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I laugh (but mostly cringe) at first-year-me’s opinions: namely, that Pacific Studies was an unnecessary subject field and that it’s only there for people who needed easy points for their degree. I firmly believed that people who took Pacific Studies were the Islanders that didn’t want to take a real subject, who didn’t want to do long complicated readings with big smart words. People who took Pacific Studies relied on the empathy and sympathy of brown lecturers to carry them through their degree. Andrew Judd identified himself as a “recovering racist” and that welled up tears in my eyes because it made me happy-sad to realise that I, a Samoan-born New Zealand citizen, too, am a recovering racist.
Back in 2011 I wrote a blog (as any young person with a sense of entitlement and internet would) in which I said: “Generally, Samoans are associated with domestic violence, fresh-ness, unintelligence, poverty, and a whole lot of negative stuff. Esp. the Samoans living in South Auckland. The thing is (and I’m ashamed to say), that’s what I associate Samoans with too. I know, I know. But it’s true.” That was my truth that I carried from South Auckland to Victoria University of Wellington. So when people told me they were doing Pacific and Samoan Studies, I thought to myself, “of course you would, any excuse to slack off to get a degree.” I’d meet or just observe from afar students who fulfilled exactly what my prejudices predicted.
In my first year (2013) I was looking for elective papers to take since I’d already fulfilled my major requirements. Tapu Vea recommended I take an education paper titled “KURA 101: Cultural Politics of Education in New Zealand and the Pan-Pacific.” This paper was the first time ever that I genuinely felt that my knowledge and Pacific perspectives actually mattered to my learning journey. Like many Islanders I know, school life and home life were two very distinct and very divergent worlds—the thought that they could run parallel to each other and even intertwine blew my ignorant mind. I was in awe that there were other Pacific Islanders who also struggled with finding validation and credibility in systems that saw their views and knowledge as too different, too primitive, to have any substantial and sustainable relevance to the “real world.” To find a university paper that valued my subjectivity as a real and valid perspective was a massive seal of approval that I shouldn’t have been waiting around for, but did.
Following this twelve week long epiphanous course, I decided to enrol into some Samoan Studies papers. I was suddenly eager to learn more about my cultural heritage and the space it occupies in this tertiary institution. These papers presented very uncomfortable but crucial concepts to critically analyse. What was comforting was that as Samoan students, we would probably feel the same kinds of discomfort that we wouldn’t share with our non-Samoan peers. I’ve been so used to thinking about Samoan-ness in a black and white manner: right and wrong; authentic and plastic; Samoan-born and New Zealand-born; true Samoan and fia palagi. These papers equipped me with historical and contemporary ideas that can speak to the massive (and badly framed) question of “what does it mean to be Samoan?” Studying this at university showed me that it’s okay (and sometimes better) to have more questions than answers, and that these questions ought to be addressed urgently.
Now I’m taking my first ever Pacific Studies paper and it is blowing my mind. There are so many curious and diligent Pacific Islanders who have started and continued important conversations about our place in the world. I am given tools and ideas to wrestle with in which I never solely agree or disagree. I see the utterly complicated and multifaceted nature of Pacific identity (both individually and collectively) and that the ways we think and talk about this has an effect on how you navigate the real world.
I look back at first-year-me and no longer feel guilt and shame for who I was. Having gone through the experiences that I have, I am more empathetic to those who share the prejudiced and racist attitudes I once did. Although people who have these ideas irritate me now, I can see where they are coming from. I can see where a lot of people are coming from—not all, but I’m still on my way.