If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
-Lila Watson and friends
Asian Pacific Islander is a compound label rarely critically questioned by the general population. However, this label flattens many differences and invisiblizes distinct experiences, histories, and conceptual frameworks of the group members it encompasses. The identity “Asian American” was constructed intentionally and politically in resistance to racism and oppression facing separate and distinct ethnic groups in the 1960’s. The ethnic landscape encompassed in Asian American has absorbed more recent waves of immigrants, including Indians, Hmong, Vietnamese, Laos, Thai, Tibetan, Cambodian, and Nepalese just to name a few.
There is something to be said for building movements and people power by unifying many different groups around a cause. But if not handled respectfully and sensitively, such grouping can replicate the same dynamics of silencing and invisiblizing these groups are working to overcome. It also brushes over the nuances each specific community has to offer from their cultures, histories, and values.
In broad, general strokes, Pacific Islanders have a very unique way of constructing their identity around centers and place, and so are capable of holding a sense of identity that is not confined to just one ethnic box. This kind of identity construction and conceptual framework is increasingly relevant in the U.S., a country where the number of multiracial individuals grows every day.
The stories of life in the Pacific Islands also demonstrates the self destructive and inhumane economic global frameworks we as superpowers have locked nations into. Many islands’ economies have to rely on remittances, rather than forging their own destinies in self sustaining ways of life, because they are locked into economic systems that do not allow them to be autonomous and independent. This stems from the values framework that informs and shapes the actions of superpowers, in which mankind’s existence is plotted on a linear progression, and islanders’ sustainable lifestyles are degraded and “backwards”.
Pacific Islanders are only one group among us with stories and solutions that we don’t hear. Among those we as Americans recognize as Pacific Islanders, there are even more identities and stories invisiblized under that label. Racism tells us it is not possible to make time to listen to those stories. We live in structures of power that are not held accountable to the most marginalized and exploited communities. We have not learned how to bring those marginalized voices to the forefront, so that we can make decisions that are just for everyone who is impacted by the outcome. We are still learning to negotiate, to exchange, to grow, to learn from what those with fewer voices and less “power” have to teach us. We are absorbed in a myth of linear progression, believing that the way the world works today is the sum of natural evolution. That any deviance from this hyper competitive pathway is a fall back into savagery and subpar living.
But there is more to life than this message we are forced to consume. There are other values to hold, other rules to guide our lives, through which we can find fulfillment, peace, and happiness. It is through being allies we can learn those, and liberate ourselves. Before I conceptualized the ally identity as being reserved specifically for white people, or straight people. But every person can be an ally in a space which they share with someone whose story and experiences they don’t know or live firsthand. There are always minorities within minorities, and we must learn to engage with each other to defy the invisiblization and marginalization racism forces on us. In taking time to learn the stories of those more silenced than us, we reclaim our own humanity.