One of the most culturally interesting, yet understudied minority groups within the United States are the Pacific Islanders. Not to be confused with Asian groups, these people come from islands such as Hawaii, Tonga, and Samoa, and form one of the smallest minority groups in American society. Pacific Islanders tend to group together in closely-knit communities and social groups, typically living in neighborhoods that are on the lower end of the economic scale. One of the dilemmas facing this group today is their inability to integrate with American society in terms of finding well-paying jobs.
In addition, many Pacific Islanders choose to preserve their own culture rather than embracing the American way of life. As a minority group, Pacific Islanders are people who are often overlooked within American society and struggle in moving up in social status; but they still represent a rich cultural heritage that often piques the interest of the average American person. From an aesthetic perspective, Pacific Islanders are characterized by tanned skin and thick, dark hair. Both men and women also have reputations for excelling in certain areas.
Hawaiian women, for example, are renowned for their long wavy hair and their ability to perform in cultural dances such as the hula or Tahitian dance. Men, however, are known to be of above average height, muscular, and quite large– which is why there are so many Pacific Islander males playing in college sports such as football. Although this group of people can come from a variety of islands from Oceania or Hawaii, each islander population has its own language (Kirst-Ashman & Hull, 2009, p.
432). Still, there are similarities between the different languages that are spoken. Tongan and Hawaiian, for example, have many words in common and people who speak the two would most likely be able to understand each other. It is therefore not uncommon for certain islander groups to merge with each other rather than living in Tongan-specific or Hawaiian-specific neighborhoods. Within the islander community, anyone who is from a Pacific island is considered to be part of the same culture.
When socializing within the group, Pacific Islanders will tend to participate in social activities or events that preserve their culture, such as luaus or island-style BBQs. They will also play island music or attend festivals that are geared towards the island community. In some areas like the small towns in Hawaii, islanders will be so determined to resist the American way of life, they will even go without television or electricity in their home simply to maintain the old way of living in the islands.
This illustrates the main dilemma of “saving face” amongst Pacific Islanders who would rather demonstrate cultural pride and tradition rather than accepting the average lifestyle within the United States (Kirst-Ashman & Hull, 2009, p. 432). Not only is this group one of the smallest minority populations, but they are also one of the least likely to mix and interact with Americans or other minorities. Pacific Islanders only make up approximately four percent of the American population.
Back in 2000, only 874,414 people listed themselves as Pacific Islanders, and most of them lived in either Hawaii or California (Tewari & Alvarez, 2009, p. 20). Among these people, however, very few identified themselves as being a pure Pacific Islander– that is, most of them were bi-racial or mixed with several other ethnicities. It is ironic that although islanders tend to confine themselves to their own island communities, most of them are racially mixed with either Asian or European ethnicities.
In addition, while Pacific Islanders have segregated themselves from the rest of American society, they are known within the United States as a “model minority” due to the low levels of crime and other disruptions that are attributed to their ethnic group (Healey & O’Brien, 2007, p. 305). Unlike other minority groups in the country, Pacific Islanders do not generally face copious amounts of racism from majority groups. Perhaps this is due to the fact that many of them self-contain themselves to island communities; but regardless of where they live, they are mostly a favored minority group.
Historically, Pacific Islanders did not intend to immigrate to America in large quantities; and any animosity that Pacific Islanders may feel towards white Americans stems from past conflicts involving Captain James Cook and his “discoveries” of the South Polynesian islands and Hawaii in the 1800s (Tewari & Alvarez, 2009, p. 22). This started the process of Western colonization, particularly in Hawaii when it became part of the United States and the royal family was overthrown. The population of other Pacific Islanders in the United States began to rise after 1965, when immigration laws changed.
According to Healey and O’Brien (2007), there is a tendency among islanders to “…be bipolar and occupy positions at the very top and the very bottom of the job market” (p. 305). This means that, while there will be many islanders working within the legal, medical, and professional athletics professions, a large portion of the group still work in jobs that are stereotypical of minority groups such as janitorial or construction positions. Fortunately for the group, many individuals today are attempting to utilize education in order to increase their socioeconomic status.
More high school students are receiving college scholarships and attending post-secondary school in order to work towards a future career; and with private organizations that are tailored to minority groups, more Pacific Islanders are achieving academic and professional success. Despite their small population percentage in the United States, Pacific Islanders are estimated to grow to about ten percent within the next decade. With the community being known as a model minority, this group has the potential to leverage their social status by taking advantage of educational and work opportunities that they are offered.
This will allow newer generations to improve their socioeconomic status while still preserving their island culture. References Healey, J. F. , & O’Brien, E. (2007). Race, Ethnicity, and Gender: Selected Readings. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press. Kirst-Ashman, K. K. , & Hull, G. H. (2009). Understanding Generalist Practice. Belmont: Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning. Tewari, N. & Alvarez, A. (2009). Asian American Psychology: Current Perspectives. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.