Dear Asian Americans: Stop Erasing Pacific Islanders

From left to right: Ben Kanahele, Jason Momoa, Dwayne Johnson, Cliff Curtis, and Taika Waititi.

By Guest Contributor: Conrad Lihlihi (@clihilihi)

Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, entertainment news outlets reported that film project “Ni’ihau” was in pre-production and had cast actor Zach McGowan (Black Sails) in the lead role of Ben Kanahele, a Native Hawaiian man who featured centrally in the historic so-called ‘Ni’ihau Incident’. That announcement sparked accusations of white-washing and historical inaccuracies from online commentators.

In terms of the film production of “Ni’ihau” itself, there’s not much I could say that hasn’t already been said. Business-wise, I don’t see any support for this film from any communities (outside of hard core Zach McGowan fans). At this point, it seems almost certain that this project will fail.

However, news of the “Ni’ihau” film project re-raised a particular issue dealing with Asians and Pacific Islanders that I feel should be talked about. Specifically, does the term “Asian Pacific Islander” contribute towards a tendency for many Asians to claim Pacific Islanders as part of the same monolithic racial community, and thereby unknowingly erase the Polynesian narrative?

As far as umbrella terms go, Pacific Islander is probably as generic as you can get; it’s kind of like calling a person “white”. Under the Pacific Islander umbrella, there are many groups, including Filipinos, which deserve their own conversation about culture identity. However, the three main groups I am referring to who are unknowingly receiving an “Asian Pacific Islander” label are Polynesians, Melanesians, and Micronesians. Micronesia includes the Federated States of  Micronesia (FSM), along with Guam, CNMI, Republic of Marshall Islands, etc. Under Melanesia are folks from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, etc. Then, in Polynesia are folks from Hawai’i, Samoa, Tonga, etc. Travel to any of these places and you’ll find there is absolutely nothing Asian about them.

With that said, I’ll speak about growing up in the Polynesian community (which includes notable members Jason Momoa and Dwayne Johnson). The boundary of Polynesia is the Polynesian Triangle — and that’s it. Polynesia’s borders don’t cross into Asia, nor does it include the Philippines (which itself endures a fraught conversation over identity as either Asian and/or PI).

Many Pacific Islanders grow up with an incredibly strong sense of community identity for their Pacific Islander identity. Even more so is our strong sense of ethnic pride as Hawaiians, Samoans, Tongans, etc. The point is that we know who we are culturally. We don’t experience any confusion about our place in the world.

And yet, for some reason, outside of our Pacific Islander communities, the Asian community is the first ones to swoop in and claim us as part of some “Asian Pacific Islander” umbrella term.

I’ve never heard any other ethnic group name Polynesians, Micronesians, and Melanesians as part of a larger “Asian Pacific Islanders” identifier. I’m genuinely curious as to where this came from. Are Asian Americans trying to thrust a confusion about their identity onto Polynesians and other Pacific Islanders? Are Pacific Islanders being lumped in with Asian Americans because the countries of our heritage are geographically near to each other?

Regardless, many Polynesians are taken aback when we see our culture being negated by Asians and Asian Americans who not only are given cultural credit, but who – more upsettingly — actively take it from us. For instance, I’ve come across Reddit threads that have complained about Disney’s Moana as “a good thing for Asian Pacific Islander women at the expense of Asian Pacific Islander men”, which carelessly lumps the issues of Asians and Pacific Islanders together. Other stories have listed the upcoming “Ni’ihau” film as just another example of Asian roles being Whitewashed by Hollywood. Here’s another example: people regularly use the term “Hapa” for anyone who is mixed Asian, even though it is a Hawaiian word that originally referred to people who were mixed with Native Hawaiian; but I get that language evolves.

Quite simply: Polynesian does not equal Asian. Pacific Islander does not equal Asian. While there are some people who are mixed race Asian and Pacific Islander and who might claim the title of “Asian Pacific Islander”, for the most part if people are talking about Polynesians, Melanesians and Micronesians, we owe it to them to be precise about who they are. Jason Momoa, Dwayne Johnson, Taika Waititi, Cliff Curtis and Ben Kanahele are not Asians. They are not “Asian Pacific Islanders”. They are Pacific Islanders. Period.

Of course, I support unity between Asians and Pacific Islanders for logistical reasons. I’m all for fighting together and building a community as people of color. But when it comes to cultural issues, conflating Asian culture and community with that of Polynesians and other Pacific Islanders – as if we are all one – is inaccurate and confusing. As it stands, people already know very little about Polynesian culture. Latching Poly culture to that of Asians – particularly when both are so beautifully different — erases and dismisses all the Polynesians, Melanesians, and Micronesians fighting to express our unique voices and histories.

We are Hawaiian. Kanaka Maoli. Polynesian. Pacific Islanders. We are descended from a long line of warriors, farmers, healers, navigators, storytellers. Our history is lush. We conquered the South Pacific for over 1500 years. We had a ruling monarchy that pushed Hawai’i to becoming one of the most literate populations per capita in the world. Our palace had electricity even before the White House. In 1893, our last monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, was held hostage at gunpoint during a coup involving US ambassadors, businessmen, and military, and she was forced to sign over Hawai’i to the United States to avoid bloodshed. That’s one of the many, many stories of the South Pacific that has nothing to do with Asian culture.

Since Hawai’i was taken from our people (and since even before then), we have been fighting for our voice and for fair and proper representation. Efforts to erase this history and this struggle – often efforts thoughtlessly championed by Asians – don’t help; indeed, they compound the hurt.

Asians have had their stories out there for decades. Asian and Asian American storytellers are already fighting for representation. By comparison, it feels like Polynesians are being rewritten and reclaimed – often by our own Asian so-called “allies” — before we’ve even had a chance to introduce ourselves.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified the Federated States of Micronesia, which is a part of Micronesia not another name for it. We regret the error. This post has also been updated to clarify its discussion of the Filipino community.

Conrad Lihilihi

Conrad Lihilihi is a Native Hawaiian filmmaker with a BA in Ethnic Identities in Film from the University of Washington. Conrad’s work can be found at ConradLihilihi.com.

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  • Cass

    LOL! If anyone’s racist, self-loathing and ignorant, it’s you. You hate being classified as Asian, don’t you? That would probably explain why you’re so desperate to be called PI. Oh, and for the record, Asians do claim us. If anything, PI’s don’t claim you. Oh, sweet irony…

  • Mele

    No. I think NZ census is pretty good at listing as many different ethnicities as it can, so Koreans, Chinese etc have their own categories just as Pacific Islanders can identify themselves individually as well, as Samoan, Tongan etc. We aren’t into grouping together people as much as America is I think

  • Cass

    That’s pretty cool! So going from the other comment you made, I take it you’re Maori? That’s awesome! I’m part Native Hawaiian, and it was sooo interesting seeing some of your culture while I grew up in Hawaii! (The haka is the most badass thing ever, okay?) ^^

  • Mele

    No. Most islanders would guess that I am Tongan ( the name Mele is like Kealoha in Hawai’i? Lol.). I have grown up going to visit family in Hawai’i and noticed how Native Hawai’ian culture seems to be struggling not only to gain back what they had lost from colonisation but I also felt that they had even more difficulty doing so because of the strong Asian influence in Hawai’i. Yeah we in NZ are proud to be a Maori Country.
    We also have a strong sense of our identity as a island in the Pacific, so what we observe as a identity crises of islanders (especially this whole Asian-Pacific Islander thing you guys have going on in the States) irks us

  • Brandon M Baroman

    Bwahahahaah ?????? you are so completely clueless. You don’t even know “ta’e” is among hundreds of Austronesian cognates that we share with our Pacific Islander/Austronesian sisters and brother’s languages. Oh..Poor ignorant souls. Go to china and spout your nonsense. They will spit in your face and laugh. Here’s one for ya https://youtu.be/LnaYEQVSAS0

  • Cass

    Bwahahahaah ?????? Oh, boohoo, the Chinese don’t like us! Big fucking deal. That doesn’t change the fact that we’re STILL Asian. (Mind you, I actually AM part Chinese as well, so your argument is invalid LMAO!) Does that mean that all the other Asians that Chinese people dislike don’t count as Asian, too? That’s some solid logic there, na?auao!

  • Turoturo

    Americans labeled Filipinos as pacific Islanders
    when they took hold of the philippines after the
    spanish american war.

    southern philippines 1930

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/johntewell/5049770551/in/album-72157625015794616/

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/johntewell/8920522533/in/album-72157625015794616

  • Hi I’m brown

    Boy u better stop it. And start claiming your ancestors!!! I know it’s hard for u half asses but sit yo ass down somewhere!!!

  • Hi I’m brown

    Filipinos are on a island!!! So yes they were one of the first Asian Pacific Islanders!!! And so is Taiwan I don’t get why are you idiots are arguing we’re all pacific islanders yeah !!!

  • Hi I’m brown

    Actually only 20% of Polynesian DNA is a mixture of south east Asia and Papa New Guinea!!! The other 80% archaeologist still don’t know just like everybody else don’t know including me and you!!! Maybe were aliens!!!!!!

  • Hi I’m brown

    Excuse my brother he’s a half “Cass Hawaiian” so he’s a bit confused but it’s OK he’s not speaking for all of us!!!!!

  • Hi I’m brown

    Polynesian!!! No. Pacific Islander!!! Duh u dip shit!!! They’re asians on a pacific island called Filipino’s which are Asian Pacific Islanders!!

  • Sefaorah

    -sigh- For crying out loud. Filipinos belongs to Southeast Asian group. We are mixed race of Polynesians, Asians, Native American (Aztecs or Mayans during Spanish Era from Mexico) and small percentage of South Asians, Spanish and middle east (Islamic invasion before the Spanish Era). That’s why we look a bit different from our neighbouring far east Asians, our brothers from Malaysia and Indonesia, and Pacifikas. Our culture and our names was heavily Hispanic influenced, Over-all we are ASIAN looking people and of course we have our very native culture. For christ sake, even Filipinos from the Philippines never knew the idea of Pacifikas except Hawaii. So stop claiming that we are PIs as it is obviously we looked more Asians (60% majority) than any other race. -__- My Goodness!!

  • Sefaorah

    Tell your American masters to stop calling us Pacific Islanders. It is your master’s education messed up our race. We are Asians and as far as I know, most Filipinos in the Philippines never claim themselves as PI’s so admit it, they are South East Asians just like Malaysia and Indonesia which they look more similar than the PI’s.

  • imam obama

    Native Taiwanese, like the aboriginal tribes, yes, they would be Pacific Islanders, but not the ethnic Chinese that colonized it.

  • imam obama

    Pacific Islanders and Asians are separate classifications and should be treated as such. The difference is Pacific Islanders have some negroid/melanoid phenotype that Asians don’t have (and don’t want to have, but we can talk about East Asian racism another time). If you ask any East Asians if they consider Dwayne Johnson, Troy Polamalu, or any other PI celebrity if they are Asian, they would not have an answer.

  • Team Mirage

    no.. filipino american stated this bullshit. they lost their culture and thats why they are confuse. when you ask a filipino living in the philippines, he will thell he is asain, south east asain to be exact.

  • Team Mirage

    noone in the philippines want to be pacific islander. and noone know about you. are you kidding me?

  • Team Mirage

    this motherfucker insisting filipinos are PI. you fucking filipino americans lost your sense of culture and identity..