The Pacific Islands: United by Ocean, Divided by Colonialism

“Deep in the Pacific, the impact of Western colonialism runs deep: it even shapes the way Pacific Islanders experience time.”

The Pacific islands of Samoa and the Cook Islands are about as far from each other (960 miles) as the American West Coast cities of Los Angeles, California, and Portland, Oregon. And yet, the inhabitants of the two islands must contend with a time difference of a remarkable 23 hours. The reason is that they are separated by the International Date Line, which divides one calendar day from another. Here, deep in the Pacific, the impact of Western colonialism runs deep: it even shapes the way Pacific Islanders experience time. It does so by erecting a barrier between geographically close and historically linked islands, a divide, explains scholar Maile Arvin, that is “irreconcilable with Indigenous epistemologies of the Moana, or Pacific Ocean that emphasize the ocean as connection rather than barrier.”

The Pacific Islands have long had a shared culture, yet were divided by European colonizers—with terminology based on their encounters with Africa—into “Polynesia,” “Micronesia,” and “Melanesia.” “White people carved this vast oceanic world into categories of race,” Nitasha Tamar Sharma writes, “appointing Melanesians as the Black people of the Pacific because of their dark skin and curly hair, in contrast to Polynesians, whom Europeans considered closer to Whiteness.”1

A case study for understanding Pacific Islanders’ relationship to whiteness can be found in Guam, a Micronesian island held by the US as a territory. One of the most militarized islands in the western Pacific Ocean, Guam contains two major military bases: Naval Base Guam in Santa Rita and Andersen Air Force Base in Yigo. It is the construction of modern Guam as a strategic military outpost for the United States that forms the basis of Alfred Peredo Flores’s Tip of the Spear: Land, Labor, and US Settler Militarism in Guåhan, 1944–1962. Flores posits that Guam (which Flores calls Guåhan, the island’s Chamorro name, but which I will refer to in this essay as Guam for ease of recognition by unfamiliar readers) was developed by the United States through a process of “settler militarism,” and that the formation and maintenance of Guam’s civilian military labor system depended on privileging the needs—financial and sexual—of white Americans over those of Chamorro (the Indigenous people of Guam, also spelled CHamoru) and Filipino workers. “Settler militarism,” according to Juliet Nebolon, underscores the extent to which “settler colonialism and militarization have simultaneously perpetuated, legitimated, and concealed one another,” making it a useful term to understand the development of Guam as both a cultural and military asset to the United States.2

This question of proximity to whiteness is also considered by Arvin in Possessing Polynesians: The Science of Settler Colonial Whiteness in Hawai`i and Oceania, which theorizes that Pacific Islanders’ identity has been shaped by a “logic of possession through whiteness.” By this logic, Arvin argues, Polynesians were considered “almost white”: allowing white settlers to claim indigeneity and thus settler colonial ownership over Hawaii and other parts of Polynesia. Such near-whiteness contrasts Micronesians (including Chamorros in Guam) and Melanesians, whom Arvin argues were considered closer to Blackness and, thus, racially subjugated in a more conventional manner. Polynesians’ perceived proximity to whiteness, according to Arvin, was primarily rooted in the belief that “because Polynesian language, myth, and biology contained an Aryan heritage, Polynesian peoples and land were naturally also the heritage of white settlers.”


Whose Homeland? Whose Security?

By Adrian De Leon

Arvin’s “logic of possession through whiteness” illuminates Flores’s account of what happened in mid-20th-century Guam. Putting these two books in conversation, I argue that Chamorros’ racialization as dark and “other” in contrast to white Americans allowed for the privileging of whiteness and white labor in the settler colonial project in Guam, in contrast to Arvin’s example of settler colonialism in Polynesia, specifically Hawaii, relying on constructing Polynesians as proximal to white Americans. In the first instance, settler colonialism positioned Chamorros as distant from whiteness in order to underscore Pacific Islanders’ perceived inferiority as laborers and residents of Guam compared to their white counterparts. In the second instance, settler colonialism similarly exalted whiteness not by underscoring Pacific Islanders’ distance from whiteness but by locating Polynesians as “almost white as an attempt to make Polynesia into a Western, settler colonial project, not merely a place.”

In post–World War II Guam, then, Arvin’s “logic of possession through whiteness” operates slightly differently than it does in Polynesia to nevertheless exercise control over Chamorros, specifically by underscoring their distance from whiteness rather than assigning them an “almost white” status.

It is necessary to first define the parameters of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, even though the terms are a “form of knowledge production that structures settler colonialism.” Polynesia is the largest by area of the three regions and includes Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti Nui, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand, among other islands. West of Polynesia is Melanesia, which includes Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, among others. North of Melanesia are the islands of Micronesia, including Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Polynesians, specifically Native Hawaiians, were positioned as racially proximal to whiteness. As such, they were elevated above Micronesians and Melanesians, who were named so literally because of their melanin. Micronesians fell somewhere in between: darker in complexion than Polynesians but lighter than Melanesians, occupying the liminal space between whiteness and Blackness. Some scholars offer a more capacious definition of Blackness: According to legal scholar Charles Lawrence as summarized by Sharma, Blackness “includes Micronesian and Hawaiian men whose lives are burdened (and cut short) by racist people in positions of power—who in Hawai’i include Asians.”3 Under this framing, both Chamorros and Native Hawaiians occupy a position of relative Blackness compared to non-Indigenous Asian and white settlers.

So where do all Pacific Islanders, considered separately from Asian Americans (with whom they have been grouped), stand in relation to whiteness? Considering this question is important as Asian Americans litigate their own positionality in relation to whiteness, especially with looming discourse contending that Asian Americans are “honorary white people” in light of issues such as affirmative action and policing.4

Pacific Islanders are often lumped together with Asian Americans in US community surveys, data reports, and government-sanctioned celebrations. These include Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, alternatively referred to by the federal government as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and, most recently, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: three names that underscore the government’s ongoing uncertainty when it comes to defining and locating Pacific Islander communities in relation to Asian Americans.5

In 1997, the US Census finally separated the categories “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander” and “Asian.” Still, Pacific Islanders are seldom considered separately from Asians in mainstream news coverage and scholarly criticism, beyond references to the Pacific Islands in geopolitical and military contexts.6 But there are “stark, documented inequalities between Asian American and Pacific Islander groups,” as Arvin observes. Moreover, grouping them together ignores “the distinction that Pacific Islanders are Indigenous peoples,” meaning they are the earliest known inhabitants of the region.

And the dearth of specific information about the demographic makeup and needs of Pacific Islander communities has led to fewer resources for those communities, especially when health and economic studies in reality focus primarily on Asian ethnicity groups but purport to target AAPI communities. Disaggregating data among Asian American and Pacific Islander communities can help: a San Francisco Unified School District student population recount found that almost three times as many students identified as Pacific Islander compared to the school’s initial report for the 2018–19 academic year—and that more than half of them identified as Samoan, which led to the creation of an educational pathway for students “rooted in Sāmoa Aganu’u indigenous values and practices.”7 Clearly, when it comes to Pacific Islanders, questions of terminology have material consequences.

White people do not need to be present for whiteness to exert its hegemony. Consider how, shortly after arriving in Hawaii in the 1830s, white Protestant missionaries trained Native Hawaiian converts, who then became missionaries to other Pacific Islands. These new missionaries, according to scholar Kealani Cook, “understand themselves as elevating their race out of na’aupo, or ignorance, and into ke ao, the light.” Here, Native Hawaiian missionaries, newly close to white Christian hegemony, now considered themselves superior to unconverted Polynesians.

This aligns with Arvin’s “logic of possession through whiteness” in Possessing Polynesians, which asserts that whiteness operates as an epistemology rather than a racial category. “Whiteness,” she writes, “is not an agent in and of itself. Rather, whiteness is a type of knowledge and power that many invest in for multiple and even conflicting reasons.”

Phenotype influenced the construction of Pacific Islanders as close to or distant from whiteness. Still, Arvin cautions, “possession through whiteness as a form of settler colonial power … did not simply discriminate based on color but created elaborate fictions about past and future relationships between white settlers and Polynesians,” emphasizing white self-realization as the ultimate goal of the settler colonial project.

Applying Arvin’s logic of possession through whiteness to Flores’s analysis of Guam’s racial politics enables a more thorough understanding of the relative positionality of Chamorros, who are Micronesians according to this tripartite racial taxonomy. Arielle Taitano Lowe, a Chamaole (mixed Chamorro and white) academic, describes being racialized as white in Guam but “most often racialized as Brown” in Hawaii. In Guam, where more than half of the population comprises Chamorros and Filipinos, Lowe writes that “Whiteness is a numerical minority. Other Pacific Islanders comprise 11.5 percent, and Whites make up 6.8 percent. These demographics suggest that local encounters with White bodies can be jarring and different in a dominantly Chamorro and Pacific Islander community.”8 As such, Lowe’s mixed-race identity is more often construed as white in relation to the darker Chamorro population. In contrast, more than 20 percent of Hawaii’s population identifies as white, locating whiteness as a more common racial identifier in Hawaii—at least in comparison to Guam—and distinguishing Lowe’s darker Chamorro complexion from a lighter-skinned white and Native Hawaiian population.

The arbitrariness of Lowe’s racialization in Polynesia and Micronesia reveals how whiteness operates: its meaning shifts and is remade, selectively applied and rejected by both colonizers and colonial subjects based on cultural context and political convenience. Ultimately, as Arvin argues, this encourages “peoples to identify with the power/knowledge of whiteness even when they are individually excluded from identifying as white.” And as Flores writes of Guam, “the racializing of CHamorus, Filipinos, and white Americans shifted within the context of World War II and the Cold War,” emphasizing whiteness’s malleability over time even in a single geographic location.

Chamorros’ perceived liminality between whiteness and Blackness was instrumental for the construction of Guam’s civilian military labor force in the mid-20th century. This force largely divided functions on race: white Americans were cast in leadership roles; Filipino migrant workers in positions of unskilled labor; Chamorros and Carolinians (another Micronesian ethnic group) were generally shunned by military officials, who rejected hiring them in mass numbers. These officials argued that Chamorros and Carolinians worked in groups but not as individuals, and, moreover, that they “looked lazy, unenterprising, improvident, and both unable and unwilling to work at regular, sustained labor.”9

Thus, Western notions of temporality—namely the Protestant work ethic—trampled over Indigenous epistemologies of time. In practice, that meant that the few Micronesians who were hired after World War II were funneled into servant and steward roles, while white Americans continued to hold “managerial and skilled positions such as electricians, engineers, foremen, mechanics, and site supervisors.”

Here, Arvin’s logic of possession through whiteness is at play: white hegemonic reasoning is understood as essential for generating productivity in Guam, because Micronesians, like Arvin writes of Polynesians, “were supposedly incapable of this productivity themselves.” But as opposed to white settlers asserting a special kinship with Micronesians, as they did with Polynesians—allowing them to stake “natural claims to and over Polynesian lands, resources, and people”—white settlers’ focus on racial difference between themselves and Micronesians allowed for a similar logic of possession through whiteness to operate, albeit in a distinct manner.

Chamorros’ racialization as distant from whiteness and fundamentally incompatible with its demands is only reaffirmed by the treatment of Filipinos in Guam. During the post–World War II development of the civilian military labor force, Filipino laborers received the lowest wages (compared to white American workers and those Chamorro workers who were hired), in part because they were, as Flores writes, “categorized as ‘alien’ workers who were ‘unskilled.’” However, despite this, they were deemed by white leaders as capable of performing unskilled labor and were hired in mass numbers, partly because they could be disciplined with the threat of deportation to their home country, which was still reeling from the aftermath of World War II.

Put another way, Filipinos were viewed as foreign, weak, and “diseased,” and thus subject to the most rigorous medical examinations compared to white Americans and Chamorros. Even so, Filipinos were nevertheless perceived as capable of manual labor because their lifestyles—including their ability to “work at regular, sustained labor”—were viewed as compatible with the expectations of white American military leadership. Conversely, Chamorro laborers earned higher wages than their Filipino counterparts. But the Chamorros’ worldviews and epistemologies of time and space were seen as fundamentally incompatible with the demands of hegemonic whiteness, casting them out from even being considered as capable of this labor in droves.

The logic of possession through whiteness allowed for a “divide and conquer” strategy to operate. The logic pitted nonwhite laborers against one another, through comparing their perceived compatibility with the expectations of a dominant white Protestant work ethic.

Thus, the logic of possession through whiteness allowed for a “divide and conquer” strategy to operate. The logic pitted nonwhite laborers against one another, through comparing their perceived compatibility with the expectations of a dominant white Protestant work ethic.

The relative exclusion of Chamorros from civilian military labor allowed for white Americans and Filipino migrant workers to exist as the primary participants in this system, where they lived in segregated company camps. White laborers took the lead in perpetuating anti-Black, Jim Crow–era sentiment through performing minstrel shows in their camps—but also performed these shows in Filipino workers’ camps, indicating, as Flores does, that “some white Americans were willing to incorporate Filipinos into their anti-Black sentiment.” This reveals that even though Filipinos were racially subjugated by white Americans, they still benefited from their “not Black” status, allowing whiteness to possess them by, Arvin says, “encouraging [them] to identify with the power/knowledge of whiteness” in contrast to its negative complement, Blackness. This is one reason why Flores highlights anti-Blackness among both whites and Filipinos.

But I would go one step further. Filipinos’ status as Asians more broadly, I argue, suggests an affinity between Asians and whites that thrives on the reality that “indigenous peoples and Black peoples are continually dispossessed from claims of belonging to the settler colonial state.” When thinking about the difference between Filipinos’ and Chamorros’ respective relationships to whiteness in Guam, then, it is necessary to consider a “whiteness that remains accessible only to non-Indigenous, nonblack people,” Filipinos included.

Here, the logic of possession through whiteness is especially pernicious. It does not simply dictate racial difference, as evidenced by othering Filipinos and Chamorros as weak, diseased, and inferior. Moreover, it fundamentally dictates who is even capable of participation in the white settler colonial project through performing both manual labor and anti-Black complicity, and who is too far removed from accessing whiteness and perceived as too undesirable to even be considered. This complicates Arvin’s argument of “whiteness making itself Indigenous in order to control and own a place,” as she writes of Polynesia, by considering a slightly different logic of possession through whiteness: when whiteness cannot claim kinship with indigeneity, as is the case in mid-20th century Guam, it must exert its possessive power by ignoring and marginalizing those who are deemed incompatible with its reasoning.

Recognizing the applicability of the logic of possession through whiteness—albeit in a slightly different form than Arvin’s construction—to Micronesia allows for a more capacious understanding of racialization across the Pacific Islands. Mainstream discussions of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, particularly in journalistic and popular media, are largely still focused on the question of the latter group’s belonging within this complicated, knotty racial umbrella.

However, a more nuanced understanding of Pacific Islanders independently of Asian Americans remains necessary, in order to advance discussions of grouping these communities together. Specifically, examining Pacific Islander communities’ relationship to whiteness is an essential prerequisite to being able to earnestly consider the group in conversation with Asian Americans, who maintain their own complicated relationships to whiteness across ethnic groups, social contexts, and time periods. It is only then that discussions of Asian American racial formations can blossom beyond trite, naive, and superficial framings of these communities as “neither Black nor white,” which conceal the inexorable possessive power of whiteness that eternally lingers beneath the surface. icon

This article was commissioned by Ben Platt.

  1. Nitasha Tamar Sharma, Hawai’i Is My Haven: Race and Indigeneity in the Black Pacific (Duke University Press, 2021), p. 38.
  2. Juliet Nebolon, “‘Life Given Straight from the Heart’: Settler Militarism, Biopolitics, and the Public Health in Hawai’i during World War II,” American Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 1 (2017), p. 25.
  3. Nitasha Tamar Sharma, Hawai’i Is My Haven, p. 211.
  4. Philip Lee, “Rejecting Honorary Whiteness: Asian Americans and the Attack on Race-Conscious Admissions,” Emory Law Journal, vol. 70, no. 7 (2021), p. 1475.
  5. US Department of Agriculture, “Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month.”
  6. Even a simple Google News search of the term “Pacific Islander” yields almost a full page of headlines that group the term with the word “Asian,” aside from one stand-alone article on Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders experiencing homelessness. The only other reference to Pacific Islanders separate from Asians can be found in three headlines about the region’s geopolitical significance: one about the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) and two about the newly announced US-Australia infrastructure plan for Pacific Island nations, reinforcing the inherent colonial valence of the term “Pacific Islands.” US Census Bureau, “Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: May 2022,” April 18, 2022.
  7. San Francisco Unified School District, “SF Board of Education Updates Resolution Enhancing Equitable Services for Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Students” (September 24, 2020).
  8. Arielle Taitano Lowe, “Rhetorical Dance of Belonging: Chamaole Narratives of Race, Indigeneity, and Identity from Guam,” Journal of Critical Mixed Race Studies, vol. 2, no. 1 (August 18, 2023), p. 99.
  9. David Hanlon, Remaking Micronesia: Discourses over Development in a Pacific Territory, 1944–1982 (University of Hawai’i Press, 1998), p. 41.
Featured image:"Group of native men women and children in Guam during World War II," 1944–1947. Photograph from Brigadier General Clarence S. ""Bill"" Irvine Special Collection / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)