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Dr. Tarcisius Kabutaulaka traces stigma of ‘oceanic Negroes’

SUVA, Fiji (Wansolwara, June 2010) - Calls have been made for more research and open discussion on issues of racism against Melanesians.

This follows a recent seminar by Dr Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, an associate professor at the Centre for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

His talk, delivered at the University of the South Pacific’s Laucala Campus in Suva on March 24, was entitled, "Re-presenting Melanesia: Ignoble Savages and Melanesian Alternatives".

He discussed how Melanesians are "imagined and represented" in western discourses, mainly in academia and the media, and how they are labeled in the Samoan and Tongan languages.

Dr Kabutaulaka, a Solomon Islander, said a hierarchy was formed in the 1800s whereby black-skinned people were placed at the bottom and white-skinned people at the top.

Melanesians fell into the category of "oceanic Negros".

"The Oceanic Negros were placed low in the hierarchy and had the special priviledge of being known as the ugly specimen of race, being the link between man and brute," said Dr Kabutaulaka.

"The savage Melanesian exists not only in European and African minds, but also in Pacific Island minds," he added.

This had, to a certain extent, become internalised, and was reflected in relationships in the Pacific Islands, said Dr Kabutaulaka, previously a student and lecturer at USP.

He said that perceptions of black people as "savages" are reflected in Pacific languages.

"For instance they are referred to as uli in the Tongan language, which means dirty, while in the Samoan language they are referred to as mea uli, mea meaning "thing" and uli meaning "black".

"This is not often discussed openly amongst Pacific Islanders because it is a sensitive issue," said Dr Kabutaulaka.

Third year USP Solomon Island student Selwyn Bare said that he was happy that Dr Kabutaulaka had opened this issue up for discussion.

He said Melanesians are often regarded as the inferior population. "It has been my experience that other students do not readily approach me, especially where studies are concerned," said Bare.

"More awareness should be created regarding this issue and it is pleasing that such a seminar has been held at USP," he said.

Another third year Solomon Island student, Kathleen Szetu, said that Melanesians feel hurt when judged their skin colour.

"At the halls of residence, other cultures look at Melanesians as being dumb and dirty," said Szetu. "Some show disrespect and are rude. Such people should be counseled."

Third year Solomon Island student Ronny Fono said something needs to be done about how Melanesians are treated.

USP’s School of Governance and Development Studies director Professor Vijay Naidu says no society is completely free from discrimination based on physical traits like skin colour, cultural affiliation, gender and sexuality, physical and mental disability and socio-economic status.

"There are specific historical and contemporary forms of discrimination and degrees of discrimination against the black and brown people of the Pacific among themselves as well as by white people and their governments in Australia and New Zealand," added Prof Naidu.

Associate Professor in history at USP, Morgan Tuimaleialiifano, a Samoan, says that mea uli means black people without negative connotations. But he added that there were people who put "value" behind the word.

Professor in education at USP Konai Thaman, a Tongan, said that referring to black-skinned people as uli or uli’uli is purely for descriptive purposes and not meant to be offensive.

"When Tongans say uli’uli it does not mean that they are superior, being a Tongan. They are just describing the person, but if there is a feeling that whoever is uli’uli is black and is compared to white, then that is problematic.

"There is a need for research if some Melanesian students are complaining about how others treat them. There is a need to change the way people think and behave.

"We are ‘one ocean, one people’ and Wansolwara can be a good instrument in making sure that all students feel equal," Thaman said.

Dr Kabutaulaka drew attention to a Pacific travel book written in London in 1911 in which the writer said: "If I was a king the worst punishment I could give would be to banish someone into the Solomon Islands but then I would not have the heart to do that".

He added that the media also contributed to the image of Melanesians as savages.

For example, in 2007, a British newspaper, The Independent, published an article entitled "Strange Island" which was about how Pacific tribesmen came to study people.

USP School of Education lecturer Jeremy Dorovolomo says that differences exist in all societies. "It is present within Melanesia among the different districts." He said racism by Pacific Islanders against fellow Pacific Islanders is a reality but it has decreased among the young generation.

"There is increased understanding among younger people who are interacting globally and breaking cultural barriers."

Dorovolomo said that he mixes his students when they go out for camps to get a good gender and racial balance in the groups. "This helps instill more intercultural understanding amongst students."

Samoan student Nau Haakili Bloomfield said that all Pacific Islanders should be treated as equal. She said she is not aware of racism against Melanesians.

"We all live in one ocean. That shows that we are one."

Third year Tongan student Walter Harrel said that there was a lot of goodwill among USP students.

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