Scientizing White Supremacy: Review of Possessing Polynesians by Maile Arvin


Scientizing White Supremacy: Review of Possessing Polynesians: The Science of Settler Colonial Whiteness in Hawai`i and Oceania by Maile Arvin

Gregory Pōmaikaʻi Gushiken


Under Review:

Possessing Polynesians: The Science of Settler Colonial Whiteness in Hawai`i and Oceania. Maile Arvin. Duke University Press. 2019.


Native Hawaiian feminist scholar Maile Arvin’s history of social science and its hauntings Possessing Polynesians: The Science of Settler Colonial Whiteness in Hawaiʻi and Oceania is a critical new text in Indigenous Studies as well as Science and Technology Studies. By considering the various genealogies of whiteness, Arvin’s principal intervention is what she terms “possession through whiteness.” Possession through whiteness positions Polynesians as “conditionally Caucasian” while, at the same time, “the racial indeterminacy of Polynesian whiteness [remains] a ʻproblem’ for Polynesian peoples themselves, whereas for U.S. law and popular culture, Polynesian proximity to whiteness [authorizes] white ownership of Polynesia” . Focusing on possession through whiteness as a structure that effectively dispossesses Polynesian people of their lands and sovereignty, Arvin carefully traces the ways in which American and European social scientists, popular culture, and settler colonialism asserted this “conditionally Caucasian” status in order to lay claim to the Pacific itself.

In her historical reading of a social scientific archive ranging from sociological studies on race in Hawaiʻi to coffee-table books, Arvin considers the gendered aspects of colonialism, particularly the “tender violences” of the assumed racial unification of settlers and Indigenous people that requires the “sexual and reproductive labor of Indigenous women, who are expected to birth the new, successively less ‘raced’ generations, through coupling with white settler men.” Through this analysis, Arvin calls on scholars to more thoroughly interrogate how settler colonialism has been constructed as not just “a demand to go away” but, rather, by possession through whiteness––where “both Polynesia (the place) and Polynesia (the people) become exotic, feminized possessions of whiteness––possessions that never have the power to claim the property of whiteness for themselves.” Thus, Arvin further explains, by holding out Polynesians as “more ‘natural,’ ‘classical,’ or otherwise primitive versions of white civilizations,” European and American social scientists sought to claim indigeneity in the Pacific, claiming a “natural ownership of a place” where they “pass” as Indigenous to Polynesia “to steal Indigenous land and power.”

Possession through whiteness, Arvin contends, extends to the discursive production of Polynesians as “almost white,” even if they are not perceived as white. Following Denise Ferreira da Silva, Arvin argues that these scientific productions of race rely not only on physical characteristics or “raciality” but also on “the production of minds”––the creation of “elaborate fictions about past and future relationships between white settlers and Polynesians.” In other words, Arvin is concerned not about “haole [white settler] identity, but about the racial discourses haole settlers used to dispossess Native Hawaiians and other Polynesian peoples” through a mode of possession through whiteness that produces these “elaborate fictions” of race in order to lay claim to land in the Pacific. Importantly, Arvin links antiblackness and settler colonialism as inextricable in this analysis. Because possession through whiteness is based “always [on] a claim about white racial superiority that is centrally an antiblack stance,” possession through whiteness is only possible through these antiblack logics of settler colonialism that makes dispossession of land possible.

In response to the urgency of possession through whiteness, Arvin develops an Indigenous feminist analytic she terms “regenerative refusals,” which she defines as “actions that seek to restore balance to Indigenous communities that continue to live with structures of settler colonialism” by divesting “from racialized and gendered hierarchies” as an “ongoing reckoning with settler colonialism.” More than just a challenge to settler colonialism, Arvin’s regenerative refusals are “positive, future-oriented acts aiming to realize a different way of being in and relating to the world.” Regenerative refusals imagine another way of being beyond the normative structures of the present, pushing us to envision what other possibilities exist in refusing structures like possession through whiteness.

In the context of Arvin’s project, regenerative refusals take on many forms, but most saliently are present in her analysis of the performance art of Native Hawaiian artist Adrienne Keahi Pao and Sāmoan artist Yuki Kihara. In stark contrast to the rigorous history of social science that Arvin undertakes throughout the first half of the book, her final chapter looks to how Pacific women, as demonstrated by these artists, “refuse to stop…showing up, thinking, moving, inhabiting, walking, dancing, or being despite the world around them demanding this deadening, Indigenous dispossession, at every turn.” In “refusing to stop,” the creative praxis found in the works of these artists is, in Arvin’s analysis, a compelling example of what regeneratively refusals can look like.

In analyzing the works of these Indigenous Pacific artists, Arvin demonstrates how the realm of performance can enact regenerative refusals. Arvin considers photographic work such as Pao’s Lei Stand Protest/Lei Pua Kapa and Kihara’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? series to highlight how these artists “subvert viewers’ expectations of receiving ‘authentic’ information about Indigenous cultures or Indigenous feelings, as well as viewers’ understandings that colonialism is a thing of the past, long since settled.” By bringing to the fore the politics of the present, these artists challenge possession through whiteness through regenerative refusal. These case studies serve an important role in understanding the impact of regenerative refusals. For example, drawing out the complex feelings of Pao’s work and the dangers of colonial co-optation, Arvin reminds us that Hawaiian women “live with and fight against the commodification of [their] bodies by the tourism industry every day, and…that routine living and fighting can manifest with complex emotion.” By thinking with the work of Pao, Arvin indexes a complex array of emotions, histories, and politics that necessarily challenge the reductive categories that possession through whiteness requires to function.

With these complex histories, politics, and theorizations in mind, at the core of Arvin’s project is a thoughtful rumination on the proleptic potentiality of refusal. In thinking about Indigenous Space-Time, a way of thinking within an Indigenous Pacific worldview that “operates on different scales of history and future, and different scales of space,” Arvin imagines an elsewhere made possible by regenerative refusals. Within this realm of Indigenous Space-Time, regenerative refusals found in the declaration “ʻaʻole” (no) from kiaʻi (land protectors) at Mauna Kea and others are “not just about voicing dissent but also about enabling a transformed and liberatory future.” The power of regenerative refusals in an Indigenous Space-Time, thus, lies in their capacity to move beyond the speculative and into the realm of demanding, through their refusal, a kind of resurgence that cannot be located within settler colonial space and time. Overall, Arvin’s project of developing strategies to unsettle the logic of possession through whiteness is powerful, at once a scathing critique and a hopeful call to action. These acts of unsettling, whether it be our assumptions and attitudes or systems of governance, are a “part of the collective work we must do, caringly and carefully, to realize our interconnected, expansive Oceanic future.” To dream of resurgence in an expansive Oceanic future, Arvin’s project reminds us that acts of refusal can be acts of regeneration, acts that allow us to imagine “living elsewhere before we can live there.”


Gregory Pōmaikaʻi Gushiken (they/them/he/him) is a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) Ethnic Studies PhD student at the University of California, San Diego. Their research looks at the intersections of Indigenous Studies and the Environmental Humanities and uses queer of color critique to think about the Hawaiian diaspora in relation to movements for life, land, and sovereignty. He earned his master of arts in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, San Diego, and undergraduate degrees in English and Political Science from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.


Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned by editor emeritus Amandine Faucheux in August 2020 as an invited review; the author and editor were acquaintances prior to the author’s involvement with ARB. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Duke University Press.

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