No Aloha for Micronesians in Hawaii

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Updated 6/20/11 9:15 a.m.

Editor's note: This is the first of two articles on Micronesians in Hawaii. Tomorrow we examine whether media coverage has contributed to negative attitudes toward the group. Also, to learn more about Micronesians and why they have special status in the United States, read this backgrounder.

Nia Aitaoto tells the story a lot — the one about the Micronesian skirt.

The flowing, bright floral skirts are worn by women throughout the thousands of small islands that populate the vast western Pacific.

Aitaoto, who has Hawaiian, Samoan and Yapese ancestry and was raised in Kosrae by Bible translator parents, says she wears the skirts occasionally when she is in Hawaii.

"When I use business wear, I look more Polynesian than Micronesian, but when I put the skirt on, it is just magic. It's like I put a target on," she told Civil Beat. "People treat me differently."

Aitaoto cites examples: changes in voice tone in a doctor's office, nurses not holding the door open for her, a supermarket clerk who assumed she was swiping an EBT card (used by people on public financial assistance) and not a debit card.

"I did not notice this before, but I have noticed in the last year and a half," says Aitaoto, who is doing graduate research on Chuuk and Chuukese living in Hawaii. "It's very blatant. The supermarket lady — I wanted to smack her. To me, that hurts."

Aitaoto's story — a story of discrimination against Micronesians in Hawaii — is a difficult one to digest in a society that prides itself on inclusion. As Gov. Neil Abercrombie himself has said many times, it is our diversity that defines us, not divides us.

But Civil Beat has found the experience of many Micronesians is defined by exclusion — that the group has become Hawaii's newest underclass, with all the negative connotations that come with that term. Their exclusion extends from the racism described by Aitaoto to the anxiety caused by efforts against them by Hawaii's congressional delegation and the state government.

The delegation recently urged the federal government to limit the number of Micronesians who come to Hawaii and receive medical treatment, even though a treaty gives them that right. Abercrombie, meanwhile, is appealing a federal court decision requiring the state to provide equal access to health care for Micronesians.

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