a waiter or retail clerk or student (instead of professor). Similarly, while I had encountered lots of overt homophobic discrimination (e.g., being bullied, being harassed, or physically threatened because of my gay identity), I had also faced a lot of more covert heterosexist bias (e.g., people asking if I have a wife and kids, or someone showing discomfort when they realized my queerness).
Microaggressions eventually became a huge part of my research program because I was able to see how much people related to the concept and how validating it was to people's lived experiences. The more that the naysayers and haters tried to dismiss or gaslight us into thinking that microaggressions were not real or did not exist, made me want to study and research the concept even more. And the more that we research, the more empirical evidence we have of their existence and impact on people's lives. It is so humbling to see how far microaggression scholarship has come in just 15 years. With hundreds of scientific studies and thousands of media articles that have emerged, one of the biggest surprises for me was when Merriam-Webster added "microaggressions" to their dictionary in 2017. And now, it's a term you can hear everyday on the news or even on sitcoms like Blackish and Modern Family.
Do you have any articles/books that you recommend those interested in learning more about Filipino American history?
Everyone needs to read Carlos Bulosan's America is in the Heart. Fred Cordova's Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans; Dawn Mabalon's Little Manila is in the Heart, and EJ David's Brown Skin, White Minds. I also recommend the Filipinos in America series by Arcadia books; they are beautiful historical photo collections of Filipino Americans in various communities across the US. Also, while this isn't an article or a book, Ruby Ibarra's Circa 91 is destined to be remembered as one of the greatest Filipino American albums of all time. Finally, today, I received my copy of Dawn Mabalon and Gayle Romasanta's Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong. I haven't read it yet, but I imagine that I will be reading it regularly at family story time from now on.
What do you love about the work that you do?
I love being in a field where I'm always learning and where someone always has something to contribute. Some of the greatest lessons I've learned have been from students in class who shared compelling thoughts that I hadn't considered before. I also love being in a field where you are regularly in a position to help someone achieve their goals. Every time a former student tells me that they received their Ph.D. or every dissertation defense where I get to call someone "Doctor" for the very first time, I feel this immense pride and joy. When that newly minted doctorate is a person of color, I feel even more joy in knowing that they represent their families and communities. These schools and institutions were not made for us; so, when one of us makes it through, it is not just a personal victory, but a victory for every single person of color that came before us.
What/who has been instrumental in your personal and professional growth?
I would not be where I am without my parents. They grew up in poverty and came to the US with two suitcases and their dreams. They sacrificed so much to give me the things that they didn't have. They showed up to every piano recital, basketball game, student government speech, and award ceremony. In retrospect, the little things that they did taught me that I could accomplish my dreams. They may not have said "I love you" all the time, but they definitely showed it.
My husband and my chosen family inspire me greatly too. They keep me in check. They help me fight my internalized oppression and impostor phenomenon. They hold me tight when I feel defeated, and they celebrate me when I'm on top of the world. They always have my back and are ready to fight for me at any given moment (as I am for them).
My pin@y professor friends (e.g., Dawn Mabalon, EJ David, Dina Maramba, Allyson Tintiango-Cubales, Marc Johnston-Guerrero, Emily Lawsin, Ernabel Demillo, Judy Patacsil, Patricia Halagao, Tracy Buenavista, Rudy Guevara, Janet Stickmon, Robyn Rodriguez, and Anthony Ocampo, to name a few) inspire me in a way they may not ever fully understand. We belong to such a small club, and that becomes such a bond that is indescribable. To know that we all had to overcome invisibility in our various fields and disciplines to tell the stories of our people is both humbling and empowering. To know that we'd all overcome our unique grueling experiences with doctoral programs, tenure, and promotion, and that we continue to be the lone Filipino Americans in our fields, is both validating and sad. I really hope that more people join the club soon.
How has your community uplifted you?
My communities ground me. It is so easy for a professor to stay in the ivory towers and to not interact with their communities. It is very easy or a professor to present their work at academic conferences, without once stepping foot in community spaces. I thank the late, great Dr. Dawn Mabalon for modeling this for me. She showed me that it is just as important to publish a groundbreaking paper, as it is to be an officer for a community-based organization. She taught me that it is just as important to deliver a keynote to your academic peers, as it is to participate in an adobo making contest.
What would you describe as your mission?
To fight for justice, every single day. And to sing karaoke as much as possible.
Photos courtesy of Dr. Kevin Nadal