What does it mean to be a “true Tongan”? I have often wondered why my bi- racial identity leaves me feeling like I have no real place to ground my identity. As a half-White, half-Tongan male, I do not truly belong to any side. As a result, I have created a hybrid space where I can take in and accept all the forms of my identity.
I am considered an afakasi or a half-cast, which is another way of saying that I am on the margins in the Tongan community because I don’t embody the stereotypical features attributed to Tongans.
My speech, dress and friends all signal that I don’t belong to a community that I strongly identify with, a culture that is who I am. No one—not even those who do not want to accept it—can tell me otherwise. There seem to be tests of authenticity—internalized and imposed—that gauge my belonging..
The imposed stereotype involves what the white dominant culture has pushed on us to assimilate into their society. Obnoxious, loud, beating everyone up, BIG, strong, angry, arrogant: These are all the characteristics that other people see outside the Tongan culture. This is the athletic football star that can only get into college by scholarship, resulting in more time on the field rather than in the classroom, a token minority. We have come to believe and accept that this is what we must be in order to be a “true Tongan.” Another stereotype is that we are all gang-bangers. Our culture and our community is buying into this stereotype. We have internalized these racist ideas about who we are and in turn, become prejudiced against other Pacific Islander students who do not fall into the mold, and shun those who do not fit the standards of this stereotype.
This skewed expectation became apparent to me in middle school. While grabbing a few books and pencils from my locker one day, a Polynesian boy approached me and said, “Did you know everyone thinks you’re gay?” I didn’t know how to respond. “Everyone thinks you’re gay because you don’t hang out with the boy polys and you don’t play football,” he said. “Oh,” was all I could say. I felt flushed with embarrassment; I didn’t know what to say. “You’re already white,” he added, “don’t be gay, too.”
High school was not any better. Now I was herded into East High; a very big place that had all the diversity of Glendale middle school mixed in with the rich white kids that grew up in great privilege. Most kids that were from Glendale were looked down upon, as was I. Since I was half white, the students of color from Glendale automatically assumed that I turned stuck-up. Pushed and shoved, I was left in between. That is when I created my own space.
Figuring out how to embrace both halves of who I am has involved trials and tribulations, ones that will be explained in this two-part series that explores why it is so important to me to identify myself as a Tongan, as a Pacific Islander that embraces his bi-racial identity.