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Reducing anti-Pacific Islander bias on campus, a Q&A with Maile Arvin

In this 18-month project, University Communications reached out to campus experts to provide content for these Q&As based on their academic and/or lived experience. These Q&As are part of a larger series. They do not represent the official position of the University of Utah and are provided for educational purposes.

Maile Arvin is an associate professor of History and Gender Studies at the University of Utah. She is a Native Hawaiian feminist scholar who works on issues of race, gender, science and colonialism in Hawai‘i and the broader Pacific. At the University of Utah, she is part of the leadership of the Pacific Islands Studies Initiative.

To contextualize this conversation about race and bias on campus, what are important things to understand about the history of Pacific Islander people in the United States and Utah specifically?

It’s hard to give a brief statement about the history of how all Pacific Islanders came to the U.S. As you might expect, there are so many different ways this has happened in so many different communities. One basic way to think about it is: Pacific Islanders are here in large part because the United States came to their homelands and exerted power in ways that have made it hard for Pacific Islander people to remain in their homelands and to afford land and the other necessities of life.

For specific examples, it may be easiest to think about some of the communities that are here in Utah and the histories of how they came to be here. As many people probably know, this history is really tied to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the early 1850s, the LDS Church started to send missionaries to the Pacific Islands, specifically Hawaii. They were successful in converting some Native Hawaiians to the Mormon faith and because of that, some of the first Pacific Islanders to come to Utah in the late 1800s were Native Hawaiians.

They first settled in Salt Lake City, but then they were pushed out to Skull Valley and they built a community in the desert that they called Iosepa. This community ended in the early 1900s when a lot of those Hawaiians went back to Hawaii to help with the new Mormon temple that had been built there.

I’m Hawaiian, and so I know that history the best, but, a lot of the other Pacific Islander communities that are here in Utah have similar stories. Connections to the LDS Church are one of the things that brought people here to create better lives for their families, especially in the sense of economic and educational opportunities that are more abundant here than in their home nations.

What are common stereotypes, assumptions, microaggressions?

One assumption I feel a lot of people, especially in Utah, may make is that Pacific Islander men are all great football players. Pacific Islander men are often stereotyped to be big and bulky and strong and kind of naturally good at athletics. That’s not always wrong. But with this stereotype there come negative aspects, including only valuing Pacific Islander men for their athletic ability and not seeing them as fully intelligent people who could be good at a lot of different kinds of things.

Because of the way Hawaii and other Pacific Islands are often sold to Americans and other international audiences, there is often a depiction of Pacific Islander women, Native Hawaiian women in particular, as naturally welcoming hosts who, to put it bluntly, are sexual objects for tourist men to receive. Those kind of stereotypes can be really harmful, because they increase the rates of sexual violence against Pacific Islander women.

When it comes to stereotypes like “island time,” it’s important to remember that the value of always being on time is based on a very masculine and Western idea that you have no other responsibilities. People of all backgrounds can be on time, and people of all backgrounds have caretaking responsibilities and other commitments that may need to come first and lead to something else needing to be deprioritized.

Are there examples specific to Utah, or the U’s campus that you think are important for people to know?

One issue that happens in Utah as well as in other places is non-Pacific Islanders lumping all Pacific Islanders together as if they are all the same. Pacific Islanders do share a lot of cultural, and political affinities, but there are also a lot of differences within and between our communities. While our cultures are related, they are not the same and our histories and political contexts are not the same. Assuming we are all the same is offensive. That’s one thing I try to really emphasize in my courses: If you really want to be a good ally, you have to be willing to do a lot of learning and be willing to understand the differences in our needs and interests.

What are issues with Pacific Islanders being included with Asians in data gathering, celebrations, ect? What does that erase and what can people be mindful of to better include Pacific Islanders?

This is a huge topic. There are many Pacific Islander folks who have been leading the charge of trying to get us to separate into our own group in things like certain forms of data aggregation. For example, if you are trying to do a study on something like retention in college for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, there’s going to be a lot of differences between Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in those kinds of contexts. But the data is often not separated out, so it’s hard to use in ways that would be specifically helpful for Pacific Islanders.

Additionally, I think there is a really well-intentioned desire on the part of Asian American organizations to include Pacific Islanders in their audience, in part because of the ways that data is collected or funding is allocated.

It is important to refuse erasure of Pacific Islanders, but it’s not enough to just include Pacific Islanders in name in something that is otherwise about Asian Americans. This is harmful and can also lead to erasure. There always needs to be more thoughtful engagement in the ways Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are placed together.

What are ways that people can be better allies to the Pacific Islanders who are part of our campus community?

Number one is always try to learn more. One way is to take our classes. We have an undergraduate certificate in the Pacific Islanders Studies Program, and this is like a minor but a little easier to fit into your schedule. We also have a lot of events throughout the year. Those are always open and available for folks to come in and learn more about our communities as well.

In general, people can take action to resist stereotyping Pacific Islanders and not assume what their experience or knowledge is. Pacific Islanders in Utah are often in spaces where they are the only one. In these situations, there can be a lot of assumptions put on that person in regards to expecting them to represent all Pacific Islanders and know all pertinent information. These are impossible expectations that are frankly racist.

Our program always loves connecting and collaborating with other folks across campus. Right now, we’re in the process of creating a center for Pacifica and Indigenous Knowledges on campus. If you are interested in connecting with us more, especially in research opportunities, please stay tuned for more information.