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Ohana means family. So why are we always left behind?

Jan. 2, 2018
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The mission statement on the website of the White House’s initiative for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) defines this community as the fastest growing racial group in the United States. Re-established by President Obama in 2009, this initiative works to improve the quality of lives of Asians and Oceanians all throughout the country through federal programs. While these efforts are essential in aiding our community, they often miss the target in terms of directly helping people themselves. 

It is no secret that education is the key to overall improvement in a society. Education in this country, however, has let down our community; as a system, it has failed to acknowledge the history of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders as relevant and integral to the foundations of our nation. The backs and bones of my people, as well as of other indigenous, brown, and black people, are those very foundations, and this no longer can be denied or hidden. From the cheap labor farms, railroads, bridges, factories, ports, and other sites of de facto slavery that the first Asian immigrants worked, to the criminal annexation of Hawaiʻi and cultural genocide of other Pacific Islanders under American jurisdiction, it is beyond disheartening to see the lack of awareness and care for my community’s past this way. In truth, the fact that Asians and Pacific Islanders are lumped into one official label is already a testament to the lack of knowledge there is about each group’s respective issues. Disaggregation is vital in order for each group to truly thrive—especially Pacific Islanders.  

Pertaining to Asian-Americans, the “Model Minority” myth has only served as a barrier between us and justice. This trope is a mere myth constructed to coerce us into shedding our cultural selves in order to assimilate through anti-blackness and other oppressive methods. They try to divide and mold us into what they need us to be because they know we will be weaker and more compliant this way. It seems that the few times we are incorporated into meaningful dialogue, the few who are on top speak for the rest of us. Asian-Americans only are acceptable when they have adopted the white American way of life. Everyone else in our community—victims of poverty, racism/colorism, xenophobia, rape culture, violence, immigration laws, etc.—is left out. We are forgotten. We even perpetuate this silence ourselves in the name of survival, forgetting the legacy of justice for which our forebears fought in this country. Our willingness to sell out to this “American Dream” is too common. Assimilation tactics are cruel and unfair, but the only way to debunk them is through education, discussion, and action, which must come both from society and ourselves.

As for the rest of my community, Pacific Islanders long have been on the menu, rather than having a seat at the table. Although we might not be native to the mainland, people who are of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Chamoru (Chamorro, the indigenous people of Guåhan, otherwise known as Guam), Samoan, and other Oceanian ancestries under American authority nonetheless are indigenous people of this country who have been and continue to be grossly wronged. The common American often shrugs us off as insignificant, being from “little islands” so far away from the throes of the mainland. They underestimate us and our very existence, which is just ridiculous considering the context of how our “little islands” came to be part of this country in the first place. In fact, this "common American" is not limited only to one kind of person, for all people who are non-natives on our islands ultimately benefit from settler-colonialism. 

This dehumanizing misconception of Pacific Islanders has left us as... leftovers. We are last in line. We’ve become a stray thought in the back of people’s minds, something that must be lumped somewhere for political correctness’ sake. We too are victims of racism—environmental racism especially—and virulent sexism: Oceanian women, as well as other indigenous women in this country, make $0.58 to the white man’s dollar. What garners even less attention, though, is the displacement, land destruction, cultural genocide, and mass incarceration of Native Hawaiians and Chamorro people (not to mention extreme militarization of the lands), paralleling that of our native brothers and sisters on the mainland. 

As our Lakota family defends the sacred at Standing Rock on the mainland, Hawaiians are doing the same with Mauna Kea, as are Chamoru with Litekyan. The cultural genocides of Oceanians have now resulted in a modern, cultural “renaissance” that, in actuality, is a capitalist venture to strip our culture of its sacred nature and exploit us through its forced prostitution. 

More than this cultural pornification, though, the most egregious crime against the AAPI community is the erasure enacted and invisibility thrusted upon us. Of course no one will care if they do not even initially know of these matters. Society’s complacency to this can only come to an end through starting the conversation: being actively outspoken and restructuring the education system to incorporate our voices.

Society’s popular portrayals of the AAPI community are the result of plain ignorance, and they must be laid to rest. They are inaccurate and more hurtful than beneficial. Everyone in our community, our ʻohana, must not be left behind anymore. Our ancestors outnumber our worries and fears, and they will guide us with an ancestral light that only we know. Do not mistake our aloha for weakness. It is now more imperative than ever to tear up our safety net of silent behavior and start pushing back harder than before. Many of us have been ready to talk from the beginning, but it is the other side that’s never been receptive to us, never listened to us, never honored the treaties, never had our best interests in mind. This no longer is about asking for a seat at the table—this is about demanding our own table. We are more than sidekicks and hula girls who are “just the same” to everyone. We are real and we are still here. We must embrace our differences and uplift them as we uplift one another. As Kendrick eloquently put it, “Sit down (hol' up lil bitch, hol' up lil bitch), be humble.” And listen, would you? Kū kiaʻi mauna! 

Illustration by Justine Seo.