Discovering My Whiteness in American Samoa
Sometimes I feel like I’m the only white person in the world.
I know this sounds more than a bit extreme, but as someone who is used to being a comfortable majority you must forgive me as I adjust to this whole minority concept. In south Charlotte, I’m as commonplace as kudzu and SUVs. Here in American Samoa, it’s unusual if I see another white person outside of my home during the day.
So I’m beginning to grow accustomed to certain things. When I get on the bus in the morning, all eyes are on me. What is Marsha Brady doing on the bus? And where could she possibly be going with a backpack twice her size?
The Samoan word for a white person is palagi. It literally means something along the lines of “heaven is exploding.” When the first white explorers came to Samoa, the sails on their ships were thought to be clouds approaching the island, and so the islanders said that heaven must be exploding on them. I think it sounds poetic, and much kinder than the Hawiian word for white person, which translates to “lacking spiritual depth.”
The Samoan word for a white person is palagi. It literally means something along the lines of “heaven is exploding.”
But if the first white people exploded heaven, the Samoans seem to have more than gotten over it. The only bits of “heaven” that we seem to have brought to the island are bad rap music and extreme religious views. It’s like living in Rev Run’s house sometimes.
My whiteness is most commonly approached by the Samoans with what I can only describe as dismissive amusement. What I’ve come to think of as the “crazy palagi” attitude. You want to buy beer on Sunday? Crazy palagi. You want to hike that mountain? Crazy palagi. You want food that doesn’t come from a can? Crazy palagi.
I far prefer the “crazy palagi” attitude to the alternative: “poor little white girl.” If I ride outside of town on a bus, everyone will suddenly become concerned about where I am going and how they can get me back to where I belong. Poor little white girl has no idea where she is. If I’m walking a long way or in an unusual part of town cars will stop to pick me up. Poor little white girl needs a ride. As a volunteer, I’m the last one to turn my nose up at a free ride, but sometimes I just prefer a walk. Maybe it comes from being the baby of the family my whole life, but I would much rather people laugh or ignore me than try to take care of me.
My whiteness is most commonly approached by the Samoans with what I can only describe as dismissive amusement.
My students, however, rarely adopt either approach. My whiteness seems to baffle them. After one typical weekend in the sun, I came back to school appropriately tomato colored. My students were very worried about my health. One student asked if I had turned that color because I was “sooo white.” After briefly reflecting on my pasty complexion and the fact that my skin tone clearly belongs in a snowy climate or a fluorescent-lit cubicle, the only answer I could come up with was, “Yes. Because I’m sooo white.”
The blue eyes really trip them up too. In the middle of class, my students will raise their hands simply to state, “You have blue eyes.” I’m never quite sure how to respond to this one, but it has more than once resulted in an awkward moment in which my students ask to each, in turn, inspect my eyes. Now, I love my kids, but I don’t really need to stare into the depths of their eyes when all I want them to do is finish their homework for once.
I have been called everything from Britney Spears to Paula Deen by my students. (But this apparently isn’t a Pacific specific problem – I have a friend teaching in the Bronx who has recently been dubbed Ke$ha by her students.) I don’t mind it though. If calling me Paula Deen or “palagi” or “teacher” is going to make it easier on them then I’m all for it. Because, after all, they’re the reason that I’m here. And no matter how sunburned I get, I know that I’m more than just a “crazy palagi” to my students in American Samoa.