4 myths about Pacific Islanders BUSTED

By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly

The Pacific Islands

All too often, Pacific Islanders are made invisible in terms of social and political profiles. They are seen as inconsequential because of their small numbers.

Dr. J. Kehaulani Kauanui, associate professor of American studies and  anthropology at Wesleyan University, in a blog, wrote, “We need to uncouple ‘Asian’ and ‘Pacific’ in order to examine these concerns, especially in higher education, where the socio-economic profiles of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders are severely distorted due to the continued problematic lumping with Asian Americans.”

We aim to bust some stereotypes about Pacific Islanders and share some insights on what is actually true.

1. Myth: Asian and Pacific Islanders mean the same thing

Fact: This stereotype comes from the fact that for statistical reasons, Pacific Islanders are often lumped together with Asians under umbrella terms such as API (Asian Pacific Islander) or APA (Asian Pacific American), so many assume that the two groups are one and the same. However, this is problematic, as the two groups are very different culturally and ethnically. Since 2000, the United States Census Bureau has recognized this and has split the two groups apart, listing Asian and Pacific Islanders as two separate races on the Census form.

“Many agencies receive funding for Pacific Islander communities under their API title, but they do not serve Pacific Islanders or have a single Pacific Islander staff or board member in their organization,” said Loa Niumeitolu, community wellness advocate for Community Health for Asian Americans (CHAA), on CHAA’s website. CHAA is based in Oakland, which has a high Samoan population. “The API rubric does not allow Pacific Islanders to fully serve our communities’ needs because we do not have equal footing under this rubric. The Asian part of API is privileged over ‘PI,’ the Pacific Islander tag along at the end.”

2. Myth: Pacific Islanders are model minorities

Actually, rarely do people say Pacific Islanders are model minorities. Rather, they say some variation of “Asian Pacific Americans are model minorities.” However, on the issue of education, Pacific Islanders are being swallowed up by the Asian population.

According to information collected by the Pacific Islander Access project blog, the 2010 Census reports the percentage of Asians with an undergraduate degree at 50 percent. The portion of the U.S. population with an undergraduate degree is 28 percent. In striking contrast, the percentage of Pacific Islanders with an undergraduate degree is 15 percent (though in the latest Census numbers, it’s as low as 14 percent.).

“When I’m explaining the diploma gap between Pacific Islanders and Asians …  I explain that 15 percent is actually less than 1/3rd of 50 percent,” wrote Kawika Riley, CEO of the Pacific Islander Access project, in an e-mail, “because 15 goes into 50 three times with a remainder of five.  In other words, Pacific Islander higher educational attainment at the 4-year-degree level is over 300 percent lower than it is for Asians.”

“Yet, despite the sharp contrast between how Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are faring in terms of obtaining higher education, there are numerous studies misreporting that Pacific Islanders are doing better than whites in obtaining higher education, when that is far from the case, because of the lumping of Pacific people with Asians,” wrote Kauanui.

3. Myth: Filipinos are Pacific Islanders. No wait, they are Asian!

Fact: There is a lot of confusion over whether Filipino Americans are Pacific Islanders or Asian, depending on who you ask. Based on the Census’ definition of Pacific Islanders, they are “people having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Tonga, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands,” otherwise those of “Polynesian, Micronesian, and Melanesian cultural backgrounds.”

By that definition, Filipinos are not Pacific Islanders, but are Asian.

However, there are those who argue that the Philippines have more historical and genetic kinship with other Pacific Islanders than Asians and that Filipinos thus should be classified as Pacific Islanders.

It should be noted that the terms “Asian” and “Pacific Islander” are imperfect terms and are Western constructs. Historically, the ancient peoples of the Asian continent (Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Persians) did not see themselves as a collective group.

4. Myth: Pacific Islanders used to be violent savages, making them nowadays naturally adept at football

Fact: In popular culture, we most commonly see Pacific Islanders as large athletes, football players, or wrestlers. In Hollywood movies, we often see them treated as backdrops or props, usually as bare-breasted women in grass skirts and as large, savage men with warrior paint streak across their faces and holding spears.

In real life, for every football player, there are countless numbers of Pacific Islanders in other jobs.

Dr. Bob Frankle, former professor of anthropology at Kapi’olani Community College, told the Seattle P-I that Samoans are not bigger than any other ethnic group. “There is nothing to support that argument scientifically. … That’s just the public’s perception [based on] the football players they see. When you look at the populace as a whole, you don’t get that sense.”

“I find depictions of Polynesians as ‘naturally fit’ for football to be racist stereotypes that draw on a longer colonial history of misrepresentation not only of Polynesians, but also of other indigenous and negatively racialized peoples,” wrote Professor Ty Kāwika Tengan, from the University of Hawaii, in an e-mail to Northwest Asian Weekly last year.

Many Pacific Islander men report facing discrimination because they are assumed to be violent.

Last year, Pae Uti, a Samoan man in Anchorage, was the subject of a news story. He and many other Samoans were denied entrance into bars because of their ethnicity. Alaska has the third highest population of Pacific Islanders in the country, after Hawaii and Utah.

Also, it is an important part of many Pacific Islander cultures to be respectful of family, traditional cultures, and spiritual values. ♦

Constance Wong contributed to this story.

Stacy Nguyen can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

4 Responses to “4 myths about Pacific Islanders BUSTED”

  1. Filipino Perspective says:

    Michelle W : I disagree, I feel our culture is unlike Asia! We were conquered by Spain for over 500 years and I do agree, as with some other Filipinos, that we share more in common with the Pacific Islands. You are not filipino, so perhaps you should do as you say and not define cultural identity for other individuals.

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  3. Michelle W says:

    I’ve just read this article and must say that the majority of the article was on-point with the exception of this strand:

    By that definition, Filipinos are not Pacific Islanders, but are Asian.
    However, there are those who argue that the Philippines have more historical and genetic kinship with other Pacific Islanders than Asians and that Filipinos thus should be classified as Pacific Islanders.

    There is good reason they are defined as Asian. Pacific Islanders finally have a voice in determining who they are, and the Census Bureau actually took our voices, culture, language, and history into account – not letting another larger group define us. And Filipinos, while ethnically diverse like many former colonies, are without a doubt Asian. There is a cultural and ethnic gap there and it’s not debatable based on which ethnic group seems more fashionable. As a Micronesian – and you can argue the Western construct of Asians as well regarding international boundaries – it’s incredibly offensive that you would condone this brand of cultural hijacking. Micronesians, Melanesians, and Polynesians are groups that are not merely Western constructs, but are identified as such due to what you’ve stated to be “very different culturally and ethnically.” Pacific Islanders have an additional problem aside from becoming swallowed up by larger groups or ridiculous stereotypes: our culture is being treated like a fad. Filipinos are, indeed, Asian. The Philippines doesn’t even touch the Pacific Ocean. To the east of the country is the Philippine Sea, not the Pacific. So there we have basic geography covered. When it comes to migration patterns, Pacific Islander history is chopped up, but like Native Americans, we left the continent of Asia thousands of years ago. While other regions in Southeast Asia and the continent as a whole had far more international contact with one another, cultures, history, languages and the like evolved accordingly. And while many Asian groups have settled in various parts of Oceania, that doesn’t make them anymore indigenous to the Pacific than a European settling on Navajo land in the US. While many former colonized countries struggle to rediscover identity, calling oneself Pacific Islander without any factual grounds is not just absurd, it’s incredibly insulting. My culture, ethnicity is not a trendy scarf.

    In short, I did appreciate the majority of your article, but as someone who is a Pacific Islander who is very well aware of my own identity, you should think about defining someone else’s race for them when you have no authority to do so.


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