Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month has me pondering the question of Pacific Islanders and where that group fits in the Asian-Pacific American coalition. I’ve wondered about it because I fear that by using that term, we too often tell a story about Pacific Islanders that contributes to their invisibility.
There’s a certain amount of invisiblizing, if you will forgive my grammar, that goes on when we use the term “Asian American.” After all, Asian Americans are a mash-up of 40 or so ethnic groups from nations often at odds with one another within a region of origin that only thinks of itself as “Asian” because of being cast as such by Europeans. But, Asians are regarded as a race by the Western world, and with very real consequences that can’t easily be addressed without acknowledging that reality.
When the term “Asian” is lumped together with “Pacific Islander,” though, we start mixing up politics, regions, and race in a way that is potentially damaging.
For instance, the people of Polynesia first became known to the Western world as “discoveries” and then as colonial subjects. Polynesians were regarded by the West as childlike, “primitive” peoples, and as savages. In order to take possession of independent nations like Tahiti and Hawai’i, the French and the U.S. toppled governments and installed colonial oligarchies justified in part by the racist and self-serving notion that Tahitians and Hawaiians were incapable of self-governance in the complex context of international trade and “development.”
These racist notions continue to prevail. Polynesians in the U.S. are profiled by law enforcement as lazy, prone to criminality, and lacking self-control. It’s no wonder Native Hawaiians are less than a quarter of the population of Hawai’i but more than 40 percent of those in prisons. Polynesians in general are overrepresented in prisons in the U.S. Meanwhile, Asian Americans, and East Asians in particular, are profiled as “model minorities,” and underrepresented in U.S. prisons.
Among the main issues of concern to Pacific Islanders is the high incidence of diabetes in parts of that population. Asian Americans tend to be more concerned with issues of refugee resettlement, immigration policy, language access, and bullying. For many Native Hawaiians, resisting assimilation and gaining political independence from the U.S. is a primary issue, while for many Asian immigrants, assimilation and citizenship are goals. But many of us continue to rely on a single story when talking about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
When we reduce the complex experiences of diverse people to a single, totalizing story, we too often fail to see how our diverse stories intersect.
The single story of my childhood in Hawaii was the story of the rise of Asian Americans. This story begins with the first successful farm worker strike in U.S. history in 1946, and it was shared with me in order to teach me that risk, hard work, sacrifice, and looking beyond differences among people to find common ground were keys to a better life.
My parents and grandparents lived in plantation housing, shopped at company-owned stores, and participated in sports leagues designed and sponsored by plantation bosses in order to foster competition between workers who they segregated into ethnic work camps. The plantations were the foundation of the economic and political system of territorial Hawaii, which was governed by a Republican oligarchy ruled by Hawai’i’s white minority.
But regardless of violence and manipulation of inter-ethnic resentment on the part of elites, sugar workers were able to create a class union that brought the oligarchy to its knees. By 1954, a coordinated campaign of general strikes, civil disobedience, and non-violent protests caused a minor revolution in Hawai’i politics. In the territorial elections of that year, the Democratic Party, a multi-ethnic, people of color and working class majority organization, finally overthrew the Republicans. Democrats have controlled the Hawai’i legislature ever since and led the way to statehood in 1959.
It’s a great story. Remembering it still gives me goose bumps. But we should always be suspicious of history told to us as a single story.
The story of Asian uplift in Hawai’i excludes Native Hawaiians. It doesn’t address the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian government, nor the landless and impoverished state of the Native Hawaiian people. As a result, it fails to acknowledge the fact that the strikes and statehood didn’t really break the power of white American elites in Hawai’i. They lost absolute power, but continue to be the deciders on the major questions of politics and the economy in Hawai’i in no small part because they own so much of the land.
Today, sugar has left Hawaii. But because the old elites still control trade and land, diversified agriculture hasn’t replaced sugar, leaving Hawaii too reliant on expensive imported food. Instead, tourism dominates the economy, producing mostly insecure and low wage service sector jobs.
The demographics of Hawai’i are changing. People of color, especially Native Hawaiians, are being forced to leave Hawai’i to seek employment on the U.S. mainland. As they leave, they are being replaced by wealthy whites and white retirees, causing Hawai’i politics to drift in a more conservative direction. Government employment, one of the vehicles people of color have ridden to middle-class status in Hawai’i, is shrinking. Tourism and development have created an ecological crisis in Hawai’i, with more species going extinct there everyday than in any other place on earth.
This is what we blind ourselves to when we understand history as a single story.