Why “Island Day” at UHS is culturally insensitive


(Amy Raudenbush/Philadelphia Daily News/MCT)

Contributing Writer
During this year’s Spotlight Week in celebration of UHS Arts Core, the Associated Student Body (ASB) designated Wednesday “Island Day,” in honor of the Drama Department’s latest play, The Tempest. This explanation certainly makes sense, and is perhaps a creative twist on the dress-up day theme, but it completely misses the mark on cultural sensitivity and respect. Imagine the setting being Asia or Africa. Would we have an Asia day or Africa Day? Definitely not–there are many different countries with cultures that are so rich and beautiful that are still thriving today. And this is no different with islands.
By account of surveys, the number of islands across the globe ranges from 500,000 to over a million. While some do not have indigenous people, there are plenty of islands that hold rich culture and traditions passed down from one to another for centuries. Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia are regions in the Pacific Ocean that form roughly thirty various islands with their own cultures, language and traditions–making no island the same. The establishments of these islands are believed to be started by the first Polynesian voyagers millions of years ago, voyaging across the Pacific and implementing themselves the natives from their respective island. While the islands have different people, cultures and traditions, the act of voyaging allowed languages and cultures to be similar in certain aspects, uniting all the islands.
Our different cultures and traditions in no way fragment the love and support we have for one another as people of the Pacific; we cherish our differences and educate each other on our customs. But education is lacking in how others understand our cultures–as evidenced by Luau-themed dances, parties and “Island Day.” Walk into a Party City and there’s possibly a whole aisle just for a “Hawaiian” themed events, with merchandise such as plastic coconut bras, plastic grass skirts, pineapple centerpieces and various fake leis–all Western stereotypes of islander culture. Coconuts were never indigenous to any one island, and only became an obligation when Western ideals were forced upon women who would usually be topless. Similarly, grass skirts originated in Tahiti because of shows that European colonists would force indigenous people to perform. Thus, various items presented in these aisles and worn at these themed dances and days hold either no significance or are sacred traditions that are butchered into a simple party favor.
While the Pacific Islands are one of the smallest ethnic groups, the realization of the Pacific Islands as a culture started to thrive this past year. Big milestones for the community included Disney’s Pacific Islander heroine movie, Moana, the Disney resort Aulani on O’ahu island and the representation of Pacific Islanders in the acting industry–Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho, Tiny Grey, Sisa Grey, Jason Momoa, Rena Owen, and many more who stole the hearts of the community–creating a stronger sense of pride in our heritage. Yet every year, one or more of my little cousins will saunter home embarrassed or confused when students at their school taunt the sacred symbols and traditions of our culture as a mere dress-up day.
Determined to have the school realize that the diversity in ethnicities, race and cultures didn’t only include regions like Africa, Asia and the Middle East, I hoped that “Island Day” could be changed completely by raising my and my peers’ concerns to the ASB. Instead, I left the room on the verge of tears, rage and embarrassment. My concerns were dismissed as “overly sensitive.” Rather than address the propagation of stereotypes and mockery of Islander cultures, ASB merely changed “Island Day” to “Fall Play Wednesday (Setting on an Island).” The broad generalization of “dress up in any island clothing” encouraged students to appropriate culture instead of learn about Islander cultures and ancestry. So imagine my frustration when the day came, along with the inevitable sexualization and appropriation of my culture throughout the school. I understand that “Island Day” was not intentionally offensive, but in reality, it gave a platform for students to interpret all indigenous islands as coconut bras, grass skirts and booty-shaking.
The Pacific Islands are just some of many different islands that hold histories rich in cultures and customs. We are still people thriving off of our cultures and customs thousands of miles away from our homes, trying to find some balance between our beliefs and ideals while maintaining the other ethnicities that don’t understand or acknowledge the different islands. I don’t blame those who have no knowledge about the islands, I’m still learning too. But what I do mind are the people that still think that Hawaiians are people who just live there with no ancestral ties, that pareos are just flimsy scarves that Islanders wrap around ourselves to have minimal coverage, that hula is booty-shaking and being as sexual as possible, that Tahiti is just another honeymoon destination site, that the Marshall Islands are just used for testing bombs and other weaponry, and that dress-up days like “Aloha Day,” “Hawaiian Day” and “Island Day” are not offensive at all.
Next time a dress-up day is coordinated, I suggest students and teachers think of this. Imagine being in a school that had a less than 0.3% representation of your ethnicity, and that days like Africa day, Asia day and Hispanic day weren’t used as days to celebrate or educate students, but to allow them to take stereotypes of your culture and customs and wear it as sexual or humorous outfits. It isn’t fun to have a gut-wrenching feeling when your friends snicker as someone walks by trying to speak the language while mimicking dance moves, or when a girl walks into class with a grass skirt that was cut so intentionally short you can see her spandex, or even when a student tries to tell you that places like Hawaii hold no cultural significance after it was annexed. It isn’t fun when even a diverse campus like UHS can’t see the cultural insensitivity and disrespect in encouraging events like “Island Day.” I hope moving forward, we can change that.