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Possessions of Whiteness: Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness in the Pacific

June 2, 2014

by Maile Arvin

I confess: I avoided watching the 2011 Oscar award-winning movie The Descendants (directed by the acclaimed Alexander Payne of Sideways and Nebraska, starring George Clooney) for a long time. I had read the book of the same name, by Kaui Hart Hemmings, on which the movie is based. I have complicated feelings about the book—a witty and often wrenching portrayal of a rich Native Hawaiian family that doesn’t seem to feel, look, or know much about being Native Hawaiian. Though I recognize such struggles, about feeling or being disconnected from your own culture and nation, as a very Native story (or perhaps, more precisely, as the story of settler colonialism), I don’t recognize the ending of Hemmings’ story. After much turmoil, the protagonist of her novel decides not to sell the land he has inherited from his family. It is hard to connect with the rich protagonists of Hemmings’ novel because I don’t know any Native Hawaiians who have land to be inherited. I don’t know any Native Hawaiians who frequent yacht clubs. And I don’t know any Native Hawaiians who seem so completely unaware of the truly amazing achievements of recent cultural revitalization efforts in the Native Hawaiian community—from language revitalization to traditional seafaring (our beloved Hōkūleʻa has set sail on a round-the-world voyage this past week). But, to each her own, I thought.

When I did finally watch the movie, despite the fact that I knew the story, despite the fact that I spend most of my time writing, researching and thinking about whiteness and settler colonialism in the Pacific, and despite the fact that I attended (for a time) the very same, very white-dominated private high school in Honolulu that Hemmings (and, incidentally, President Obama) attended, I was stunned. In the film, the residents of Hawaiʻi are shown to be, almost entirely, white people. Where the Hawaiʻi of the novel I have glimpsed from a distance, the Hawaiʻi of the film is utterly unrecognizable to me. Asian Americans, who make up at least 40% of Hawaiʻi’s population, are barely represented, much less Native Hawaiians. Hemmings herself has a cameo as the lead’s assistant and there are a few Hawaiian musicians in another scene. George Clooney is one of the film’s most “ethnic” looking characters and, as the lead role, he plays the scion of a poorly fictionalized royal Hawaiian lineage. It must be said: Native Hawaiians look a lot of different ways, but in no way does George Clooney adequately represent us. My concern here is less about authenticity, as I think many of us must suspend disbelief during Hollywood movies if we are to endure them at all. A more representative cast would not fix the problems of the movie. No matter who was cast in the lead role, a viewer could still easily come away from the film with the sense that the main problems facing Native Hawaiians today are (a) being cuckolded and (b) negotiating real estate deals. I am more concerned about questioning the genealogy and the effects produced by the representation of Hawaiʻi as chiefly a place of white people, some of whom have Native heritage that they find alternately puzzling, romantic, and lucrative. What allows a movie (with the apparent consent of a Native Hawaiian author) to portray Hawaiʻi as so blindingly white, in both cast and storyline?

There is a long history – in scientific and popular representations – of understanding the Polynesian race (of which Native Hawaiians are understood to be a part) as ancestrally and biologically white. With Western “exploration” and colonization of the Pacific, Oceania was divided into three ethnologically derived areas: Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. As constructed by European and American imperialists, Polynesia signified the islands where the natives often appeared to be “almost white.” Ethnologists, physical anthropologists, and sociologists from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century deployed various methodologies to prove that Polynesians had branched off close to the “Aryan stem,” and were thus closely akin to Caucasians. White settlers saw Polynesians as ‘friendly people’ with whom they could live safely and securely with. In contrast, Melanesians were written about as decidedly more savage and hostile; as “black.” The word Melanesia is derived from “melas,” meaning black in Greek (whereas “Poly” and “Micro” are geographic distinctions: Polynesia, the area of many islands, Micronesia, the area of small islands). Micronesia was somewhere in the middle and could swing either way, racially—sometimes it was seen as related to Polynesia, and other times it was more akin to Melanesia.

These imposed Western divisions are certainly porous in the lives of Pacific Islander communities. Peoples from across the areas deemed Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia have long made meaningful connections through their shared identities and genealogies (long before settler colonialism, in fact). Maori scholar Alice Te Punga Somerville’s groundbreaking book Once Were Pacific reminds us, however, that within the Indigenous communities of Polynesia, and Oceania more widely, we must engage the “disjunctures” and “rather embarrassing genealogies of suspicion, derision, and competition between our communities” which are often structured by racism and colonialism. For example, in Hawaiʻi, many diasporic Micronesian communities have recently begun speaking out against the racism they face daily, from other residents of Hawaiʻi, including, at times, Native Hawaiians. Micronesians, many of whom have been forcibly dispossessed of their homelands and their health from the reverberating legacies of US nuclear testing there, arrive in Hawaiʻi to find that they are seen as undeserving, welfare-seeking immigrants.

Micronesians in Hawaiʻi today therefore find themselves caught on the wrong side of the Polynesian/Melanesian divide. This demonstrates that though the Western categories of Polynesian, Melanesian, and Micronesian originate in the 1830s or even earlier, settler colonialism today still effectively operates with these divisions. Under settler colonialism, Indigenous Pacific Islanders are constructed as property – the feminized, exotic possessions of whiteness. Polynesians are ideal in this respect (think of the pervasive image of the light-skinned “hula girl”), but even Polynesians have little control over their own position within settler colonialism. As possessions of whiteness, Polynesians never gain secure power to possess whiteness or identify as white themselves. Neither do they maintain any secure power to identify as non-white or Indigenous separate from their supposed whiteness. Polynesian indigeneity—their specific histories and claims to land and water—is thus erased, differently but just as surely as Micronesian indigeneity is erased when they are viewed as immigrants within the very Oceania that has been their home long before the US claimed any part of it.

In this respect, settler colonialism in the Pacific noticeably overlaps with white supremacy, valorizing whiteness in its supposedly most natural state—Polynesians—as a method of naturalizing and normalizing white settler presence in the Pacific. However, in this overlap, settler colonialism seems to offer a way around the rigid boundaries of white supremacy by promising that any non-Pacific Islander person can attain the seeming privileges of whiteness or “whiteness in Polynesian-ness”, by being a settler. As a conventional Asian American origin story in Hawaiʻi goes, for example, Japanese and Chinese settlers came to Hawaiʻi, worked the plantations, saved money, and achieved the “American dream.” As theorists of Asian settler colonialism, like Dean Saranillio, have pointed out, this story is told in such a way that settlement and the inclusion of Hawaiʻi as “America” is naturalized, even though many of those original Japanese and Chinese settlers arrived to and worked in the Hawaiian Kingdom, not Hawaiʻi as the US territory or state.

Another way that settler colonialism and white supremacy buttress each other, but are not exactly the same, is that “racial mixture” is encouraged under settler colonialism, in order to make Indigenous peoples, and their particular claims to land, less distinct from settlers. Any kind of “mixture” allows Indigenous peoples to be seen as less “authentic,” as “dying out.” However, the goal of settler colonialism is to mix the population in such a way that it is closer in proximity to whiteness. These ideologies filter down into Indigenous communities in subtle and sometimes surprising ways. For example, many Native Hawaiians are multiracial, and are widely accepted within Native Hawaiian communities if their “racial mix” includes white or Asian. Being Native Hawaiian and black, however, is often less embraced, less recognizable, and less valorized.

One powerful example of this comes from transgender rights activist and writer Janet Mock’s recent, brilliant memoir, Redefining Realness, where she shares her experience of growing up as black and Native Hawaiian in Hawaiʻi. Where Hemmings’ novel, The Descendants, depicts the rarified world of O‘ahu’s moneyed elite, Mock’s memoir is set along the streets of working class Honolulu, and therefore presents, to me, a much more recognizable Hawaiʻi, in all its complexity. Though acknowledging that Hawaiʻi was “the home I needed” and “there is no me without Hawaii,” Mock’s portrait of Hawaiʻi is not an easy or romantic one. Along with speaking of the abuse she sustained as a transgender person, Mock also notes that the racial order of Hawaiʻi made her and her brother Chad stand out as mixed black kids. She writes:

Skin color wasn’t necessarily the target as much as our blackness was the target for teasing. I say this because the kids who teased us were as brown as us, but we were black…. They teased that Chad and I were popolo, Hawaiian slang for black people. Popolo are shiny berries that grow in clusters in the islands and are so black that they shine purple on branches. Hearing popolo on that playground didn’t sound as regal as its namesake berries. It sounded dirty, like something that stuck on our bodies, like the red dirt of the playground. (Redefining Realness, p. 96)

Mock’s account here complicates conventional US understandings of how blackness is perceived as chiefly a matter of skin color, as it was not her skin color that visibly separated her from the other local kids. Anti-blackness does not necessarily lodge itself within our communities in well-known or expected ways, which means we have to work that much harder to innovate against it. Mock writes that she has learned that her blackness does not negate her Native Hawaiian-ness; she does not have to choose between them. Yet, undeniably, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders more generally have work yet to do to truly internalize this lesson within all of our communities. Pursuing this work is key to achieving true decolonization for all of us. When we act to promote our own self-determination and refuse the settler colonial attribution of whiteness to Polynesian-ness, we must also be sure that we do not let anti-blackness remain intact. Otherwise, our lāhui—our Kanaka Maoli nation—and our Oceania more broadly, will continue to be structured by white supremacy and settler colonialism.

Mock’s story is structured around her journey to redefine realness—chiefly her realness as a woman, a realness in which, for her, was never truly in doubt. What if we also imagined Indigenous self-determination as a process of redefining realness (race, indigeneity, gender, sexuality all included)? As Native Hawaiians, we have never truly doubted our realness as a lāhui, despite centuries of others telling us we no longer exist. As Pacific Islanders, we have never truly believed in the boundaries imposed through the labels of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia, despite the very material ways these boundaries have differentially structured our various communities’ lives. Citing Zora Neale Hurston, Mock tells us: “The dream is the truth.” With the movie The Descendants, Hollywood has made one dream the truth: the white settler dream of an exclusively white Hawaiʻi. That dream is deeply structured by both settler colonialism and anti-blackness. The good news is Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have millions of other dreams and therefore millions of other truths. Let’s keep dreaming.


Maile Arvin is a Native Hawaiian scholar and writer. She is currently a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Santa Cruz, and is at work on a book tentatively titled “Regenerating Polynesia: Settler Colonialism and the Possessive Science of Racial Mixture.” You can find her on Twitter @kithandkoko.

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