- Tongans and the Navigation of Authenticity in the United States
I believe it is important to begin my contribution to this forum on authenticity with my genealogy as a Tongan American. My name is Joshua James Taulua Uipi (Siosiua Semisi Taulua Uipi). My father is Taulua Kī Moana Latu Uipi, and my mother is Melinda Suzanne Muir Uipi. My father is from the village of Ha‘ateiho, Tongatapu, Tonga, and my mother is from Berkeley, California, USA. I am hafekasi Tongan—which means I have one Tongan parent and one non-Tongan parent. Hafekasi, a transliteration of the term half-caste, has been described by Karin Louise Hermes as “colonial terminology alluding to mixed blood, and thus blood quantum as a racial determinant.”1 This colonial terminology frames requirements of authenticity rooted in colonial concepts of blood and reinforces narratives of power based on inclusion and exclusion. My identity as hafekasi is a significant aspect of how I am seen, and see myself, in the US, as well as in Tonga.
Sharing my genealogy, both nominally and geographically, is essential in approaching the topic of authenticity because it positions my genealogy as central to who I am. In Tonga, as well as throughout other islands in the Pacific, communicating one’s origin, and continued connection to that origin, is key in establishing relationality between family, place, and culture. In doing so, we are recognizing our familial and cultural histories, as well as our personal connection to the land of our people. Furthermore, reciting these genealogies allows us to be claimed by our families and communities, which is meaningful when discussing authenticity. Belonging to one’s family, community, land, and waters situates one within a community and culture that span both time and physical distance. The importance of genealogical ties in Tongan culture should not be understated. Who we are is forever connected to our ancestors and our ancestral land. As Tevita O. Ka‘ili states, the metaphor of weaving in Tongan culture is used to explain connections to how “people are woven together genealogically via kāinga [kin group] and fonua [land and its people] ties.”2 It would be impossible for me, as a Tongan, to contribute to this forum [End Page 157] on authenticity without first presenting an introduction to how I am woven into this world.
Engaging with perceptions of one’s cultural authenticity in a diasporic community is a multilayered and active pursuit that is directly affected by the space in which one lives. I was born and have lived most of my life in the continental US. Within the US, whiteness holds social privilege and power and is undergirded by long-standing structural and institutional racism, which George Lipsitz refers to as the “possessive investment in whiteness.”3 Moreover, Lu-in Wang suggests that whiteness is upheld as the “default” or universal American experience, while groups who do not fit into the boundaries of whiteness are treated as aberrations who experience racial discrimination, exclusion, and subordination.4 With the US being a nation where whiteness is held as the so-called default, the journey of feeling personally authentic to a certain group of diasporic people is a cultural act being navigated in a racialized space.
In the US I am considered Tongan, despite my mother’s European heritage, because I am not white-passing and, phenotypically, I move outside the boundaries of whiteness. However, when moving to areas outside the US, perceptions of race and racial identity often vary. When discussing race, place, and identity with my students, many of whom also identify as mixed race, I often share a personal story about the first time I traveled to Tonga to visit my family. I did not have the opportunity to go to Tonga until I was in my early twenties. I arrived in Tonga during the summer months, and was greeted and housed by close family members in the village of Ha‘ateiho, Tongatapu. One sunny afternoon my family decided to take me to a swimming area surrounded by reef. There was a ledge of the reef where children were jumping into the water. Before jumping into the water...