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Editor’s Note: Reporter Anita Hofschneider’s recent article, #BeingMicronesian in Hawaii Means Lots Of Online Hate, looked at one woman’s effort to bring attention to racial slurs and discrimination directed at Micronesians. Here’s why she chose to tell that story.
Within my first couple of weeks of arriving in Honolulu in 2011, I went to a meeting at the Marshallese Consulate office. I was a college student doing research on immigrant communities for a local nonprofit. As our car pulled in, I saw a sign with blood red letters stuck in the chain-link fence. “F— Micronesia Kill All Micronesians”!
My colleague grabbed the sign and brought it to the office. She was told to add it to the pile.
It was a rude introduction to an ugly aspect of living in Honolulu. I was born and raised in Saipan, an island in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. After years on the East Coast, I thought living and working in Hawaii would remind me of home. It does, sort of — I have lots of relatives here. My parents met at UH. I love island music and spam musubi.
But it also means dealing with oft-recurring racist comments directed at “Micronesians,” a term similar to Polynesians that refers to all islanders from that geographic region but has become a phrase often reserved for people from island nations that have treaties with the U.S. known as the Compacts of Free Association.
Even though I grew up in Micronesia, my light skin means I have largely escaped this racism. When people say, “When did all these f-ing Micronesians come here?” and I point out that I’m one of them, they say, “Not you,” or “I’m talking about the dirty ones.” Sometimes men will say, “You’re too pretty to be Micronesian.”
What people don’t realize is that the Harvard-educated haole-looking person they’re talking to is Chamorro and actually part Yapese. Before the Northern Mariana Islands became a U.S. Commonwealth in the 1980s, my dad came to Hawaii using a Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands passport. That was the precursor to the Compacts of Free Association, the treaties that allow people from Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia to live and work in the U.S. in exchange for giving the U.S. military control over their surrounding waters.
The sovereignty conversation at home was very different than what’s happening today in Hawaii. The Northern Marianas actually voted to give up its sovereignty and become a self-governing U.S. commonwealth in part because many of our leaders wanted to escape poverty and experience the economic growth they’d seen on Guam.
While Native Hawaiians were fighting to regain control over Kahoolawe, the Northern Marianas agreed to give the U.S. military an entire island for bombing practice — a 50-year lease in 1983 for just $20,600. They gave up two-thirds of another island in the hopes that the U.S. would build a military base (now they’re talking about a heavy artillery range). In exchange, we got U.S. citizenship.
The people of the FSM, the Marshall Islands and Palau instead chose independence in free association with the U.S. They have the sovereignty that so many in Hawaii crave.
But their islands are much less developed and have struggled more to attract tourism and build infrastructure. While neighborhood boards in Hawaii pass resolutions to curb tourism and development because the economy is booming, islands in Micronesia have seen a huge exodus of residents seeking jobs, education and medical care.
And for many immigrants, assimilating to the U.S. has not been easy, a combination of linguistic, economic and cultural barriers and the stigma associated with being “Micro.”
I left Hawaii after that first summer and came back for work in 2013. Like Sha Ongelungel, I assumed by 2018 the racism would have gotten better.
When I saw Ongelungel’s posts on Twitter quoting people calling Micronesians “cockroaches” and calling on people to “hunt” them, it was clear that it hadn’t. There were so many racist posts it was hard to choose which ones to include in the story.
I’m lucky to be in a position to publicize this kind of hate. Still for many who dislike Micronesians it’s not making a difference. They’ve had too many bad experiences with Micronesian immigrants. They don’t understand why they’re here, or why some act the way they do. They only hear about law-breakers and don’t see the hard workers who are paying taxes and are doing good in the community.
This issue is particularly fraught when it comes to Native Hawaiians who want sovereignty and are frustrated by the lack of control over their borders.
My story included a post by Kawohi Kekumu, a Native Hawaiian Honolulu resident who wrote on Facebook that Micronesians “breed like rabbits” and have “no social structure.” When I talked to her on the phone last week, after my story ran, she said she stands by her post and has no sympathy for them.
She once saw boys who looked Micronesian get into a brutal physical fight at Ala Moana Park. She says her neighbors in Liliha are Micronesian and they smoke pakalolo and have too many people in their house.
I asked if she’d ever met a Micronesian person she respected.
“No,” she said simply.
She added she’s talked to teachers at the public school that her kids attend and they agree that the Micronesian students are lazy.
“My statement is not racist,” she said. “I’m calling it like I see it.”
Kekumu said she wants the leaders in the Micronesian community to step up. I asked if she’d heard about We Are Oceania, a nonprofit run by Micronesians who are trying to improve self-sufficiency in their communities. She said she saw the name in a news article but didn’t know what it does.
Not everyone defended their derogatory statements about Micronesians. Gafa Malaki, who compared Micronesians to “hood rats,” told me over instant messaging that he regrets his post and knows it was wrong.
Malaki says he grew up in Waipahu and was friends with a lot of Micronesians in elementary school who were funny, smart and happy. But many of them eventually joined Polynesian gangs or broke off to start their own.
He knows gang violence is not specific to any ethnic group – five of his Polynesian cousins died in Compton due to gang relations. But a lot of people in Waipahu only know of the gang-affiliated Micronesians, Malaki says. The stigma against being Micronesians is so bad that he knows people who are half Filipino, half Micronesian who pass as only Filipino.
It’s not news to Hawaii’s Micronesian community that many of their own have gotten into trouble. “We have so many lost children,” a Chuukese pastor told me somberly as we sat in Nuuanu Zippy’s a few months ago. He talked about how he’s trying to help families in his parish.
Many Micronesians also are sensitive to Kekumu’s point that Hawaii is the Hawaiians’ homeland, not theirs. In posting the story about #BeingMicronesian on Facebook this week, renowned Marshallese poet Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner wrote, “This is a layered conversation that requires us recognizing the deep injustice faced by native Hawaiians through the loss of land and kingdom.”
“I have laid the stick that connects people together. Now it is up to you, your generation and the generations to come, to build upon that stick a bridge that will ensure the free sharing of information and teaching between the two peoples until the day we become united again as a single people, as we were once before; before men separated us with their imaginary political boundaries of today’s Polynesia and Micronesia.”
— The late Micronesian master navigator Mau Piailug speaking to Chad Kalepa Baybayan. Piailug taught Native Hawaiian activists how to navigate using the stars and seas in the 1970s.
The racist posts struck a chord for other minority groups in Hawaii. One Filipino reader who works at a long-established local company wrote that it was difficult to read my article because it made him feel ashamed.
“I could not help remembering my own childhood as a Filipino youth growing up in East Oahu and being subjected to the same ethnic taunts and aggression,” he wrote. “Sadly, I routinely hear my co-workers make racist comments about the Micronesian community. Often they denigrate by using the simple term ‘Micros.’”
He promised to call out racism when he hears it.
“I will continue to be part of the movement for change by reminding others that we all were once racially targeted when our ancestors first arrived in Hawaii,” he wrote. “As a proud resident of the 50th state we all need to ‘be bigger and better’ than what we’re currently projecting (especially to our children).’”
But the most meaningful email I received came from a Polynesian man who said that the article forced him to reevaluate his own prejudice.
“Being of Hawaiian and Samoan descent and growing up in the sixties and seventies, I can relate to some of the experiences that our cousins from another island goes through,” he said, adding that at least he was able to get food stamps, which COFA citizens are not eligible for.
He said life got better after he lived on the mainland for two decades. Now that he’s back in Hawaii, he says the racism should be better.
“I am guilty of this bias and will change my attitude,” he wrote.
Changing one person’s mind may be manini in the scheme of things. Still, emails like this remind me why I’m a journalist.
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