Story by: Dacia Taleni
Photos provided by: Dacia Taleni
When you hear the words “Samoan girl”, what do you think about? I used to envision a thin, fair-skinned woman with long dark hair and a wide red lipstick smile. This woman is in all the Samoan movies, advertisements and cultural celebrations. She is always the bride, the Taupou at the end of the ceremony and the teary-eyed pageant winner. I grew up with this girl. Her face could be seen in my mother, her laugh echoed in the throat of my sisters and her dance swayed in the hips of my aunts. She was everywhere. Everywhere but in me.
Being a mixed Samoan and Black girl in a household of “full-blooded Samoans” wasn’t easy. It always felt like I had to prove myself worthy of a culture which should have been mine at birth. I felt I had to speak, walk, dance, cook …hell… I even thought I had to breathe better than my other siblings. No matter how perfectly I performed my duties, I was often kept at arm’s length from being known as a “Samoan girl”. It all came down to skin and hair. The closer people looked like the commercialized “Samoan girl” the better they were treated. Sitting in fa’alavelaves or church services, people fawned over the beauty of my sisters or white-passing cousins. Elders at church would give glowing compliments like:
“Oka! Ese le pa’epa’e ma le aulelei a oe” (Oh! You are so pretty and white)
Though my sisters and cousins are beautiful, the phrase caused me to itch with embarrassment. “Pa’epa’e” (white) was synonymous with beautiful and because I was anything but white… I was anything but beautiful. As I grew, I started to notice the odd infatuation Samoans had with white skin. Teenage boys would flirt and gossip about the lighter Samoan girls in school, dance groups would pick the pa’epa’e girl to dance (even though she couldn’t) and both the girls and boys would complain about having to do P.E. outside because they didn’t want to “get dark”.
It never made sense to me that people born in the lineage of chiefs, warriors and navigators of a vast and dangerous ocean would cower at the idea of being darkened by the sun. So if I was not known as the “Samoan girl”, what was I called?
“Meauli” is a word used to describe me or people with darker skin. It means “black thing”. “Meauli” takes the humanity of a person and reduces it to an inanimate object. Before I knew what this word meant, I knew it was not positive by how it was used. Parents would warn their daughters entering into the military to not bring a “meauli” back home. “Meauli” was thrown about as an insult in arguments. It was never said with any dignity or reverence. When I questioned Samoans and their use of the word, they would always respond with, “Eh, we don’t mean anything by it. That is just what we call Black people”. The correct word to call Black or darker skin folks is “Tagata uli”. Eyes would roll when I presented “tagata uli” as the preferred word to address me. People would become dismissive and if they were not Black or a darker skin Samoan, they did not see the importance of changing their language.
Textbooks and conversations with non-Pasifika friends introduced me to the concept of Colorism. Colorism is the practice in which lighter skinned people are treated more favorably than those who are darker. This is a direct product of colonialism which upholds white or European standards of beauty and benefits white folks in all institutions throughout society. In light of this new word, many of my experiences in my family, school and church environments started to make more sense.
A simple research of Samoan history would show how much of our language, culture, and attitudes towards darker skinned folks has been altered due to the meddling of Europeans.I could go on and on about the colonization of Samoa, racist policies Europeans instituted on our shores and black-birding of our Melanesian brothers and sisters, but I’d be writing forever.
I started to speak out about being called a “meauli” and gave voice to my experiences through poetry. I corrected my parents, elders and challenged my peers to be more critically minded. Social media helped amplify my voice and lessen the loneliness I felt. There are many people in Pasifika who face discrimination in their own cultures due to colorism. Sadly, the conversation about colorism is not had very often. In fact, the discussion has only been dominated by white-passing Pasifika folks which further indicate how deep our colorism is.
There aren’t many resources for Black Samoans like me. No one tells us what to expect when our Black bodies interact with colonized Samoan spaces or the history of how our rainbow of beautiful browns got reduced to “meauli”. This is what motivates me to speak out and speak often. Sharing my stories online and in conferences has helped me change what a “Samoan girl” can be. She isn’t just the fair-skinned, long dark haired beauty with a red lipstick smile. She can look like anyone. She could have short curly hair, skin as dark as the designs on precious siapo with ideas that may linger outside of tradition. She can be me. She is me.
About the author:
Dacia Taleni A.K.A AfroTeine is a Black and Samoan artist, advocate and activist who seeks to decolonize Pasifika identities through her poetry, music, storytelling and her podcast “The Real Tautala”. She pushes the boundaries of conversation to talk about things that many Pasifika people tend to sweep under the rug. Aside from exposing people to the colorism and anti-blackness in the South Pacific, she also has a passion for bringing awareness to the sexual abuse and domestic violence which plague our islands and our island people in the states. She is also a plus size fashionista who creates her own clothing which provides another avenue to which she can express herself. She is now relocated in California looking to make an impact in her local Black, POC and PI community.