For LEILANI TAMU, being a 'white' Pacific islander

White, but not quite
Personal reflections on the politics of Pacific Island Identity

I have a confession to make. My skin is white. To be even more specific, I am a pale-skinned, brown-eyed woman of Pacific Island descent. That’s right people, I’m an islander and God decided to colour me in white. And I’m fine with that. God, my family and friends love and accept me. That should be the end of the story, right? Unfortunately, it’s not.

When I was a child, I remember both of my grandparents would always say to me and my sister “never be ashamed of your Pacific heritage, hold your heads up high wherever you go.” And we did. Like many Pacific migrant families who moved to New Zealand in the early sixties, my grandparents worked in factories to support their children’s wellbeing and education. That legacy of sacrifice is something my sister and I hold close to our hearts, and in many respects was the motivation for both of us being the first generation in our family to achieve not only university degrees, but Masters degrees. We didn’t do it for ourselves. We did it to make our nana and papa proud.

Neither of us speak Samoan. Yet despite not having the language of our ancestors to help us articulate our sense of identity, we have each found other ways of doing so, primarily through creative expression. In the case of my sister, this is through directing, with the upcoming screening of her short-film Tatau scheduled for the 2012 NZ International Film Festival. And in my case, it is through the art of writing poetry.

Sifting through my memories, neither of our grandparents ever made reference or pointed out the fact that we were fair-skinned. We always knew our family was a little bit unusual, though, with our German-Samoan family name (Oldehaver) and papa’s blue eyes. In fact it wasn’t until we both went to high school, that the problematic dichotomy of our fair complexions vs. our sense of identity became apparent. At the school I went to, to lay claim to one’s island heritage you had to be ‘brown’. Wake up call No 1. Although many of the girls in the “island girl clique” were my friends, I was never allowed to be a part of their ‘group’.

Moving on to University, I remember taking a critical theory paper titled The Politics of Ethnicity. That paper changed my life. There in the midst of academic theory, I broke free from the bounds of having to ‘justify’ and ‘explain’ who ‘I’ was. And so I moved on. But unfortunately, on a regular basis I still come across people – many of them Pacific – who haven’t. Just recently I overheard two prominent Pacific academics sniggering about the fact that I couldn’t really be an islander: “she’s just too white, man,” one of them said. I’d like to say that this was a one-off occasion and that these two people are just ignorant. But the truth is neither of those two things are true. Rather these discriminatory attitudes are prevalent amongst our Pacific people. I know because I come up against them all the time.

On reflection, it would be so much easier not to tell people that I am of Pacific descent. But I wasn’t brought up that way and the values that my grandparents passed on to my sister and I won’t let me take the ‘easy’ path. With faith, courage, and vision I hope and pray that in the future there will be other voices like mine, that affirm, validate and accept difference within our Pacific communities. I hope there is room in the future for those of us who are white, but not quite.




Is Leilani’s experience common? Share your experiences today.

Post Comment

Posted Comments

Tiresa (Telesa) 11-11-2013 08:33:27
I am moved by your article on identity and how you have endured separation and discrimination due to not possessing the "right" cultural characteristics. I'd like to say that you are not alone in this struggle. I am doing my degree in social science and right at this minute I am doing my social research literature review on this topic. My question is based on the implications on identity confusion for New Zealand born Pacific Islanders and the effects it has on their well-being. I appreciate your sharing of your experiences. Like myself and many of my family and friends of first born generation in NZ, we seem to be the target of high expectations. What came with this was degradation and discrimination from people of our kind and the dominant culture, to retain strong cultural characteristics and adopting a westernised lifestyle as to the purpose of our parents and families for coming to NZ. We have broken the silence of our struggles, I have come across more and more literature about this issue for us. I must say though honey, someone has to be the voice and break the silence, and obviously it is our generation. Congratulations for bringing it out in the open. My hope is that we find acceptance and create a new identity that people are able to appreciate and value. Til this day in the boxes for ethnic group, I tick other and put NZ Samoan. Hahahaaa. Well done to you and your sisters achievements. Its such a pleasure knowing you have fulfilled your obligations to your elders, and this darling is just what our culture represents. You are a strong role model for us and key to breaking the silence. Well done and all the best. Alofaga Tiresa..xo
jennifer 20-07-2013 20:35:37
My past displacement perhaps stemmed from my flaw of seeking acceptance from others. & we know that is a tail chase. But as i have learned & believe now... & know for a fact due to extensive biblestdy, we are all God's creation. :-) & in Him only I have peace.
Jennifer 20-07-2013 20:14:24
I too am white but not quite fa'a samoa (samoan style). My mom: afakasi (sam/chine/french/irish/brit/jew) from Am. Sam & dad: slav/german/czech/irish/brit raised me & siblings in california. I have existed in a state of displacement since i can remember. All the more so now that my relationshipw/Lord Jesus
Liai Burns 03-07-2013 09:18:45
Agreed to a certain point ... but does it really matter that much about colour? It annoys me to no end that we, as pacific people seem to never let go of how other people percieve us. We need to shake that perpetual 'chip on the shoulder' mentality and get on with it. Be proud of your heritage, mixed and/or otherwise - there's no need to pick out the white bits and the brown bits! We are living in a global village, move on.
Teine Samoa 06-08-2012 01:08:48
I did not argue that racism doesn't exist against people with darker skin. I argued that, that racism in no way negates Leilani's experience. I argued that if you think that judging someone based on their skin colour is wrong, then that would actually include a lighter skin colour. I can't see how that arguement is illogical or emotional and your reference to Apollian logic versus Dionysian feeling is interesting and somewhat ironic- I understand that the Nazis also made selective use of Nietzche's work.
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | Next