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  • By Robert A. Underwood

Who are you? What are you? Mark the box

What is the difference between a label, a category and an identity marker?

When we say we are something, we are embracing an identity marker. In a multi-ethnic society, multi-generational society, multi-abled society, these terms take on a life of their own. Sometimes, we are in agreement about what they mean, but frequently we aren’t. It is clear that we all have multiple identities. I am a U.S. citizen, a CHamoru, a Dodger fan, an amko’ (not a manamko’), but not exactly a Micronesian.

When we say words like “disabled,” “Micronesian,” “American,” “Guamanian,” “queer,” we are conveying a shortcut explanation about the individuals to whom we apply these labels.

If I were called a Guamanian queer, I would object. As these terms apply to me, I object to one because it mischaracterizes me (queer) and I just find the other term (Guamanian) problematic. In the society of Guahan in 2021, these terms carry meaning. The issue is we don’t agree on the definitions associated with these powerful words.

I am not talking about obviously negative or pejorative labels. “Flips” or “gooks” are abhorrent terms. I am talking about commonly accepted labels and self-identity markers that are accepted in polite speech.

We are witnessing the changing of terms before our eyes or should I say ears. I see news reports talk about “Guamanians’ getting vaccinations. I hear that crime suspect are Micronesian or CHamoru. I guess Guamanians can get vaccinated, but don’t commit crimes.

Many people like to say that they are in control of the labels that are used. They select their identities, so it is entirely up to them. Of course, this is true when you are filling out a census form or a questionnaire at the doctor’s office. You feel empowered because you can pick a category. But the problem is you don’t control the census or the labels that are presented. The categories are determined by others and there must be general consensus about them or the terms become meaningless.

The most complicated terms in use today are “Micronesian” and “Guamanian.” Decades ago, we knew who these people were. Micronesians came from the old trust territory and trace their ancestry to the Marshalls, the Caroline Islands and Palau. Guamanians were CHamorus.

Today, if you ask some CHamoru activists, they may reject the term Guamanian. But they might embrace the term Micronesian out of inter-island and regional solidarity. They might reject the inclusion of CHamoru under the term Guamanian, but willingly place it as a subset of Micronesian.

Well, we are all ethnically Pacific Islanders, which is the broader category. But that makes sense only in census categories established by the U.S. census. Being a Pacific Islander would leave out Caucasians and Filipinos who may call themselves Guamanians.

According to the U.S. census, Filipinos are Asians. But there are Filipino activists who want to leave the "Asian" behind and become Pacific Islanders. The good category news is that the U.S. census now recognizes AANHPI as a single broad category. If you are Asian, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, we can all check one box together. The bad news category is that we can do that only one time every 10 years.

It is tempting to say that we should leave categories behind. But that is to deny the reality of our differences and pretend that we are all the same. We experience the world differently. We eat different foods, emphasize different cultural values and are over-represented in certain diseases. It is human to create categories.

Recognizing differences is a human activity. In fact, it is an act of intelligence to develop categories that provide important information. This information allows us to treat each other fairly and respectfully and assists in education and health care.

Labels are useful and they can be badges of honor. T-shirts saying “I am proud to be Chuukese” or bumper stickers that proclaim “Visayan” are ubiquitous. I haven’t seen a t-shirt or tattoo that proclaims “Proud to be Guamanian” but it could happen.

Sometimes, multiple categories can become pretty convoluted and difficult to grasp as in “intersectionality.” This brings together two categories likely to bring negative attention or even discrimination. The problem is determining which one is at work. If I were a Guamanian queer experiencing poor treatment in the workplace, would it be one category over the other?

Sometimes the intersectionality appears creative. There is a little bit of conversation and even songs out there about being “Chamaole.” This is a category, or perhaps a condition, experienced by people who have one CHamoru and one Caucasian parent. In times past, the pejorative term “half breed” would be applied. Today, it is unclear whether being Chamaole is a one-generation phenomenon that is not easily replicated.

Personally, I grew up as a Guamanian. When asked, “What are you?” I would dutifully say Guamanian when I was speaking English. In CHamoru, I would say “CHamoru yu’.” But then, I abandoned Guamanian somewhere between high school and college. I embraced being CHamoru both in English and CHamoru.

In broader and in census terms, I was also a Pacific Islander. But I never identified myself as a Micronesian. I would say that I was a fellow islander. It wasn’t because I felt that it gave me a lesser status or that it was necessarily inaccurate. I didn’t want to feel like I was taking a title from somebody. I valued it so much, I didn’t want to feel like I was intruding.

My wife Nerissa was born in the Philippines but raised in Guahan. She is a naturalized U.S. citizen who continues to speak Ilonggo. When I asked her what she was, she replied, “Strong and courageous.” Some people have few doubts about who they are.

Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to

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