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Where are Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders in Higher Education?

How does your university or college classify Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander students and faculty? Most continue to misclassify Pacific peoples within the Asian category, despite the fact that over a decade ago, the federal government issued a policy directive to create the racial category of “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.” The implications of this misclassification are detrimental to the recruitment and retention of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders in higher education. For example, at Wesleyan University, where I teach, the profile of the class of 2012 does not even list this category under its “students of color” category (it also leaves out the category American Indians and Alaska Natives), which only includes: “Black/African American,” “Asian/Asian American,” and “Latino/Hispanics.”

The addition of the “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander” category was made in 1997, when the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued Directive 15: Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative required by Congress since 1977. These standards are required by Congress and have guided the collection of racial and ethnic data by federal agencies, researchers, business and industry.

The impetus for this action was to disaggregate Pacific Islanders from Asian Americans. Native Hawaiians led the fight for this change because the widely accepted administrative term “Asian Pacific American” —coined during the Reagan era and used by social agencies for their administrative convenience—like “Asian-Pacific Islander” conflate two distinct pan-ethnic groups, to the continuing disadvantage of Pacific Islanders whose histories, ongoing struggles for sovereignty, and political futures diverge significantly from those of Asian Americans. Historically, this mis-categorization has proved especially difficulty for Native Hawaiians who have alternately been grouped with American Indians in numerous legislative acts pertaining to health, housing, and education. Yet despite being treated as indigenous on the one hand, Native Hawaiians continue to be classified as immigrant descendants on the other.

The problematic terms “Asian-Pacific American” (APA) and “Asian Pacific Islander” (API) not only offer no recognition that Pacific Islanders already constitute a pan-ethnic group that is distinct from Asian Americans, they also efface Pacific political claims based on indigeneity. For example, indigenous Pacific Islanders who have ties to islands that were forcibly incorporated into the United States (Hawai`i, Guam, American Samoa) have outstanding sovereignty and land claims, based on international principles of self-determination, which get erased by the categorization with Asians. Hence the frameworks for understanding the ills affecting Pacific peoples and their political claims are shaped by imperialism and settler colonialism, not simply civil rights.

We need to uncouple “Asian” and “Pacific” in order to examine these concerns, especially in higher education, where the socio-economic profiles of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders are severely distorted due to the continued problematic lumping with Asian Americans. The UCLA Asian American Studies Center recently sent out a press release, under the auspices of the AAPI Nexus: Asian American Pacific Islander Policy, Practice, and Community, titled: “Beyond the ‘Whiz Kid’ Stereotype: New Research on Asian American and Pacific Islander Youth.” Since when have Native Hawaiians, Samoans, Tongans, Chamorros, or any other Pacific Islander youth been portrayed or stereotyped as “whiz kids”? The model minority has never been a stereotype put upon Pacific Islander peoples; instead, we have stereotypes of the dumb, lazy, and simple-minded.

Pacific Islanders as a whole are too easily disappeared in terms of social, cultural and political profiles, not only because of the continued aggregation with Asian Americans, but also because we are too often seen as inconsequential by virtue of our small numbers. This is illustrated by the fact that most of the general public still has no conception of Pacific Islanders as a pan-ethnic grouping.

Fortunately, as an official U.S. Census Information Center, the UCLA Asian American Studies Center has provided a 2008 statistical portrait of these communities in two parts. The first section provides information on “Asians,” while the second part highlights “Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders.” These data sets reveal the disparity between the two pan-ethnic groups that gets obfuscated whenever the terms “AAPI,” “API” and “APA” are used in reporting socio-economic profiles for Asian Americans while purporting to include Pacific Islanders in those same reports. For example, according to the Center’s website, only 14 percent of those who identified as single-race Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders 25 years of age and older have at least a bachelor’s degree in comparison with 27 percent for the total population and 49 percent of the Asian American population. Only 4 percent of Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders 25 and older have obtained a graduate or professional degree, compared with 10 percent for the total population and 20 percent of Asian Americans. Yet, despite the sharp contrast between how Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are faring in terms of obtaining higher education, there are numerous studies misreporting that Pacific Islanders are doing better than whites in obtaining higher education, when that is far from the case, because of the lumping of Pacific people with Asians.

In detailing how the federal government should better serve Pacific Islander communities, we need disaggregated statistics, research, and data. The implications for not doing so are deeply disingenuous; moreover, they are unethical. Only then will we be able to get a clearer picture of the status of Pacific peoples in the United States and increase the socio-economic status of these communities. This must begin with the compliance of institutions of higher learning with the federal directive of 1997. All colleges and universities should institutionalize the category “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander” in their recruitment programs, administrative applications, summary profiles, and all data for admissions, matriculation, attrition, and retention. Otherwise, potential students from these backgrounds are effectively erased as targets for recruitment while subsumed and lumped under a category where they are said to be among the most educated when they are actually severely underrepresented.

Dr. J. Kehaulani Kauanui is an associate professor of American studies and anthropology at Wesleyan University, Her first book, Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Indigeneity and Sovereignty, is forthcoming from Duke University Press in October 2008. She is also the host and producer of a weekly public affairs radio program, “Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond,” at WESU, Middletown, CT.

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