In the wake of the NI’IHAU casting controversy (where white actor Zach McGowan was cast as native Hawaiian Ben Kanahele), Conrad Lihlihi wrote a piece for our friends at Reappropriate about another issue this controversy raises: “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?”:
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.
To read the rest of the article, go to Reappropriate: Dear Asian Americans: Stop Erasing Pacific Islanders