The racial classification of Pacific Islanders has long eluded the minds of governments, the general public and, at times, the Pacific Islander community itself. European explorers found the Indigenous people of the Pacific an enigma defying categorization, though the lasting terms of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia stem from French explorer Jules Dumont D’urville’s observation. He had named these groups within a framework of hierarchical racialization, privileging the lighter skin of Polynesians.
University of Utah professor Maile Arvin’s “Possessing Polynesians” is the keystone body of research regarding the racialization of Polynesians in proximity to whites, in which race scientists positioned them as a branch of the Caucasian race, ripe for rehabilitation to a state of civilization. Other racial science posited Pacific Islander origins as being of either Malay or “Mongoloid” inflections, or both. In the middle of the 20th century, Thor Heyerdahl proposed a Polynesian homeland in Peru, where a mythical race of light-complexioned, bearded people fled a civil war and drifted out to the Pacific in rafts.
These designations stemmed from a desire to document and categorize these places and the people living on them, so as to order the world in such a way that maintained racial hierarchies. The Indigenous people of the Pacific bore a passing similarity to the so-called Asians of China, Japan, and other places Europeans had consistent contact with, but they were distinguished from Asians very intentionally. Today, Pacific Islanders are often grouped in with Asians in an amalgamated term, either AAPI, APA, API or any number of other variations. This May marks the 39th celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the United States.
At any rate, such classifications were devoid of input from the people who inhabited the Pacific themselves. To adapt to these impositions of racialization, Pacific Islanders have since appropriated these terms to describe a shared experience, history and culture. The term “Pacific Islander” officially refers to the aboriginal inhabitants of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, a cultural region stretching from Hawai’i and Rapa Nui in the east, the Marianas, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in the west, and Aotearoa in the south, including all the island groups within those bounds. While it is an imperfect term, Pacific Islanders have crafted meaningful platforms for solidarity and collective action and identity based on it.
In the United States, the term Pacific Islander has taken up a particular space for representation in regards to the census. For the majority of United States history, the census lacked a category to describe Pacific Islanders, but the 1960 census reflected an important political shift. Hawai’i statehood led to the absorption of a significant Hawaiian population, resulting in boxes for “Hawaiian” and “Part-Hawaiian”. The 1970 census collapsed the two into a singular “Hawaiian” category. The 1980 census added “Guamanian” and “Samoan.” 1990 marked the first nationwide usage of the term “Asian or Pacific Islander” (API) in the census, collapsing what were previously two distinct racial categories into one. A wave of Hawaiian activism prompted the separation of Asian and Pacific Islander, which resulted in the category of Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander (NHPI), which has continued since.
Why the call for separation? Scholars like J. Kēhaulani Kauanui and Lisa Hall have made pointed arguments against the aggregation of Asian and Pacific Islander data due to the disparity of historical experiences, cultural identifiers, healthcare outcomes, academic outcomes and average median income. They felt that the term API obscured the specific nuances of Pacific Islander identity and led to an resulting modality of either erasure or tokenization.
Activists removed “API” from the census, but despite the short lived history of the term, the damage had already been done. Today hundreds of organizations, community centers, datasets, and more continue to group Asians and Pacific Islanders together. The month of May is one of the most visible examples of this due to its designation in the United States as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM). All throughout the United States, organizations declare their celebrations for APAHM, media outlets proudly present data on “APAs”, “APA” book lists are compiled, and whole calendars of events are posted, all without Pacific Islander representation whatsoever.
Not even Stanford is immune to the tendency to obfuscate Pacific Islanders into a haze of “API.” A communication from Offices of the President and the Provost heralded the beginning of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It included specific examples of Stanford’s relationship to Asian and Asian Americans, but makes no explicit reference towards Pacific Islanders. The struggles and contributions of Pacific Islanders at the university are completely unmentioned.
The invisibility of Pacific Islanders at Stanford manifests not only in university-wide emails, but in other places as well. Despite the Bay Area being a notable hub for Pacific Islanders, they make up less than one percent of the student body, and zero of the full-time tenured faculty. But the use of terms like API, APA and AAPI struggles to be a pragmatic discursive tool for representing these realities. For example, if one wanted to display the number of Asian/Pacific Islander professors, the number would be more than 400, but there would be 0 Pacific Islanders included within that.
Additionally, despite programs that utilize the Pacific Islands as laboratories for research, the typical Stanford curriculum is sorely lacking in adequate and meaningful engagement with Pacific Island culture, history, or communities. Further, the one Pacific language program, Hawaiian, is shouldered completely by a single instructor, Kauʻi Peralto, due to funding for TAs being cut for “special languages.”
In 1989, the Native Hawaiian students at Stanford successfully petitioned to be included within the Native community at Stanford, where the Pacific Islander community is represented to this day by the NACC, Muwekma and Native American Studies. The shared political struggle of decolonization is an inherently meaningful way for Pacific Islanders to both assert their own indigeneity and work in solidarity with Native students from North America. This demonstration of agency to declare their identity is paramount to understanding how to meet the Pacific Islander community on their own terms.
In the midst of APAHM, the terms Asian Pacific Islander, Asian Pacific American and other like terms that seek to amalgamate the two groups deserve a re-evaluation to enhance the ways that we understand communities both on and off campus. It cannot serve as a meaningful and cohesive category for Pacific Islanders who are marginalized, erased and obscured by its usage.
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