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BC’s Tales of the Pacific | What is an Asian/Pacific Islander?

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WHAT does an islander from Tahiti have in common with a man from South Korea? Everything, according to human resource professionals, grant writers, bankers and college admissions officers.

Have you ever noticed that when you fill out any kind of an application for a loan, a job, or college admission, that when you get to the part that asks your race, you choose between white, Hispanic, black, native American, a couple others, then something called “Asian/Pacific Islander”? Have you ever wondered about that? You should, and here’s why.

The demographic or racial group to which you are assigned has everything to do with whether you are admitted to college or can purchase that home. We can illustrate it this way. Atsushi Higashi from Japan, Darlene Suda from Chuuk and Ron Williams, a black American, all apply to Paradise University. According to admissions guidelines, Atsushi must have an SAT score above 1400. He is Asian and is considered a high achiever. He claims no historic oppression and has not been discriminated against by white people. Ron, the black American, is considered a low achiever, is historically oppressed and claims he is discriminated against by white people. He can be admitted with an SAT score of 1100, considerably lower than Atsushi.

Now we come to Darlene. Because it is believed that schools on Pacific islands compare equally with those in Japan, China or Korea, they decide that Darlene should be held to the same high standard as Asian people. She must have an SAT of 1400. She is a member of the catch-all category, “Asian/Pacific Islander.”

Islanders are falling through the cracks when it comes to educational opportunities, career advancement, and even home ownership, because they are lumped into a demographic category they simply do not belong in. The differences between growing up in Japan and growing up on Tinian are too great to treat them as one in the same. Take Teli Hafoka from Tonga, now living in mainland America. High school counselors never even discussed college entrance exams with her, or helped her fill out job applications like they did for black and Hispanic students, because they assumed she already knew about such things. Asian/Pacific Islander students already have a leg up, they believed. She didn’t even take the SAT, no one told her she needed to.

The statistics support the growing problem. Only 18% of adult Pacific Islanders in America have a college degree, on par with blacks and Hispanics, but only half the rate of whites and Asians. The islander population on the mainland grew by 40% between 2000 and 2010, and we expect the current census to reveal an even greater increase over the past ten years.

Professor Robert Teranishi of UCLA observes that this “myth” of a homogeneous Asian/Pacific Islander population is “misleading and really damaging for more vulnerable sub-populations of Asian Americans,” which includes Pacific Islanders. “It renders these communities invisible. They’re just off the radar.”

Kevin Tugruwfaimaw from Yap admits, “I didn’t know where to go ask for help. Hispanic and Black students had special counselors, their own academics departments. They had special places for them to live. We don’t have that.”

That the demographic category “Asian/Pacific Islander” is useless and even damaging is obvious. But how do we fix it? It starts with getting rid of the category altogether. Applications for jobs, admissions, and loans should break it into smaller, more accurate sub-categories, or get rid of the categories altogether.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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