A Fabricated “Almost-Whiteness”: The Colonial Racialization Of Polynesians


Arvin Funambulist 2
“New Race Growing Up in the Pacific” in the Oakland Tribune newspaper in 1930. / From Maile Arvin, Possessing Polynesians: The Science of Settler Colonial Whiteness in Hawai’i and Oceania, Duke University Press (2019).


In this contribution, Funambulist friend Anaïs Duong-Pedica asks questions to Maile Arvin about the research she conducted for her book Possessing Polynesians: The Science of Settler Colonial Whiteness in Hawaiʻi and Oceania. In it, she shows how Polynesians have been racialized by European and U.S. colonizers as being in proximity with whiteness, in contrast with Melanesians and Micronesians in Oceania. She argues that far from affording them political power, this racist myth legitimized the settler colonial appropriation of land and people.

ANAÏS DUONG-PEDICA: One of one of my first encounters with your work was with the text you entitled “Polynesia is a project not a place” (2018), drawing on Martinican poet and theorist Édouard Glissant, who wrote “the West is not in the West, it is a project not a place.” In it, you write about the ways in which Polynesia was born out of the imaginations of European imperialists. Could you talk about this and about the racial logic behind the division of Oceania into three areas, which are Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia?
MAILE ARVIN: I think that a lot of the representations of the Pacific that white people in North America or Europe are familiar with are representations of Polynesia, and they have to do with a tropical island paradise, a natural, lovely vacation place. My work really looks at how the history of these representations is really deep and inextricably tied to colonialism and imperialism in the Pacific. When I was doing the research for my first book, I was looking at the history of scientific writing about race: Western folks coming to the Pacific and assigning Western ideas about race to Indigenous peoples from the Pacific.