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 Pacific heritages.

Both of her parents were in the U.S. military, and she performed these programs throughout 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 when she was 10, she said, that she really became aware that 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 her mother is from American Samoa, the U.S. 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” has many stereotypes attached to it, and it often refers to people of Chinese, Japanese or Korean descent. While she shares cultural similarities to some Asians — her mom shops at 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, much less the multitudes of different Pacific Islander communities grouped under the large umbrella AAPI group, she said.

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“There’s not even much room within there to explore all the other types of Asians that are nestled within there,” Jarman said. “Then, in a different subset, you have Pacific Islander as a group that most people also don’t know — there’s just so many islands and so many different groups.”

Jarman wishes more Americans took the time to learn about different Pacific Island cultures. She was excited to see Tenelle, a 17-year-old girl from American Samoa, advance to the finals of “American Song Contest.” Maybe, she said, people will begin to expand their thinking of Samoan beyond Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is Samoan and Black American.

According to the 2020 Census, an estimated 1.6 million people identify as Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander alone or in combination, and an estimated 24 million people identify as Asian alone or in combination.

The Census Bureau started separating these two groups into distinct racial categories in 1997, five years after Congress deemed May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPIHM). That AAPI label encompasses more than 50 ethnic groups with lineages from more than 40 countries — which means a diverse group including East Asians, South Asians and Pacific Islanders can sometimes be treated as an awkward monolith.

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Indeed, some who identify as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander — like Jarman — say they feel the dominant narratives around AAPIHM often leave out their stories.

Sefa Aina, former presidential commissioner of the White House initiative on AAPIs and associate dean and director of the Draper Center at Pomona College, sees the label as a double-edged sword. There’s helpful visibility in being part of a pan-ethnic group, he said. But some stereotypes about Asian Americans, especially the myth of being the model minority, can obscure real concerns within the Pacific Islander community.

“We have a high dropout rate. We have a low matriculation rate into college. Our number one health problem is obesity,” Aina said, citing issues that hit the Pacific Islander community especially hard.

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

Her mother was Chamorro, from Rota, the most southern of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Her father was an immigrant from Greece, but Moussouris said she remembers fielding more questions about her mother’s heritage when she was growing up: “Did they live in grass huts?” “Did your mom wear a coconut bra?”

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

“The sad part about that was that even as Pacific Islanders, we felt like we had to collapse our identity into a larger identity,” Missouris said. “Yes, we’re Americans. Yes, my mother was an American, even before she got to the mainland.”

Even now, Moussouris said, she has to make a calculation about how much she explains where her family is from: “Do I care enough about the person that I’m talking to that I want to invest the time that 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 native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, believes the grouping of Pacific Islanders with Asian Americans is ultimately harmful.

“The ‘PI’ needs to stand as its own racial category so that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are visible and heard,” she said. “Pacific Islanders need disaggregated data to continue to advocate for culturally centered and competent services and programs to fit the specific challenges facing our community.”

She noted that even the Pacific Islander community is not monolithic itself and spans several ethnicities — Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian.

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

For Jarman, one way of connecting with her 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 an effort to look more Samoan, she said.

After she graduated from Stanford University and started working, she wanted to celebrate moving out on her own. So she got a more traditional tattoo just above her knee. Her mother, and at least one of her sisters, has gone with her each time — tattooing in Samoan culture is “a community thing,” she said, and her family kept her company for hours.

The different symbols — triangles symbolizing arrow points, elements depicting mountains or water — “have been tattooed on Samoans for centuries,” she said.

For her, they’re a crucial way of proudly representing her cultural identity: “Particular parts of a tattoo tell a story; you read the tattoo to get the story that you’re telling.”



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