Two Polynesians Walk into a Bar…

“Two Polynesians Walk into a Bar…”

It sounds like the start of a joke, but this incident is far from funny. If you’re of Pasifika decent and living in the US, you’ve probably already heard about Willie’s – the bar in Utah that reserves the right to refuse to serve alcohol to Polynesian men. I watched this video yesterday, and was definitely taken aback by the idea that the staff was instructed specifically not to serve “Polynesians.” As one of my Utah-based friends so eloquently said yesterday, “I didn’t know I lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Or maybe it’s 1960?” Seriously. It’s 2016. And in 2016 people are being refused service based on ethnicity. Houston, we have a problem. 201602181816520987

I’ve been thinking about this story since it broke yesterday. There are multiple facets of this issue…so many pieces that came together to cause this. Is violence within the Tongan and Samoan communities in Utah a problem? For sure. As someone who witnessed or was indirectly involved in and affected by the violence prevalent in the Tongan community, I get that this is a legitimate concern. I get that there are real threats that must be mitigated, real people who cause problems. So, yeah. That’s one piece of this puzzle, and it would be ignorant to choose not to acknowledge that it contributed to this debacle.

I think, though, that there is a bigger issue at play here, and we need to address it as well. Have you ever seen the movie The Princess Bride? Andre the Giant plays a character named Fezzik, and, in one particular scene just before a fight, the main character says, “Frankly, I think the odds are slightly in your favor at hand fighting.” Fezzik replies, “It’s not my fault being the biggest and the strongest. I don’t even exercise!” Y’all. Fezzik just perfectly profiled the Utah “Polynesian” community.


People descended from the Pacific Islands are naturally big. I’m the runt of my family, and I’m 6 feet tall. It’s in our genes. It’s who we are. And just like Fezzik, it’s not our fault being the biggest and the strongest. Unfortunately, study after study has shown that the bigger and darker a man is, the more threatening he is perceived to be. This is why in 20-freaking-16, two totally innocent Pasifika men could walk into a bar and be told point-blank, “I’m sorry, we don’t serve Polynesians.”

Fortunately for us, there are laws in place that say that, well, actually, it is illegal to discriminate against someone specifically because of their skin color or size or ethnicity today. There are legal channels that we can pursue if we are discriminated against for these reasons. Willie’s? Y’all are wrong for this. Own it. That “sorry, not sorry” apology that ended by confirming that you will continue to make “judgement calls” about “Polynesians, jailbirds, or anybody that’s ‘shady looking’” only serves to highlight your ignorance. It is 100% not ok to make the connection that Polynesians are somehow in the same category as jailbirds and shady looking people. The bar owner, Mr. Cloyd, again reiterated this racist train of thought when, in talking about the types of people they have the right to refuse, he said, “Whether they are Polynesian, just got out of jail, have neck tattoos, look like they are hooked on drugs, across all spectrums…” the bar has the right to say no to “unknown, intimidating-looking males.” And, yeah, I dropped the r-bomb. When you place an entire ethnicity in the same box that you would use to categorize criminals, that is racist. And racism is not ok.

So, how do we solve this dilemma? Honestly, I think a huge part of the issue is the language used to categorize here. You CANNOT make a policy that says “I’m sorry, we don’t serve Polynesians.” I mean, I’m kind of wondering if I’ve been sniffing glue subconsciously or something because it’s crazypants to me that in 2016 America, someone needs to say out loud, “It’s not ok to make a policy banning an entire race of people.” Like, come on, y’all. You know this is not ok.

The clearly super scary and intimidating Frank Maea.

The clearly super scary and intimidating Frank Maea.

The men who came into your bar were big.
And they were not of the snowy white variety that populates most of Utah.
And that made them scary.
But they weren’t doing anything wrong.
It’s not their fault being the biggest and the strongest. (They probably don’t even exercise.)
It’s not ok to refuse service to an entire ethnicity based on the poor behavior of a few.

If we go with that logic, no white men should ever be allowed basically anywhere. Because, you know: mass shootings are most often done by white males, right? Most serial killers are white men, right? The problem is as much about PERCEIVED threat as ACTUAL threat, and we need to take a good hard look at why bigger, darker men are perceived to be more threatening – even when they’ve done nothing wrong. It was wrong to refuse Frank Maea and Stephen Wily service based on the fact that they might sometime in the future become a problem just like it would be wrong to refuse all white men service based on the fact that most serial killers are white men.

Honestly, I don’t even know where I’m going with this other than to say that as a nation we should know better than this in 2016. We should speak up when we see this because it’s not ok. And please don’t think I’m dismissing the very real problem of “Polynesian violence,” because, yes, it’s real, and it’s a problem. But, it’s as ridiculous to hold all Pasifika men responsible for the problems caused by our violent minority as it would be to hold all white men responsible for the problems caused by their violent minority. It’s 2016, not 1960. We know better. We need to do better. I’m looking at you, Willie’s.

5 responses to “Two Polynesians Walk into a Bar…

  1. Kalani, I think you should publish this more broadly. Salt Lake Tribune?


  2. Thank you for your impassioned response. This is wrong.


  3. This is awful. Thank you for calling it out, Kalani!


  4. What Maea and co. experienced in deplorable. I have a question however, how can Utah/The Church get people to stand in opposition to the racism that permeates the black community and black members in Utah/The Church as openly as they oppose the racism to the Polynesians that Maea and co. experienced? If Utah/The Church could do this, then and only then, could Utah/the Church might have real some progress. This is particularly important. Especially when considering that the LDS church viewed Pacific Islanders (particularly Fijians, PNG, and other “Melanesians”) as having “Negro” blood, as “the church had never done any missionary work because of the Negroid appearance” until McKay clarified them as non Negro for having “a warm spot in my heart for these beautiful singers” and that “there is evident that [they] are not of the Negroid races”. In other words, If you are not white, you get racism from Utah/The Church/Members, just expect it until the historic racism of the church is both discussed AND condemned simultaneously over the pulpit. The book, “The Rise of Modern Mormonism”, are the source of my quotations/citations.


    • Kāfakafa, I 100% agree with you, other than the fact that I don’t think we can necessarily conflate Utah and The Church in this instance — particularly in light of the fact that this incident took place in a bar. Nevertheless, you bring up an excellent point about racism in The Church. There are lots of people doing work to overcome the damage done by earlier racist church practices — many of the writers for this FEMWOC blog are, in fact, activists and social justice warriors. Gina Colvin, one of our blog co-founders, is a co-host for a podcast called Color of Heaven, and their podcast is dedicated to discussing the complicated history of racism within the church. It’s a really great podcast…great historical information and thought-provoking ideas. I think the first step to overcoming racism is acknowledgement and education, and I feel like we are making slow but steady progress in that area…at least in my little corner of the world. What are your thoughts?


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