Pacific Scoop

Wansolwara: Academic rues islander racism against Melanesians

Dr Tarcisius Kabutaulaka comes from the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal in Solomon Islands. He graduated with a MA degree from USP and a PhD in political science and international relations from the Australian National University. (Photo courtesy of Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai'i.)

Pacific Scoop:
Wansolwara Report – By Zubnah Khan and Eleni Po’ese in Suva

Seminar by Dr Tarcisius Kabutaulaka prompts calls for more research into the issue

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 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.

Wansolwara Editorial – The difficult issue of race

University of Hawaii academic Dr Tarcisius Kabutaulaka opened a can of worms recently when he highlighted the degrading manner in which Melanesians were portrayed in western literature, film and other media.

Not just in the early, dark ages of colonial conquest and rule, which was often characterised by prejudices, bigotry and cruelty by whites against blacks, but also in this day and age, when people are supposedly more enlightened, educated, tolerant and understanding. Through his research Dr Kabutaulaka discovered a racial hierarchy contrived in the 1800s by thinkers of that era that placed whites at the top and blacks at the bottom of the heap. Melanesians fell in the category of “Oceanic Negros”.

The Melanesians had the “special privilege of being known as the ugly specimen of the human race—the link between man and brute,” according to Dr Kabutaulaka.

During his seminar at the University of the South Pacific’s Laucala Campus in Suva in March, Dr Kabutaulaka also touched on the manner in which Melanesians are described in the Tongan and Samoan languages.

In Tongan, Melanesians are referred to as uli, meaning dirty. In Samoan they are called mea uli, meaning quite literally “black thing.”

As explained by respected USP academics, Professor Konai Thaman and Associate Professor Morgan Tuimalealiifano, the words are used purely for descriptive purposes and are not meant to be offensive. This would be true in the vast majority of cases. But as the two professors admit in our lead story, the words can be used in a derogative manner.

After the seminar, Wansolwara interviewed some Solomon Island students to gauge their reactions. They said were grateful to Dr Kabutaulaka for bringing this issue out in the open. They also told of how they sometimes felt excluded and discriminated against by some fellow students because of the colour of their skin. The fact that a problem exists is apparent. The scale of the problem, however, has yet to be determined.

This is partly because racism practised by Pacific Islanders against fellow Pacific islanders is a “taboo subject”, as pointed out by Dr Kabutaulaka.

Since Dr Kabutaulaka’s seminar, there have been calls from students and academics for more research into this. This is a sensible call because if this continues to be treated as a taboo subject, there will be no way of determining the magnitude of the problem.

Calls for more discussion should also be heeded because universities are places for open thinking and dialogue. They provide spaces for the sharing and exchange of ideas, all for the benefit of humankind. There is no room for taboo subjects, or issues being swept under the carpet at USP.

At this institution, future leaders of the region should learn not to shy away from sensitive issues. They should learn to stand up against racism and discrimination. USP is, by and large, an exemplary institution in terms of the friendships and camaraderie enjoyed by the many different ethnicities.

The majority of students apparently get on well with each other. On USP Open Day, for instance, there is much mixing and merrymaking. But if there are incidents of discrimination that are hurtful for people who are the targets, they should be addressed.

Stereotypes with respect to race and ethnicity are to be found in all societies. They cannot be eradicated overnight. Education in the home, in schools and in universities is crucial in promoting good value systems to fight against prejudices. On the other hand, to steadfastly believe the ‘one ocean, one people’ notion—that all Pacific Islanders simply get along at all times—would be delusional and counter productive.


  1. Tasi, 25. June 2010, 13:46

    Interesting. While a strict interpretation of the words uliuli and mea uli are descriptive, it has been used by some as derogatory descriptions, in the same way palagi is strictly a descriptive word, but Samoans often call those with no manners or no respect as ‘palagi’.

  2. Josie, 25. June 2010, 16:18

    Interesting comment by Konai. From my own Tongan experience, fair skin IS preferred in Tonga, but more in terms of physical beauty. ‘Uli’uli” (black), “paku ‘uli” (burnt black), “fakapaku” (burnt frying pan), and “nika ‘uli” (Tonganization of the derogatory English word) are all used negatively i.e. “less attractive”. Sort of similar situation amongst Indian and Asian populations who use skin creams to become fairer.

    HOWEVER, the words in the Tongan context do not carry the politics of racism as a systematic and institutional privileging of one race over the other. In that case, Fijians or other Pacific Island Melanesians are often more esteemed esp. when they come to Tonga in elite capacities such as highly paid regional advisors from more developed countries, for example.

  3. terry, 26. June 2010, 11:38

    this is well tredded Malama Meleisea’s “Tama Uli: Melanesians in Western Samoa”


    […] prejudice can be encountered among Pacific Islanders themselves. A June 24, 2010 article in Pacific.Scoophighlights the work of Dr. Tarcisius Kabutaulaka of Solomon Islands who is confronting the issue. […]

  5. Meme Keith, 5. December 2011, 19:57

    It is very demeaning and offending for fellow pacific islanders such as Tongans and Samoans to refer and potray Melanesians as a “dirty black thing” in their language and the perception that they’re better than the melanesians because of their skin clolor only shows their stubbornness and lack of intellect. Infact a lot of melanesians are highly educated and hold better paying jobs home and overseas compared to 99 % of the Tongans and Samoans who work as either casual labours or take jobs that pay a minimum wage overseas and in their own countries.