Poly Means Polynesian, Not Polyamorous – Lily Stone
Poly. A word that feels like home. Short-hand for Polynesian, poly has been an cultural identifier for my people – people of the Pacific; a small part of the larger Oceania and Pasifika family that make up Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia.
It was only a couple of months since I had left Hawai’i when the longing to for connection to my culture became overwhelming. I had left what I had apathetically called “the rock” throughout my teenage years, for the promise of lower living costs, cheaper rents, an education, and new experiences. But being away from home, away from the Ocean and my people, I was feeling an immense longing to find community online, as many other marginalized communities do.
Most white people I met on the mainland, the imperialistic colonialist territory that is the continental United States, were more interested in where I was from than who I actually am. As if by simply “knowing” me, it by proxy brought them closer to white-washed capitalist dream of a “sunny island paradise” that is sold to them in every nearly every TV show, magazine, and advertisement. Frankly, I was becoming exhausted from the exotification and the ubiquitous “What ARE you?” question (which I have finally learned the best way to answer, but that is for another time).
Everyone wanted to know what it was like to live on Hawai’i, the sunlight, the flora and fauna, the turquoise blue water, and the white sand beaches. But the conversation would take a sharp downturn when I told them that I am not Hawaiian, that I am Tongan, that Hawai’i was illegally overthrown due to the militaristic imperialist interests of the United States – and that the best thing they can do is never visit. Thankfully, most conversations ended there. Other, more curious white folx, would redirect the conversation and ask me to show them the small island Kingdom of Tonga on the map – as if our existence can only be legitimized through their white gaze and acknowledgment. Of course, there was also:
“Oh, like Samoa, where The Rock is from, right??”
Yea. Kind of? Not really.
So, I turned to social media to find the other Polys part of the diaspora. There are Polynesian and wider Pasifika diaspora communities all over the world; many who have left their homelands after colonization, lack of opportunity, neocolonialism, and uncertain economic circumstances. Most of my relatives left Tonga and migrated to New Zealand and Australia, with some in the United States.
I type Poly into the search bar, seeking refuge. Numerous search results come up. I am elated when I find a Facebook group called “Poly People” only to find that Poly – a term that we Polynesians have been using as an identifier for our community since the time of genocidal and despicable Captain Cook – has been co-opted, white-washed, and repackaged to mean “polyamorous”. I return to the search bar and scroll anxiously through the pages and groups listed and find a few, many of which seem to have gone defunct.
I suddenly feel alone and isolated in a nation that sees my people as nothing but coconut bras, grass skirts and tiki figurines – a caricature. My fat brown body never fit with their exotified and over-sexualized stereotype of Polynesian women, with my tree trunk thighs and wide linebacker shoulders, my existence was a stain on white fantasies.
I felt alone in a nation where Pasifika poverty and unemployment rates that comparable to that of Black folx. Based on 2010 US Census data, the average per capita income for Tongans is a mere $12,000 annually – which is still much better than the devastating low $7,000 average annual income for Marshallese, part of Micronesia. And lets not forget the silence surrounding the current genocide by Indonesia forces against West Papua, in Melanesia. Whether we’re pushed out of schools, imprisoned at disproportionate levels, or rendered completely invisible by terms such as API (Asian and Pacific Islander), the United States of Amerikkka has not treated us well.
I decide to continue my search and go to twitter and look through #poly and #polypeople and after scrolling through what seemed like hours, I finally find a few and instantly follow. I feel a small hint of relief – they exist. And thereby, I exist. You see, community and family hold precedence in our culture. Through others, we are able to see ourselves. And finding one another – online and off – helps keep our cultures and our values alive. A sense of community in a world tainted by Western imperialism and Whiteness helps us survive. Restricting our ability to find one another is not only erasure, it is violence.
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Since making the discovery of the wide co-optation of the term “poly”, I found other Polynesians speaking against the erasure. As well as the subsequent backlash from the polyamorous community (as can be seen here and here). Many in the polyamorous community argue that it is a term that has evolved over the last 25 years and that because of that it is here to stay. Moreover, other communities have used it for themselves as well whether it be polysexual or polygendered and so on.
And while I can empathize as a sexual minority – queer, albeit cis – I can’t condone the erasure of my people and I refuse to stay silent about a term that we have used for ages. Nor can I ignore the fact that every time I see someone #poly, my heart skips a beat, hoping for another connection to my people, only to be completely heartbroken and erased. My people and culture white-washed. A reminder that our histories, our plight and our voices are ignored.
There are a plethora of other options that these communities can use. Within the social justice community, I have advocated that simply #polya or #polyam would suffice – one or two letters make all the difference between erasure and subsistence. And despite an article within the polyamorous community that has opted to “call-in” this kind of erasure by advocating for “mindfulness”, the white author clearly misunderstands the point of it all. The author pushes the reader to ask themselves questions such as,
“Is the word being used in a space where the meaning is clear to everyone witnessing the content?” Because apparently polyamorous Polynesians can’t exist.
“Is using ‘poly’ for “polyamorous” making it harder for another community to disambiguate and find ‘their own kind’”?
a point the author seems to make throughout the article only to conclude that she personally will refrain from using Poly, but only online.
“Personally, I will continue to use ‘poly’ in private situations or verbal conversations where people know what I mean, BUT in tagging things online – a place where categorizing information is important, is where people use those systems to search for others like themselves, and so on – I will use polyamory specifically and avoid ‘poly’”.
There is an inherent privilege in being able to disconnect online and offline spaces – a kind of performative activism, where oppressive behavior is done offline, away from accountability and call-outs. It doesn’t change its effect, however, and assuming that these behaviors will not transfer into online conversation is more than naive. It sets a precedent that Poly is okay to use in certain situations (as long as those damn Polynesians aren’t around), and reinforces the erasure of Polynesian peoples offline and on.
As Polys, the wider Pasifika family, and other native and indigenous peoples struggle to survive and keep our cultures alive, connection to the diaspora as well as those still in the homeland remain critical. White-washing Poly to mean anything other than Polynesian reinforces the imperialist colonialist erasure and eradication of our peoples.
 Hawai’i has one of the highest costs of the living in the United States, which forces many Native Hawaiians and other Polynesians to leave and move to the mainland.
 Many Polynesian nations are still colonized: American Samoa (United States), Easter Island (Chile), French Polynesia [Tahiti] (France), Hawai’i (United States), Norfolk Island (Australia), Pitcairn Islands (UK), Wallis and Futuna (France). In Micronesian, Guam and Wake Island are held by the United States. And finally, in Melanesia New Caledonia is held by France.
 Tonga was the only Polynesian nation to retain its sovereignty and was never colonized.
 The indigenous peoples of Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Australia still struggle under the weight of imperialism.
Lily Stone is a fat, queer, cis hafagasi Tongan. Her interests include casual misandry, collecting white tears and binge watching Netflix. She is a horror movie junkie, a wanna-be fatshionista, and believes that black buckled combat boots are the perfect finishing piece to any outfit. Her activism is focused on racial justice, decolonization, fat acceptance, mental health awareness and sex worker rights. She is fueled by a combination of spam musubi and coffee, and whiskey after five pm.
Shoutout to Rex Halafihi for giving me feedback for this article.