Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Reading Group Summary: December 14th, 2020

Article Discussed: McGavin, K. (2014). Being” nesian”: Pacific islander identity in Australia. The Contemporary Pacific, 26(1), 126-154.

Sarah Newton

McGavin (2014) highlights the shared identities of Pacific Islander diasporas living in Australia, an identity she describes as a form of “pan-ethnicity”. As an Australian of Pacific Islander descent herself, she draws upon the fluidity of diaspora identities, with language and customs intertwining to form a communal “Islander” identity. Terminology forms a key area within her article, drawing upon the identification of Islander diasporas in Australia. While McGavin (2014) uses the term Pacific Islander to identify anyone of Polynesian, Melanesian or Micronesian descent, she highlights that this term remains controversial. The exclusion of specific groups and nations from many terms such as the “Pacific Islander” and “Polynesian” are just one example.

McGavin (2014) also draws on the adoption of a self identity and a communal identity within Pacific Islander diaspora groups in Australia. As a community, individuals often adopt a shared, pan-ethnic identity, such as “Pacific Islander” or “Islander”. As an individual however, there tends to be a more distinct identity used, such as McGavin’s (2014) self-identification as a Lavongai woman from the New Guinea Islands and a New Zealand Pakeha woman. Identity can also often be pressured by expectations exerted from the wider community within Australia due to racial scrutiny. This can lead to a strong need to self-identify early on, particularly in the case of diaspora Islander youth.

McGavin (2014) also analyses the complexities surrounding authenticity in regards to behaviour within Pacific Islander diasporas. Representing common identity traits within these communities maintains a level of importance, with individuals who adopt a more typical Australian or “white” behaviours or traits are seen as “Islanders behaving badly”. This highlights the perceived importance of representing as an “authentic” Islander.

Overall, McGavin’s (2014) article highlights the complex, interchanging and shared identities within Pacific Islander diasporas in Australia. Not only are group identities such as “Islander” frequently adopted, but a strong pan-ethnic identity under the premise of “unity in diversity” remains a central part to what it means to be “Nesian” in Australia.


  • Lucas Watt

    I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

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