Black Lives Matter in the Pacific, 2020

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Since the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, I have read and viewed countless news articles, op-eds, solidarity statements, video webinars, social media posts, tweets, and photo albums related to Black Lives Matter (BLM) in the Pacific Islands and the Pacific diaspora. 

The first thing to note is that there is widespread support for BLM amongst Pacific Islanders (PI). There have been numerous solidarity events in Hawaiʻi (where I currently live), Aotearoa, Fiji, Samoa, American Samoa, Papua New Guinea, West Papua, Vanuatu, Australia, the Marshall Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and my homeland of Guåhan (Guam). There have also been Pacific-organized events in California, Washington, and Utah, and I have seen PI participate in protests from Kentucky to New York to where it all began: Minnesota. At least two PI were arrested/detained, and there are surely more. BLM solidarity in the Pacific is not new (many BLM solidarity events occurred after the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown) but it is definitely more expansive today. The largest event occurred in Honolulu, with over 10,000 people attending (this multicultural gathering was organized by Black activists and supported by Hawaiian activists). A few protests have occurred outside US consulates and Aotearoa. There have even been several “paddle outs,” during which surfers paddle out into the water to form a solidarity circle in the ocean. 

Many striking visual images have emerged from the movement and circulated online. These visual statements of solidarity usually combine iconography from both PI and Black culture, such as a raised fist and Pacific tattoo designs. The most common signs read: “Pacific Islanders for Black Lives,” “Black Liberation is Pacific Liberation,” “Micronesians for Black Lives,” “Black Lives Matter in the Pacific,” and other variations.

There have also been numerous solidarity statements from Pacific social justice organizations. These statements usually include: 1) The expression of outrage and mourning about the murder of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other victims. 2) The critique of police brutality, policing in general, institutional racism, and white supremacy. 3) The acknowledgement of and a commitment to address anti-Blackness within PI communities. 4) The racialization of Pacific Islanders as “Black,” such as Melanesians. 5) The recognition of Black and PI genealogies and mixed-race Black Pacific Islanders (BPI). 6) A recounting of our shared struggles against white supremacy in settler colonial contexts. 7) A commitment to support the Black community through direct actions and donations. 

Some statements go further into detail about Black and PI relations and genealogies. People have highlighted how the Black civil rights movements and the African and Caribbean decolonization movements inspired PI decolonization and indigenous rights movements—most embodied in the iconic influence that the Black Panthers had in the establishment of the Polynesian Panthers. Others have pointed to how Black expressive arts (reggae, rap, hip hop, literature, graffiti, and spoken word) and Black intellectuals (Franz Fanon, James Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and more) have influenced PI artists and intellectuals. The rich history of Black migration to the Pacific and their contributions to Pacific societies has been shared. Along those lines, the mixed-race BPI community, which has often been invisible and marginalized in the Pacific, is recognized and honored. 

In sharing Black and PI relationality and genealogy, many people have insisted that we therefore have a “debt” to the Black community because of all they have done to empower us, directly and indirectly. In Pacific cultures, “debt” is not a capitalist phenomenon. It is much deeper and refers to ideas about gift-giving, social reciprocity, interdependence, kinship, obligation, support, and mutual aid. Chamorros call this “chenchule’” and it is one of our most cherished values and practices.  

Despite the positivity, there has been, unfortunately, tension and discomfort as well. Some PI have either remained silent about the injustices, or they have openly opposed BLM solidarity. Some say that it is “not our problem” and “far away.” Others have shamed the “rioting” and “looting.” A few have objected for public health reasons, stating the protests put the PI communities at risk of contracting covid-19, especially dangerous since many PI live with older, vulnerable relatives, and that PI in the continental US have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. A few have insisted that PI have our own issues we should focus our energies on, such as decolonization, militarism, and climate change. Within the US, many PI serve in the National Guard, or they are employed as police and private security guards, who have been a part of policing the protests, riots, and looting. 

The most discomfort emerges when PI confront anti-Blackness in the Pacific. Some PI are defensive and claim that anti-Blackness doesn’t exist in the Pacific, which is often depicted as a “multicultural” or “post-racial” “paradise.”  This has been countered by powerful testimony from the BPI community, who have been sharing their personal experiences of anti-Blackness in the Pacific (and, sadly, within their own families and kinship networks). This includes racist slurs, micro-aggressions, stereotypes, colorism, exclusions, bullying, cultural appropriation, disrepect, and more. There have been a couple of webinars on the BPI experience, who have offered emotional testimony both from BPI individuals as well as from PI parents who have BPI children and relatives. Their emotional testimony have shared experiences of racism and anxiety about how anti-Blackness has impacted their families and their fears about their children’s future. Language scholars have even pointed out the racist names for Black people in indigenous Pacific languages. 

In addition to anti-Blackness, the BPI community has spoken to their own feelings about identity and belonging. In terms of identity, the most common statement was BPI individuals not feeling “Black enough” or “Pacific enough.” In terms of belonging, people have felt disconnected from either heritage, especially if they have grown up in the diaspora. One profound insight draws our attention to how one crucial aspect of Pacific identity is a connection to and knowledge of genealogy, whereas Black identity has been indelibly shaped by a violent disconnection from ancestry because of slavery. This difference can also be noted in comparative Black and Indigenous studies. 

BPI identities that have been visible include Black-Hawaiian, Black-Samoan, Black-Tongan, Black-Chamorro, Black-Fijian, and Black-Maori.

In Hawaiʻi, a surprising point of contention has been that some Hawaiians have shamed the “looting” and “riots” as not being “kapu aloha,” a  complex form of the nonviolent direct action that Hawaiian protectors articulated, practiced, and popularized during the ongoing movement to defend the sacred mountain, Mauna Kea. Black and BPI in Hawaiʻi have been hurt by this shaming, especially since it suggests that they are not culturally “peaceful” people. On the other hand, other Hawaiian activists have expressed that rage and violence are proper responses to police brutality and judicial injustice, and that Hawaiians should not compare Mauna Kea to the BLM movement since the violence Black folks face against the police is way more brutal than what Hawaiians faced at the Mauna, and that Mauna Kea itself is a sacred space whereas US cities are capitalist spaces.   

In the settler colonial nations Australia and New Zealand, some politicians and pundits are expressing solidarity with Black Lives Matter in the US but not mentioning racism in their own countries against Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islanders, Maori, or Pasifika peoples (some of whom have been historically racialized as Black), African and other POC. Police brutality and structural racism is a problem there as well, so we can interpret this as an insidious kind of “Blackwashing”—a way to wash over racism in Australia and New Zealand by claiming solidarity with BLM in the US. Many Black, Indigenous, and PI have leveraged the moment to point to this hypocrisy and raise awareness about injustice in their own countries related to racism, poverty, and incarceration. Activists have furthermore raised awareness about “global anti-Blackness,” especially in relation to the colonization and ongoing genocide in West Papua by the Indonesian military and police. West Papuans are similarly radicalized as “Black” and have faced anti-Black violence. 

Within U.S. settler colonialism in Guam and Hawaiʻi, I have noticed that there are some politicians and individuals (who are White, Asian, or POC) who are vocal in their support of BLM and for police abolition. However, I have seen these same people stand AGAINST Chamorro and Hawaiian sovereignty and self-determination. This to me points to how some settlers in the Pacific support liberal and progressive reforms, but they don’t support decolonization, which would completely unsettle their power here. This speaks to a divide between civil rights and indigenous rights within “the U.S.-occupied Pacific.” Additionally, Micronesian migrants from freely associated states who live in Guam and Hawai’i have also leveraged this moment to raise awareness about anti-Micronesian racism and discrimination.

My last point is the most difficult one to write about because it addresses a more complicated part of Black and PI relations, and it mainly applies to the U.S.-occupied Pacific. While Black arrival, presence, and settlement in places like Guam and Hawaiʻi dates back to the 1800s (either as part of the whaling industry or to escape racism and seek better economic opportunities) the main reason for Black migration in the 20th century is military service (the history of Black soldiers in the Asia-Pacific region dates back to World War II). In Hawai’i, for example, it is estimated that 30,000 Black people live here, and about two thirds (or 20,000) are connected to the military industrial complex as members of the armed forces or their dependents. While the military itself has been a space for Black civil rights struggle (the commander of the Hawai’i based U.S. Pacific Air Forces, who’s African American, recently commented about anti-Blackness in the military), it has also been a space of violence, militarism, and colonialism against Pacific lands, waters, and bodies (the history of sexual violence perpetuated by US soldiers of all races is something that has sparked the demilitarization movement in the Pacific and Asia). 

Some PI have underlined “anti-Pacificness” within the military. This includes military conceptions of  Chamorros and Hawaiians as lazy, dumb, and backwards, and the idea that our islands can never be free because we can’t defend ourselves militarily. Anti-Blackness in Guam and Hawai’i (and, I would argue, anti-Whiteness as well) is entangled with anti-military and anti-colonial sentiments because soldiers represent the American military and empire. Black militarism and Black soldier settlers force us to confront the idea that there is no guarantee that Black liberation is Pacific liberation. 

This history hasn’t circulated as widely in recent discussions or events for several reasons. For one, it is quite specific to Guam and Hawaiʻi, so most PI outside these places don’t know this history, or have never experienced anti-Pacificness from Black military personnel. Those who do know this history but omit it from their statements have mentioned that right now we need to keep “Black Lives Matter” centered and that the most important thing for PI is to express our solidarity and focus on the positive and uplifting aspects of our relations. This way, we can build a strong foundation of connection and perhaps down the road we can reckon with demilitarization and anti-Pacificness. The Black and BPI communities don’t always mention Black ties to the military because it has led to the stereotype that Black is “synonymous” with the military (and, in turn, synonymous with militarized violence). They instead highlight the fact that not all Black people in Hawaiʻi and Guam are connected to the military, and offer an alternative narrative of non-militarized Black experiences and contributions.

There is a lot more testimony and listening that needs to happen between PI, BPI, and the Black communities in the Pacific and the Pacific diaspora. There is a lot of pain and trauma, and a lot of healing and repair we need to do. We need to do both anti-racist and anti-colonial work. It will be difficult and take time, but I feel like the solidarity events have created a strong foundation.

Part of this foundation is an essay by Joy Enomoto that has become the most circulated essay during this time: “Where will you be?: Why Black Lives Matter in the Hawaiian Kingdom.” A few Black-led organizations have also been more active in the Pacific: including Black Creatives Aotearoa, Guam Black Network, and The Pōpolo Project (Hawaiʻi). Lastly, the spirit of Teresia Teaiwa—one of our most important and beloved BPI leaders—has been evoked repeatedly, and I believe her spirit will continue to guide us as we navigate Black and Pacific futures. 

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