For Pacific Islanders, the AAPI label can sideline their heritage

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When Teyonna Jarman was growing up, the month of May was marked by dance troupe performances celebrating Asian and Peace-loving heritages.

Both of her parents were in the U.S. military and she performed those programs all over Europe and then in the United States for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, she said.

But it wasn’t until Jarman moved back to California at age 10, she said, that she really realized she was considered a “Pacific Islander” – and that in the United States, other people would consider her Asian. Jarman’s father is black American and his mother is from American Samoa, the US territory encompassing seven South Pacific islands and atolls located 2,200 miles southwest of Hawaii.

For Jarman, now 25 and living in Las Vegas, the word “Asian” is associated with many stereotypes and often refers to people of Chinese, Japanese or Korean descent. Although she shares cultural similarities with some Asians – her mother shops in Asian markets and the rice they eat at home is short-grained and sticky – it’s still not the same as her own. Samoan identity, let alone the multitude of different Pacific island communities. grouped under the large umbrella group AAPI, she said.

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“There’s not even a whole lot of room in there to explore all the other types of Asians tucked in there,” Jarman said. “Then in a different subset you have Pacific Islander as a band that most people don’t know about either – there are so many islands and so many different bands.”

Jarman wants more Americans to take the time to learn about the different cultures of the Pacific Islands. She was thrilled to see Tenelle, a 17-year-old from American Samoa, make it to the finals of the “American Song Contest.” Maybe, she said, people will start to broaden their thinking about Samoan beyond Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is Samoan and Black American.

According to the 2020 census, about 1.6 million people identify as Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders alone or in combination, and about 24 million people identify as Asian alone or in combination.

The Census Bureau began separating these two groups into separate racial categories in 1997, five years after Congress designated the month of May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPIHM). This AAPI label encompasses over 50 ethnic groups with lineages from over 40 countries – meaning that a diverse group including East Asians, South Asians and Pacific Islanders can sometimes be treated as a monolith. clumsy.

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Indeed, some who identify as native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders — like Jarman — say they feel the mainstream narratives around AAPIHM often leave their stories out.

Sefa Aina, former presidential commissioner of the White House AAPI Initiative and associate dean and director of the Draper Center at Pomona College, sees the label as a double-edged sword. There is useful visibility in being part of a pan-ethnic group, he said. But some stereotypes about Asian Americans, particularly the myth of being the model minority, can mask real concerns within the Pacific Islander community.

“We have a high dropout rate. We have a low university enrollment rate. Our number one health issue is obesity,” Aina said, citing issues that particularly plague the Pacific Islander community.

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For Katie Moussouris, 47, growing up in Boston in the 1980s meant expending “a lot of energy” explaining her heritage. “Being half-indigenous to the Pacific Islands has always been something that I had to take a deep breath to be able to explain to people,” she said.

His mother was Chamorro, of Rota, the southernmost of the American Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Her father was an immigrant from Greece, but Moussouris said she remembers answering other questions about her mother’s heritage when she was growing up: “Did they live in wooden shacks? grass ?” “Did your mother wear a coconut bra?” »

Moussouris remembers her mother telling her it would be easier to tell the other kids she was Hawaiian — thinking other students would at least recognize those islands.

“The saddest thing about it is that even as Pacific Islanders, we felt like we had to reduce our identity to a larger identity,” Missouris said. “Yes, we are Americans. Yes, my mother was American, even before arriving on the continent.

Even now, Moussouris said, she has to do a math on how much she explains where her family is from: “Do I care enough about the person I’m talking to that I want to invest the time that I’m talking to? “it takes to explain my rich cultural heritage? Or do I just want to be like, ‘Yeah, I grew up in Boston?’ ”

Karalee Mahealani Vaughn, co-chair of Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, an organization that advocates for Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, believes the grouping of Pacific Islanders with Asian Americans is ultimately harmful.

“The ‘PI’ must be seen as its own racial category so that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are seen and heard,” she said. “Pacific Islanders need disaggregated data to continue advocating for culturally appropriate services and programs tailored to the specific challenges our community faces. »

She noted that even the Pacific Island community is not itself monolithic and spans multiple ethnicities – Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian.

“We come from thriving and sustainable communities, we are the indigenous groups of the Pacific and we have a vast and rich history before contact and colonization,” she said. “We no longer want to be categorized as an asterisk or told that we are not important enough to be recognized and identified.”

For Jarman, one way to connect with his heritage has been through ink: In Samoa, tattoos are traditionally used to mark milestones. When she was 16, she got her first tattoo – a band of intricate tribal designs on her upper arm – in a bid to look more Samoan, she said.

After she graduated from Stanford University and started working, she wanted to celebrate her move on her own. So she did a more traditional tattoo just above her knee. Her mother and at least one of her sisters accompanied her each time – tattooing in Samoan culture is “a communal thing”, she said, and her family kept her company for hours.

The various symbols – triangles symbolizing arrowheads, elements representing mountains or water – “have been tattooed on Samoans for centuries”, she said.

For her, they are a crucial way to proudly represent her cultural identity: “Parts of a tattoo tell a story; you read the tattoo to understand the story you are telling.


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