'Pacific Islander' an insulting umbrella term, researcher says

By Andrea McRae/RNZ Pacific


Auckland --The umbrella term Pacific Islander or Polynesian has been criticised as degrading and insensitive.

Researcher Seini Taufa, who is a New Zealand-born Tongan, said the names were not indigenous terms and were insulting.

Taufa is research lead for Moana Research and Senior Pacific Advisor for the Growing up in New Zealand Longitudinal Study.

She has given evidence to the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care's Pacific inquiry being held in South Auckland.

Taufa quoted author, Albert Wendt.

“I am called a Pacific Islander when I arrive at Auckland Airport. Elsewhere I am Samoan.'”

Taufa said lumping everyone together robbed people of their true identity.

“We did not name ourselves Pacific Islanders, we did not name ourselves Polynesian. These are terms that were constructed by palagi within a colonial context.”

She said preconceived ideas around being called a Pacific Islander or Polynesian influenced the way Pacific people self identify.

“While the umbrella term Pacific is useful when making global comparisons, it's futile when applied to actual people and groups of people who consider themselves not Pacific or Polynesian, but Samoan, Tongans, Fijians, Cook Islanders and so on.”

Taufa said, in a New Zealand context, Pacific people have been marked for as long as they have settled in Aotearoa whereby the Pacific embodiment is interpreted differently from context to context.

“On the rugby field and among the All Blacks, Pacific male bodies are celebrated. In a crime and punishment context, Pacific male bodies are associated with racist discourses of violence, rape, gangs, fear and danger.”

“'Pacific people thus construct their identities and live their lives at the intersection of positive histories, language and culture and negative and stereotypical ideas and beliefs produced by the dominant group,” she said.

Taufa said many abuse survivors experienced racism and discrimination first hand.

One young man asked about his ethnic background responded with Samoan, but was told by someone in authority that he wasn't, as he was born in New Zealand.

“As a young boy who relates being Samoan to Christianity, to family and to his mother, he is forced to adopt an identity that doesn't belong to him - a New Zealander - and, with it, the trauma of what he was exposed to in state care as a New Zealander.”

She said it spoke to the power held by a dominant group.

“To label another with little consideration of the detrimental nature of such actions.'”

Taufa said the importance of ones ethnicity should never be doubted.

“I hope that it raises questions amongst those in the system to be more cautious of how they record, how they document and the fact that it can and has, through our survivor voices, had an impact on their well being.”

Taufa said there were inadequacies of ethnic classification and data collection in New Zealand, both past and present.

Meanwhile, a life of abuse from an early age has been outlined to the inquiry into abuse in care by a woman of Tongan and Palagi descent.

The Royal Commission is focusing on the historical abuse in care of Pacific people at its hearing in South Auckland.

Joanna Oldham was unaware of her Tongan ethnicity or culture growing up.

Her father was Pākehā and her mother Tongan.

She remembers, as a child, not knowing what her culture was or where she came from.

“I just knew that whatever I was, I was different and that whatever I was, was wrong. My father, grandmother and the whole side of my Pākehā family was extremely racist toward Māori and Pacifica people, including me.”

The Pākehā side of her family, including her grandmother, referred to her as that black bitch.

When she was first taken into state care, her ethnicity was listed as half European, half Tongan.


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“Despite Social Welfare getting my ethnicity correct the first time, throughout my records, Social Welfare subsequently mistook me as Māori, Samoan, Cook Island Māori and Niuean.”

She was born in 1974, first lived with her drug dealing, violent, gang member father who, when she was 11, was convicted of murder.

Her life started to spiral at the age of about eight when she was sexually abused by an Anglican minister, who has since died.

The then-Social Welfare Department were made aware of what was going on, but were told the Anglican minister was looking after the family and welfare help was not needed.

Oldham only learned of this recently.

“It's not surprising,” she said.

Documents show that Social Welfare had also been aware friends of her father were sexually abusing her, but again nothing happened.

“Of course I feel angry.”

She went through a series of foster placements and welfare homes - being abused in most of them and running away on numerous occasions.

She said she felt safer on the streets.

“I wasn't safe at home, I wasn't safe with my Dad, my Dad's friends. I wasn't safe with my grandmother, I wasn't safe in church. You know, where was I safe? I was safe with those people who were other kids like myself, who I guess happened to be living on the streets.'”

While she felt the streets were a better place, it was not long before she was abused there too.

“[As] a young woman, I guess I became more of a target. You know just like all the other girls who were with me, as we matured we became a target for strangers.”.

The pattern continued with welfare knowing what was happening, but again not reacting.

“My initial thought is, I hope they are still not doing that. I hope they are not treating children that way now. I hope something has changed, like are we still treating children this way, I hope not.”

Oldham said she has now come to terms that what happened to her was not her fault.

“I am very aware when control has been taken away from you, by people stronger than you, the power that we do have is in our words. I don't know what the lessons are and I don't know what the answers are. I know that there are people like myself and you know one of the coaches in my boxing gym [says], you know we don't have degrees but we've got some answers.”