Photos Challenge Discrimination Against Micronesians in Hawai‘i

Floyd K. Takeuchi
Commentary, Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

It’s a dirty secret about life in the Aloha State: many of our newest and poorest residents don’t live a life of aloha in these islands. Indeed, theirs is a hard scrabble existence, with the pressures of multi-generational housing and minimum-wage jobs made all the worse by the overt discrimination they face in schools, the workplace and in day-to-day life.

I’m referring to our neighbors who are “Micronesians,” Pacific Islanders from the independent nations of the Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of the Marshall Islands; Republic of Palau; and U.S. territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. In some circles, particularly in some of our public schools, these proud Pacific Islanders are the subject of open discrimination and prejudice. The term “Micro” is often used, a badge of hate equivalent to using the “N” word.

Why do I care? For one thing, I am fortunate to count Micronesians among my closest friends. And not just because we might be casual acquaintances. I was born and raised in those islands, a quirk of fate due to my late parents working in the region as senior administrators for the American administration that governed the area from the early 1950s until independence or commonwealth status in the 1970s and 1980s. I’ve also spent much of my 45-year career as a journalist involved in covering stories in the region.

In recent years, based in Hawai‘i as a writer and photographer, I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the widening rift between the small but growing Micronesian immigrant population in these islands and the open hostility they often face by locals. A few years ago, I had a photo exhibit at a then prominent art gallery in Honolulu. My show featured photos from my book “School on the Hill,” a documentary on Xavier High School in Chuuk. The Jesuit mission school has, since the 1950s, produced a disproportionate number of regional leaders – presidents, senators, doctors, lawyers and even an airline captain. 

One weekend, while I was at the gallery, I saw two middle-aged women in deep conversation by my exhibit. I introduced myself and asked if they had any questions. One of the women immediately asked, “Where were these photographs taken?” I said Chuuk, in Micronesia. “Micronesia!” one of the ladies said to the other with clear disdain. “Your favorite place!” It turned out that they were teachers at a public elementary school near Kuhio Park Terrace, the public housing project in Kalihi. It was clear that they were at their wit’s end trying to understand a student population that usually didn’t speak English, and whose parents apparently rarely showed up for parent-teacher meetings. At my photo exhibit, they were having the hardest time understanding images that showed Micronesian students thriving in an educational environment. Based on their experience, “success” and “Micronesian students” couldn’t be used in a simple declarative sentence. My photographs in “School on the Hill” challenged them to think differently about a Micronesian student’s ability to learn in a traditional classroom setting.

I took that same attitude – challenging long-held prejudices, confronting discrimination head on – in thinking about “The Micronesians.” The Micronesian community in Hawai‘i, based on the most recent U.S. Census results, is likely somewhere in the 15,000 to 20,000 range. That isn’t a lot of people – the entire group would fill less than half of the now-abandoned Aloha Stadium. Micronesians may live and work in Hawai‘i and all other U.S. jurisdictions without a residential or work visa. They have the right to do so under the Compact of Free Association, which was individually negotiated with each regional government when they became independent. It wasn’t a U.S. giveaway: the three governments (Marshall Islands; Federated States of Micronesia; and Palau) turned over the military defense of their respective country’s territory and sea lanes to the United States. The total territory nearly equals the size of the continental United States.

And in the case of the Marshall Islands, the equation is more complicated to compute. The United States, between 1946 and 1958, detonated 67 nuclear weapons tests on Bikini and Enewetak Atolls after local populations agreed to be relocated. Some of the tests went horribly wrong and radioactive fallout coated some inhabited atolls. The resulting cases of cancer and deaths due to the nuclear weapons testing have remained a source of dispute between both governments to this day.

For the average Hawai‘i resident, however, none of that is a factor when they see groups of “Micronesian” teenagers gathered in parks or women wearing what’s come to be known as the “Micronesian skirt” at a store or waiting at a bus stop. In fact, the skirt is not “Micronesian” in that it is most commonly worn by islanders from Pohnpei, Chuuk and Kosrae in the Central Caroline Islands of the Federated States of Micronesia. It is only in recent years that Marshallese women, in the far eastern edge of the Micronesian region, have begun wearing the skirt. And in the far west of Micronesia, or northwest, Palauan and Chamorro women of the Mariana Islands don’t usually wear the skirt, which often has distinctive embroidery and occasionally appliques. 

But historic or cultural accuracy are usually missing when it comes to prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behavior, and in the case of Hawai‘i, the “Micronesian skirt” has become something of a symbol of this small but visible population. So, in my mind, what better way to confront local attitudes than using the skirt as a tripwire for prejudice? That’s what went through my mind when I was asked to curate a photography exhibit at Downtown Art Center, a relatively new cultural institution that’s dedicated to using the arts to develop stronger communities in Hawai‘i.

I knew that if most locals saw a photograph of a darker skinned woman wearing the skirt, their immediate thoughts would be: Micronesian, immigrant, poor and probably on welfare. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if that woman wearing the distinctive skirt was actually a partner in Hawai‘i’s oldest law firm, or the CEO of a non-profit organization, or a Ph.D. in marine biology whose specialty is marine algae? And thus was born my photo exhibit, “The Micronesians.” It featured nine women of obvious distinction and achievement; “clear,” that is, if you got beyond the stereotype.

I asked nine women to participate – all said yes very quickly, despite the in-your-face approach being very unusual for a Micronesian. The women were Shanty Asher (Kosrae), a lawyer who works for the City and County of Honolulu and serves on the state Board of Education; Carol Ann Carl (Pohnpei), a researcher (as well as a poet and self-described story teller), who was trained as a biochemist; Dr. Mary Therese Perez Hattori (Guam), a senior administrator at the East-West Center; Jocelyn “Josie” Howard (Chuuk), founder and CEO of the non-profit We Are Oceania; Isabela Silk (Marshall Islands), diplomat and Consul General of the Marshall Islands in Hawai‘i; Arsima Muller (Marshall Islands), partner at Carlsmith Ball LLP; Kimberly Graham (Chuuk), a social worker and educator; Jacqueline Tellei (Palau), director of Waikiki Health’s PATH Clinic and Youth Outreach program; and, Dr. Nicole Yamase (Pohnpei/Chuuk), a marine biologist whose father, Dennis Yamase, is from Pearl City and is a former chief justice of the Federated States of Micronesia.

In the catalog for my photo exhibit, I wrote: “This photographic project is a modest attempt to force locals in Hawai‘i to face their own prejudices. It uses the so-called ‘Micronesian skirt’ as a symbol of the latent discrimination that festers in our contemporary society. Hopefully these portraits of women of accomplishment and distinction are a visual wedge to begin breaking up the assumptions that we use to shield our ignorance.”

Did it work? Well, no, as I also noted in the essay that went with the photos, one photo exhibit would not bring down the walls of Jericho. But it is a start, and goodness knows, we’ve needed to start for some time. 

Floyd K. Takeuchi is a writer-photographer, a third-generation Japanese American, who was born and raised in the Marshall Islands.

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