Colonial amnesia: Rethinking Filipino "American" settler empowerment in the U.S. colony of Hawai'i

Dean Itsuji Saranillio

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    As a result of the countereducation aff orded Hawai'i residents by the Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement, Hawai'i's history of conquest by the United States has resurfaced, exposing numerous contradictions and questions for those who claim Hawai'i as their home. Previous studies of race relations and popular ways of imagining Native Hawaiians have employed a domestic "civil rights" framework, framing Native Hawaiians as an ethnic "minority group" within Hawai'i's multicultural state competing for their fair share of the proverbial American pie.1 On the other hand, the body of work produced by many Native scholars and Native sovereignty supporters uses a broader discourse of "indigenous human rights" that recognizes Native Hawaiians as a "peoples" who have a genealogical continuity with Hawai'i distinct from other racial or ethnic groups.2 Th is latter framework situates Hawai'i within an international political arena, calling for a reconceptualizing of Native Hawaiians as a colonized indigenous people with specific human rights that have been violated by the United States. As the Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement reminds people in Hawai'i of a history of colonialism, how can Filipino communities in Hawai'i use these challenges to rethink our own past, present, and imagined futures? How do our beliefs, actions, and investments in the U.S. system collide with the aims of the Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement? What are the continuities between Filipino struggles in Hawai'i and the various anti-imperialist movements in the Philippines? How can we link these movements to the Native Hawaiian movement for self-determination? In this essay I attempt to show how the U.S. settler state conceals its colonization of Hawai'i, maneuvering historically oppressed groups against indigenous peoples. Specifically, I examine the apparent contradictions and implications of a Filipino settler identification with the United States in a U.S. colony. I situate this contradiction within the context of colonial miseducation to show how this identification is the product of a history of U.S. colonialism in both the Philippines and Hawai'i. As a fourth-generation settler in Hawai'i of Filipino and Japanese descent, I would like to add a diff erent point of reference, one that is in dialogue not with the U.S. settler state but instead with the indigenous peoples under colonial domination. As Vicente Diaz, Pacific studies scholar, has stated regarding Filipinos and Chamorros in the U.S. colony of Guam, "If the history of relations between Chamorros and Filipinos is one of a shared struggle within colonial and neocolonial realities, then it is we who should be orchestrating the history, not allowing it to play us." For Filipinos in the United States, marginalization and subordination seem to be requisite for U.S. citizenship. The newspapers, books, articles, and journals that focus on racism against Filipinos in Hawai'i have pointed out the inequities and systemic structures of racism ingrained in Hawai'i's society.4 Ethnic studies scholar Jonathan Okamura analyzes socioeconomic data from the 2000 U.S. census to show that Hawai'i's unique ethnic/racial stratification of power consists generally of whites, Japanese, and Chinese holding dominant positions in the state, and Filipinos, Samoans, and Native Hawaiians constituting the lower levels of ethnic/ racial stratification.5 Compared to more dominant groups, Filipinos in Hawai'i lack social, economic, and political power, yet we oft en seek empowerment as "Americans" within a U.S. settler state. While Filipino communities must continue to resist oppressive systems that perpetuate various inequalities, we must also be aware of the colonial structures ingrained in U.S. nationalism that render invisible the U.S. violation of Native Hawaiians' human rights to self-determination. By shift ing our perspective from viewing Hawai'i as the fift ieth state of the United States to recognizing Hawai'i as a colony under U.S. domination, terms that at one time seemed commonsensical now ring hollow and look perversely constructed as rhetoric that functions to obscure the colonial domination of Native Hawaiians. As Native Hawaiian nationalist and Hawaiian studies scholar Haunani-Kay Trask points out, words such as "immigrant" and "local" contribute to dominant ideologies that paint Hawai'i as a multicultural utopia, eliding the colonization of Native Hawaiians and the collaboration of non-Natives with this subjugation.6 Th us Trask has introduced the term "settler" in Hawai'i to describe the non-Native community. The usefulness of the term is that it shatters U.S. paradigms by forcing non-Natives to question our participation in sustaining U.S. colonialism while making important political distinctions between Natives and non-Natives. I do not see the term as derogatory or, as some critics suggest, as pitting Natives against settlers. Instead, I appreciate the term because it exposes how Native and settler interests are oft en in opposition and consequently pre sents non-Natives with a clear choice, as Trask points out, "Either they [Asians and haole] must justify their continued benefit from Hawaiian subjugation, thus serving as support for that subjugation, or they must repudiate American hegemony and work with the Hawaiian nationalist movement." 7 Because the United States invaded Hawai'i, Filipinos, like other settlers who immigrated to Hawai'i, live in a colonized nation where the indigenous peoples do not possess their human right to self-determination, and because of this Filipinos are settlers. The word "settler" is a means to an end. The goal is not to win in a game of semantics or to engage in name calling, but rather for settlers to have a firm understanding of our participation in sustaining U.S. colonialism and then to support Native Hawaiians in achieving self-determination and the decolonization of Hawai'i. The concept of settler colonialism also disrupts notions that minorities who are racially oppressed are incapable of simultaneously participating in the colonial oppression of Native Hawaiians. Because Filipinos in Hawai'i live in a colony, our citizenship and desires for equality within a U.S. political system are crucial components of a complex hegemonic colonial structure that must be carefully questioned. For instance, although the term "Filipino American" combats the racist notion that only haole (whites) are Americans, it also asserts a U.S. nationality within a U.S. colony. For those committed to social justice, identification with the United States is deeply problematic because it is a colonial identity. I use the term "Filipino settler" in this essay not to reproach Filipinos but instead to challenge us to think critically of our position in the U.S. colony of Hawai'i. Th rough an analysis of contrasting visions of Hawai'i and diverse narrations of Filipino settler history emerging out of contemporary politics, I will attempt to show how these narrations maintain and resist colonialism in Hawai'i. I begin with Virgilio Menor Felipe's biography, Hawai'i: A Pilipino Dream, which tells the life of Bonipasyo, one of the sakada (contract workers) who arrived in Hawai'i from the Philippines between 1906 and 1946.8 While in the Philippines Bonipasyo was told stories by the elders about the violence of U.S. colonization, and he also labored on Hawai'i's sugar plantations and participated in labor unions. Th rough this text I attempt to show how the American colonial system maneuvers colonized groups against each other. I will then look at an account of Americanization written by Joshua Agsalud, former cabinet member in the administrations of governors George Ariyoshi and John Waihe'e and also a former superintendent of the State of Hawai'i's Department of Education. Agsalud speaks of his experience as a second-generation Filipino growing up on a sugar plantation in Waipahu and of the American educational system's role in shaping his views and subject position as an American. I then examine the narration of "Filipino American" history through Philippine Independence Day in the writings of Zachary Labez, a journalist and activist in Filipino communities. Although the celebration is anticolonial it still celebrates a national identification with America within a remaining colony of the United States. I then contrast two examples of the ways Filipinos have made choices about their roles as settlers. I analyze the artwork of Native Hawaiian artist Kewaikaliko titled Benocide, which off ers a critique of former governor Benjamin Cayetano's anti-Hawaiian acts as governor. I contrast this with the anti-imperialist activism of an informal collective of ten Filipinas from the island of O'ahu who through a "politics of diaspora" link the U.S. colonial domination of Hawai'i with the U.S. imperial domination of the Philippines. These activists organized a statement of solidarity to support Native Hawaiians. I end with these Filipina settler activists to show that we need not be paralyzed by colonialism but instead can take positive political action in supporting Native Hawaiians in their movement for decolonization.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationAsian Settler Colonialism
    Subtitle of host publicationFrom Local Governance to the Habits of Everyday Life in Hawai'i
    PublisherUniversity of Hawai'i Press
    Number of pages23
    ISBN (Electronic)9780824861513
    ISBN (Print)9780824830151
    StatePublished - 2008

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General Arts and Humanities


    Dive into the research topics of 'Colonial amnesia: Rethinking Filipino "American" settler empowerment in the U.S. colony of Hawai'i'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this