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.

As I was doing that, I kept coming across these references to Polynesians as white, or almost white, or various conditional phrases being placed on Polynesian whiteness, but constantly showing that Europeans understood Polynesians as white in some manner.

This is from the earliest travelog writings by Cook and others. But my book looks a little bit more at the social scientists who came after, and who continued some of those ideas.

Another way to frame it would be to say that Polynesians were understood as the “noble savage.” My book tries to understand and go into the history of how that idea of Polynesians as being the “noble savage” is tied with Polynesia being understood as “almost white” when other parts of the Pacific were racialized in a mutually constitutive thing where Melanesia was understood to be black. And so my work tries to understand the legacy of these ideas, particularly in Polynesia, because I’m Hawaiian, but I don’t think you can really understand the ways that Polynesians are represented as “almost white” or as “noble savages” without also seeing that Melanesians are understood as the opposite of that: as the “savage savages.” And then Micronesia can go either way in the historical writings on race in the Pacific. Sometimes they’re more lumped with Polynesia and sometimes more with Melanesia, depending on the colonizer or whoever is writing, and what arguments they’re trying to make. But I think what this history shows us is that ideas about race, antiblackness, and white supremacy are all really, really important and a primary logic that goes along with settler colonialism in the Pacific context.

ADP: Yes, and actually, what I particularly appreciated in your book is how you connect white supremacy, settler colonialism, and antiblackness in Oceania, and how they’re articulated in that specific context. Perhaps, building on that, something that would be useful at this stage for listeners is an explanation of how indigeneity and race are not the same thing, but they, however, work together in settler colonial contexts. So could you explain what you understand by indigeneity in your work, and how it is mobilized? And in the context of Hawai’i more specifically, and Oceania more broadly?

MA: When I explain indigeneity to the students in my classes, I try to get them to understand it as a social category that is like race or gender, and often intersects with those other social categories, but it’s also distinct. Indigeneity refers to the unique social category that Indigenous people inhabit. And, you know, indigeneity can look different to different Indigenous groups. But maybe just speaking for Native Hawaiians, but I think this is applicable more broadly as well, indigeneity is to us just how we understand our relationship to our land. We are descendants from the land: the land is literally our ancestor. Because of that, genealogy is really important to us. And because the land is our ancestor, we have certain responsibilities to take care of it, as that land takes care of us. So indigeneity is not the same as race, from an Indigenous perspective, in the sense that it’s really about genealogy in a broad sense, and the responsibilities that you have because of your genealogy. 

The way that settler colonialism works to break Indigenous ties to land and within Indigenous communities is actually by imposing ideas about race onto Indigenous peoples.

A really prime example in the Hawaiian context is that ideas of blood quantum were introduced. Blood quantum is a Western notion of race that says that Indigenous blood is diluted through racial mixture with other races, other kinds of peoples. In settler colonial logic, through this measuring of people through blood quantum, the idea is that Indigenous people are destined to die out and just eventually become part, in a lower position, but part of the white race. These ideas are really harmful to Indigenous peoples, because for Hawaiians, traditionally, genealogy was a really broad expansive thing. So as different kinds of people started coming to Hawai’i, having an ancestor who was Chinese or white or of another race, that didn’t make you any less Hawaiian at all, right? It even broadened Hawaiian ties to the rest of the world. And so it wasn’t necessarily seen as a betrayal of your race or your nation, but just an expansion. That’s really different from the ideology brought by white Americans and British and other Europeans to Hawai’i, which said that if you had different ancestors from different races, then you were becoming less Hawaiian. That was and continues to be a really damaging idea for Hawaiians. It’s a way to diminish Hawaiian epistemologies, relationships and kinships. It particularly places a certain burden on Native Hawaiian women. Over the years, some of these ideas have been internalized by Hawaiian people and, sometimes, Hawaiian women face a certain amount of pressure to only have children with Hawaiian men who have a certain amount of Hawaiian blood so that their children will have a certain amount of Hawaiian blood so that they can be recognized by the state for certain programs. All that’s to say that places a lot of unfair pressure and sometimes even sexual violence on Native Hawaiian women, in particular. So these ideas about race that go along with settler colonialism are also very heteropatriarchal which, again, was not necessarily how Hawaiians thought about these things before colonialism.

Arvin Funambulist 4
“Hawaiian ¼, White ¾ Woman,” eugenics bust by Louis Sullivan in the Bishop Museum collection. / From Maile Arvin, Possessing Polynesians: The Science of Settler Colonial Whiteness in Hawai’i and Oceania, Duke University Press (2019).

ADP: In your book there’s a lot of this idea of this tragic loss of authenticity and purity, through this concept of blood quantum. You analyze the science behind this logic of the Polynesian race as “almost white” and you explore how in the 19th century, there was a shift in Western writing about the Pacific from “first contact” travel narratives and reflections on geographical regions and names to what you call like a scientific fascination for Polynesian origins, which you explain was nicknamed by scientists the “Polynesian problem.” Could you tell us about this literature and its legacies today?

MA: As I mentioned earlier, when I was doing my research for the book, I was looking at these histories of science, which start in the late 1800s, with particularly folks who are linguists or philologists, so the people who trace genealogies of language. So the first chapter of my book looks at these folks who are looking at comparing Polynesian languages to Sanskrit, and trying to make certain kinds of arguments about how close or far Polynesians are to Sanskrit. This was all being couched in terms of Aryanism.  The original discourses about Aryanism were fairly literal in the sense that these white linguists and philologists were seeing that the Aryans were this ancient race from northern India. In their view, Europeans were distantly descended from these Aryans, who were different from modern Indian people somehow. These philologists would compare different languages back to Sanskrit and, based on their proximity to Sanskrit, would say that certain races were more or less white or Caucasian or Aryan. This happened with a lot of different races but this happened with Polynesians and people were consistently saying that Polynesian languages were close enough to Sanskrit that it could be argued that Polynesians were a distant ancestor, or the Aryans were a distant ancestor of Polynesians. And therefore, because Europeans also shared that ancient Aryan ancestor, that there is this kinship between Europeans and Polynesians, that would then get deployed by imperialists and colonizers to say that, “we’re family and our are coming to Polynesia and taking over the governments and installing plantations, on your lands, it’s not it’s not colonialism, it’s just a family reunion,” right?

So it’s very convoluted, in some ways. But there, there are people like Edward Tregear in the New Zealand context who wrote a book called The Aryan Maori (1885), and that was literally his argument: that the British and the Māori people are distant long lost relatives, and that it’s just destiny for the British to come to Aotearoa/New Zealand and take it over and lift up their little Māori brothers. As you can hear, it’s a very paternalistic discourse. Then following from that into more around the turn of the century, there comes the era of physical anthropology and eugenics. At that period, there were a lot of physical anthropologists traveling from the U.S. and Europe to the Pacific and doing a lot of detailed measurements of people’s heads, cataloging the size of their noses, the kinds of ear lobes they have, the frizziness of their hair, and, again, taking all of these things and comparing it to “Caucasian people” (the term physical anthropologists were using at the time), and based on how close those characteristics are, arguing that certain races are more or less white or Caucasian. So this is where Polynesians are being compared to Europeans and, again, arguments are being made about how the true ancient “Polynesian type” was a “Caucasian type,” or “almost Caucasian.” Of course, if you look at the actual research that these people were doing, the actual people that they’re looking at would not be understood as white, right? But there are all these kinds of different discourses and convoluted logics that these scientists are using to make this argument that Polynesians are somehow conditionally white. And again, that logic has been used not to extend the privileges of whiteness to Polynesians, but to justify white settler colonialism in Polynesia. 

Then, in my third chapter, I look more at sociology and sociological studies that were being conducted in Hawai’i, more in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. These studies were a lot about racial mixture—this so-called discourse of racial mixture. There were all these ideas that Hawai’i in particular, was this magical, racial melting pot that the Chicago school of sociology really represented as the solution to a lot of the race problems that were really evident in the continental U.S.. And so these white sociologists who came to Hawai’i would do interviews with mixed-race people, and based on their interpretation of the surveys would say “oh, there’s no racial prejudice here in Hawai’i.” But when I read the surveys, I argued that there’s actually a lot of evidence of racism in the surveys, including internalized racism, because a lot of the interviews that the sociologists were doing were with mixed-race Chinese and Hawaiian people. The majority of the interviews are really saying “oh, Hawaiians are bad,” “Hawaiians are stupid or backwards,” “they’re criminals.” These are Hawaiian people saying this about the Hawaiian people. But by contrast, they see their Chinese heritage as more positive and more industrious, more fitting into the ideas of the “American dream.” So with the racial melting pot idea, the idea is that Hawaiians will blend into whiteness, and again, this is justifying and naturalizing U.S. control of Hawai’i, and imposing white supremacy on Hawai’i, even if white people have never been the majority in Hawai’i, and still are not. Yet, white people still control a lot more wealth and power in Hawai’i than Native Hawaiian people. So what I’m saying is that these ideas about the racial melting pot were one way that white supremacy flourished in Hawai’i, even as white people have never actually outnumbered Hawaiian people.

Arvin Funambulist 3
“A century of change in Hawaii’s population,” in the Cold Spring Harbor American Eugenics Movement archive (circa 1922). / From Maile Arvin, Possessing Polynesians: The Science of Settler Colonial Whiteness in Hawai’i and Oceania, Duke University Press (2019).

ADP: Continuing on this idea of the melting pot ideal or this really positive perception of racial hybridity in Hawai’i, could you tell us a little bit more about the sexual and racial politics that are at play? Earlier you talked about this pressure that it puts on Native Hawaiian women, this idea of this tragic loss of authenticity, but also at some point in your book you write about the figure of the hybrid Hawaiian girl. And so can you talk to us about this figure in relation to this “ethnic rainbow,” and how the hybrid Hawaiian girl is also enabled by what you call this settler logic of possession through whiteness?

MA: Absolutely. In the chapter in which  I talked about those sociological interviews that I was just mentioning, I also just talk about this figure that emerges around this time, which I argue is partly enabled by these sociological discourses about the melting pot, which is the half Hawaiian, or in some way, mixed-race Hawaiian woman, which becomes very emblematic in many arenas, including tourism. But especially in the 1940s, there’s a lot of photos published in the newspapers of so-called half or mixed-race Hawaiian women performing for the U.S. troops who were stationed in Hawai’i during World War Two and after. What I’m arguing about that figure is that by seeing that these Hawaiian women are mixed-race, it makes them preserve some of the exotic “noble savage” ideas about Hawaiians, but also makes them more familiar and more available to white settlers and men. 

Throughout the book, I talk about this logic of possession through whiteness, which is just another way of saying that, again, there are ways through which white settlers extend this very conditional whiteness to Polynesian people.

This is never a logic that actually includes or extends the privileges of whiteness to Polynesian people, but it underwrites this logic that white people have a natural claim to land and other resources, and even people and in this case, especially mixed-race Hawaiian women.

They all become natural possessions of whiteness. Because through this convoluted social scientific logic about the origins of Polynesia somehow in Northern India, having this ancient relationship to Europeans, then there’s this idea that “Oh, white people are indigenous to Polynesia, too, right?” And so by colonizing Polynesia, they’re just reclaiming what was always their birthright. This applies to land and water in Polynesia, which gets taken up to build these large scale sugar plantations and, later, pineapple plantations. But I also think that the same logic is really evident in the blood quantum discourses, or these discourses about racial mixture, where Hawaiian bodies, especially female-identified bodies, are also seen as natural possessions of whiteness.

ADP: Something else I wanted to talk about is the fact that it’s very clear that you look at different groups of scientists. On the one hand, there are the white settler scientists who you’ve talked about in this interview already, and on the other, there are also Polynesian scientists with different positionalities than those settler scientists, and also different political agendas and purposes than their white colleagues, but who were nonetheless involved in the discourses of Polynesian exceptionalism, and Polynesians’ supposed proximity to whiteness. Could you talk more about these distinct positions and what was at stake in these discourses based on the background of the scientists taking part in them?

MA: I look at two main Polynesian people who were also engaging with some of these discourses at the time. One is King Kalākaua who had this scientific society called the Hale Nauā. With that society, he was engaging, keeping up on some of these studies about the Polynesian race, and sometimes trying to see how they would fit with Hawaiian genealogies and Hawaiian ideas about race, and sometimes trying to use them for the benefit of the Hawaiian nation in ways that would maybe bolster ideas that the Hawaiian Kingdom was civilized and modern, and maybe white to some extent. Another figure that I look at is Te Rangihīroa, who was a Māori anthropologist, among many other amazing things. And he also wrote a couple of books that were really engaging with this literature on the so-called “Polynesian problem” or the origins of Polynesians. He ultimately actually agrees with a lot of the white social scientists and argues that Polynesians did come from somewhere in Asia, but that they didn’t so-call mix with Melanesian people or Micronesian people, and therefore, Polynesians are a really distinct race that is ultimately whiter and implicitly or explicitly better than Melanesian people and Micronesian people. 

I raise these things not to say “Oh, Te Rangihīroa was so colonized or so wrong,” although, I do think it’s important to critique the legacies of those ideas and the ways that they’ve been internalized. This is to point out that these ideas are actually not our ideas. Hawaiians and other Polynesians have really different ideas about our genealogies and our relationships, which often emphasize that we are family with Melanesian people and Micronesian people. But I think if you can see the writings of Kalākaua and Te Rangihīroa in this larger context of this discourse about Polynesians being white, it makes sense that they were trying to get a handle on this discourse and see how it might be used to bolster confidence and empowerment for Polynesian people. Again, it’s not to critique Kalākaua and Te Rangihīroa, but to show how they were honestly trying to bolster their communities and their nations in this colonial time. I think it’s important that we, today, are able to see how much we’ve internalized some of those ideas ourselves still, and are able to do it differently. So in Hawai’i, it’s really evident that there is a lot of racism against Micronesian people, including sometimes from Hawaiian people. And there might be many roots of that racism, but I think one of them is this history of this idea imposed on the Pacific that Polynesians are whiter and better than Melanesians and Micronesians. And I think if we’re better able to see where these ideas come from, and how and why they’ve been internalized, then hopefully, we can understand these ideas as a really central part of decolonization more broadly.

ADP: Perhaps we can come back to this idea of Melanesian and Micronesian people being family with Polynesians, and that’s the way a lot of people in the Pacific see this as well. In the second part of your book, you show how the logic of possession through whiteness continues to inform the way white Americans see and value Native Hawaiians and other Indigenous Pacific Islanders today. But most importantly, you also demonstrate how Indigenous Pacific Islanders resist these settler colonial discourses and use strategies against the logic of possession through whiteness in various fields. And you do so by coining the term “regenerative refusals.” Could you give us some contemporary examples of this and tell us more about what you mean by “regenerative refusals,” and how they help foreground radically decolonial oceanic futures?

Arvin Funambulist 1
Anaïs Duong-Pedica’s copy of Maile Arvin’s book, accompanied with a few other books and items from Oceania (2023).

MA: In that second part of the book, I try to show different examples of the legacies of these ideas as well as how Native Hawaiians and other Polynesian people are grappling with these legacies today. I look at it in a couple of different areas, including legal forms of recognition and legal debates over blood quantum, also looking at contemporary genomic studies, where we see again largely white or non-Polynesian scientists trying to determine the exact origins of the Polynesian race, but now through using more genomic technologies. I then also look at our contemporary Indigenous artists who engage with a lot of these ideas.

That idea of “regenerative refusal,” in my usage, came out of seeing how often Indigenous people’s engagement with things is often dismissed as hopelessly futile.

For example, in 2014, the Department of Interior of the U.S. Federal Government came to Hawai’i to hold hearings about so-called federal recognition of Native Hawaiians, which has a very long and convoluted history. But to put it briefly, the Department of Interior wanted to make Native Hawaiians into a status that would be equal to a federally recognized Native American tribe. Native Hawaiians have never had that because the history of colonialism in Hawai’i is related, but also distinct to colonialism that has impacted and continues to impact Native Americans. So in 2014, the Department of Interior came to Hawai’i, and held these hearings about “What are Hawaiian communities thoughts about being federally recognized?” Meeting after meeting on all of the islands, in different locations, and consistently, probably at least like 90% of all of the people who spoke at these meetings said: “We don’t want to be recognized by the federal government as Native people under the Department of Interior, please send the Department of State to come talk to us about restoring our independence as an independent country.” And also really interestingly, in the hearings, there was a lot of pushback against ideas about blood quantum as well. The way that these hearings and Hawaiian responses were portrayed in the local media at the time, with a lot about “Oh, Hawaiians are just so rude or being so mean to these Department of Interior people. The Department of Interior people are just trying to help, but Hawaiians are so backwards and hopeless. They’re rejecting this help…” 

So the idea I was trying to capture with regenerative refusals is just that all of those people who spoke at those hearings, who said “no” to this offer from the Department of Interior, a lot of those refusals were being dismissed by mainstream media, but I think what they were doing was something really radical and regenerative. Even as eventually the Department of Interior did pass the rule that recognized Hawaiians in some way. But what I think came out of those hearings was something bigger and more exciting and not related to the Department of Interior at all. As people spoke, it was a chance for Hawaiians to say what we thought our relationships were to each other and what nation we wanted, or how we wanted to be recognized, or how we could recognize each other. So the regenerative refusal idea is really just trying to point out just how productive sometimes saying “no” is. Even though I think, in a lot of mainstream discourse, there’s a lot of dismissal of refusal as being difficult to work with. So I talk about those hearings and that example in the book; also in terms of genomic science. There’s also a refusal at certain points by Hawaiians to participate in genomic studies or to agree to genetically modify kalo or taro, which is our staple plant and staple food. And, again, trying to point out how a lot of how that has been represented by the mainstream has been like “Oh, Hawaiians just don’t know what’s best for them, or they’re so difficult,” but I’m trying to show, in the context of these longer histories of colonialism, just how powerful and important those refusals can be, even if it does not appear necessarily, to outsiders, that something productive is happening, because they’re shutting down the settler project. But the idea of regenerative refusals is to really see those moments as actually really producing something different decolonial that is really essential for our communities. ■