Chasing Clouds


Racism in Hawaii. It needs to be discussed.

Okay, okay. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and I need to get this out because I feel that it’s important to explain, even if nobody is probably going to read it. So bear with me.

It is a common (mis)perception that Hawaii is racist “against” haoles*/white people.

*”Haole" is a Hawaiian language term that is best translated as "foreigner" or "outsider". It could be contrasted with the term "malihini" which is often translated as "newcomer" or "visitor". "Haole" has some modern racial connotations but was not, to my understanding, originally limited to people of Caucasian ethnicity. In my experience of the modern understanding, it both has a descriptive connotation (in other words, analogous to "white" but not necessarily with racist overtones, or representative of certain specific cultural characteristics associated with mainlanders/foreigners/white people, such as entitled attitude, brash or loud modes of expression, "touristy" portrayals/understandings of Hawaii, or simply being very ignorant of local culture.

This is true…. ish. It is, however, not taking into account many bits of context that, while not justifying individual behavior, set Hawaii’s “anti-white racism” against a backdrop of privilege and colonialism that negates any oppression implied by racism.

Let’s start with privilege. For those of you who are not aware, the sociological/social justice world uses the term “privilege” to define ways which participating in a certain social class (e.g., race, gender, heteronormative/cisnormative status, able-bodied-ness, socio-economic class, etc.) provides intrinsic social benefits not offered to people of a different class. It is often defined on an “axis of oppression” - that is, there is one (or sometimes several) class at the top of the metaphorical food chain and others on the bottom.

An example might be a study that showed that when observers in a park noticed a person cutting the lock off of a bike, their reactions tended to be more favorable (e.g., ignore, it’s probably his own bike with a stuck lock) for white perpetrators, than with black perpetrators (e.g., he must be stealing that bike, call the cops). This illustrates white privilege - the assumption that white people are less malicious/dangerous/immoral than black people, even in the same ambiguous situation.

This does not mean that the person who called the cops or the person who ignored the white dude is, themselves, necessarily oppressing anyone - frankly, both are reasonable assumptions and taken absent of race, say nothing about a person other than maybe their level of cynicism. It does, however, illustrate how systemic lines of thought affect a number of people that, taken together, illustrate a system of oppression - it can be seen in higher incarceration rates for people of color, longer sentences for the same crimes, and racial profiling in many different situations, based on these faulty assumptions.

So, back to Hawaii. In most Western/European cultures, white culture is dominant and therefore privileged. White people also tend to be the majority in most areas, and especially in areas of power like government, high socio-economic class, and media. It is not the fault of any individual white person that they are privileged. Let me repeat again. It is not your fault that you are privileged. And yes, I’m talking to all of you, because almost every single person in the world possesses some form of privilege. 

To read more, check out this quick primer on privilege - it’s mostly the stuff I just said, but explained differently, if you are still confused.

The thing is, in Hawaii, privilege axes are different. White/Western privilege still exists. But, there are other axes of privilege that need to be taken into account. “Local” privilege also exists. The number of years/generations you/your family has been in Hawaii is a social priority. The “norm” is for people to have been in Hawaii for generations (to put that into perspective, not counting my Hawaiian ancestors, many of my other ancestors emigrated before the American Civil War). Social life and culture in Hawaii do give advantages to people who have strong and deep family and friend connections on the island.

And of course, this is hardly surprising. It’s a fucking island. And on Oahu, it also has some of the worst traffic in the country. It should not surprise anyone that many Hawaii residents’ lives take place 90% of the time within a 5-10 mile radius. It should not surprise anyone that, in that small radius, the people you know and the ease of navigation in those areas will be important. Oahu is grossly overpopulated. As a result, it is also grossly underemployed. And guess who gets jobs? Not some random new guy who doesn’t know who’s hiring or any connections in that place of employment - no, realistically it’s the manager’s cousin. Plus, of course, many businesses are literally family owned and operated, which of course means that your chances of a job are much higher if you actually have family. 

Is this bad? Maybe, but it’s reality and it’s human nature. Why hire the guy you’ve never heard of, compared to the guy who has four references by your friends, colleagues, and mentors? How can you even hire a guy who didn’t apply because the job opening was only publicized by spreading email around to your friends in the field? Why look elsewhere when your grad student from UH with top marks wants to stay in your research field as a civilian employee, and with whom you already have a professional rapport? 

So, to use jobs as an example, people with more and deeper connections have privilege. It’s understandable, even if it sucks for the newcomers. This, of course, affects every other walk of life. You have to know about the Kamaʻāina discounts if you want to ask for them. Unlike on the mainland, people care way more about what high school you went to - and if it was a mainland school nobody’s heard about, then half of the social connections they might have made are gone, so it’s harder to make friends. Hawaii is simply isolated that way, and it is one of the reasons it makes the culture so special - but also so foreign.

This leads to another point. Hawaii is a foreign culture. There, I said it. I think, in a misguided attempt to draw tourism and to justify statehood (which I fully support, in other regards), Hawaii has made a serious propaganda effort to convince mainlanders that Hawaii really is “just” the 50th state - identical to the other 49, but with better beaches. There was a big push to make Hawaii seem “American” - not foreign or strange, but perfectly comfortable to businesses, tourists, and anyone else who wants to come.

And while I can see the economic benefits (particularly in the short term), this has lead to some serious consequences for the cultural “place” Hawaii has in American society. 

There are many ways where Hawaii is very American, very Westernized (and I’ll get to that one later). But, Hawaii also has a very unique history that simply can’t be compared accurately to any other state. It is the only state that has ever had an internationally-recognized modern monarchy. It is the only state in Polynesia. It is the only state that is thousands of miles away from its neighbor. It is the only state made of multiple islands. It has a unique history of plantation labor immigration, overthrown monarchy, and Pearl Harbor attacks. 

And these need to be acknowledged. Not just as a side note, but as some of the many reasons Hawaii will never be exactly the same as any mainland state. So many of the ways privilege and oppression manifest themselves in Hawaii’s culture are going to be different than they are on the mainland. And it is only with that understanding that Hawaii’s culture will make any sense, and that assimilation might be possible.

But, let’s take a moment to reflect back on the concept of privilege. As I mentioned earlier, white privilege does, in fact, still exist. Many people deny this part, which I believe is the source of most of the conflict on this issue. It does not exist in the same context as mainland US culture, but in a culture very much dominated by the aftermath of colonialism.

Colonialism and Imperialism have become dirty words. A lot of people like to use the argument that, since they personally did not participate in a historical movement of white people to other areas, they should not be held responsible for the actions of their ancestors. This is true. Walking up to a modern-day white person and saying that you, personally, sailed a ship to Hawaii and brought diseases that killed 70% of the indigenous population in less than a few decades is not only factually incorrect, but pretty stupid and insensitive. Walking up to a white guy in the US South and saying you personally enslaved a person from Africa and caused the deaths of many people in transit is also factually incorrect and silly. 

But colonialism didn’t stop the moment Captain Cook’s ship left. Colonialism continues to this day. Do you want to know how?

What language am I writing in? Is it derived from Indo-European roots, or Indo-Malayo-Polynesian roots? What is the last thing you ate? If you’re in Hawaii, have you had a steady diet of native cuisine derived from only native plants and animals? If you’re on the mainland US, are you consuming the indigenous culture’s cuisine regularly? No? That’s imperialism. The culture that is dominant, even in Hawaii, is Western. The culture that is seen as “normal”, or superior, or ideal, is Western. 

What kind of currency do you use? Do you own a car, house, parcel of land, or refrigerator — or do you participate in a collective ownership system in which everyone lives off of the land and takes what they need from a large area of land collectively stewarded by the people? Is your primary form of entertainment derived from the internet, TV, movies, books, or magazines? Who writes those books and magazines, screenplays and blog posts? Westerners? You betcha. Did you even think about this before five minutes ago? Probably not, because it’s so ingrained in our culture that those are normal, and that anything too divergent from this system is probably really, really weird.

So we’ve established that white culture is privileged. What does this mean? Again, it doesn’t mean that white people are bad people, or that any one white person is personally to blame for the state of society currently. But what it does mean is that white people (and to a larger degree all Westerners), necessarily have blinders on. Without a great deal of thought and having these things pointed out to you, you probably didn’t even think about how your culture supplanted someone else’s. You probably don’t walk around on a regular basis feeling like your culture is liable to be mocked, derided, or erased. You probably don’t think about how marrying the person you love might mean that your progeny won’t have enough of a blood quantum or cultural upbringing to even participate in part of your heritage culture. 

If you think about it, it’s pretty damn frustrating, right? I recently watched some clips of a documentary about Hawaii Pidgin, more accurately known as Hawaiian Creole English. It raises an interesting point, because Pidgin is a defining factor for many people who participate in one aspect of Hawaii’s culture. It represents Hawaii’s diverse ethnic background, its history of plantation labor, and its sense of mixing-pot between people from many different walks of life. It is also, however, widely mocked and derided.

The late Senator Daniel K. Inouye was, according to both historical logic and accounts of his friends and peers, fluent in Pidgin. It would have, in fact, been very consistent with his history and upbringing as a Nisei (second-generation Japanese-American). He would have well represented a lot of that generation of Hawaii residents - not necessarily native Hawaiian in ethnicity, but local “Hawaiian” in culture. (I use the quotes to distinguish between “Hawaiian” as a generic descriptor for things, people, and ideas from Hawaii as opposed to things defining specifically native/indigenous Hawaiian). 

Yet, Senator Inouye did not speak Pidgin up in Washington D.C. in front of congress. He did not write in Pidgin when he wrote briefs to his staff or blurbs for the newspaper. In fact, he was of the generation that was forced to give up speaking pidgin or Hawaiian on a school campus in order to attend an “English Standard School”, deliberately segregated schools geared toward erasing and shaming pidgin speakers in favor of standard English as spoken by mainland American transplants. “What’s that, you say? Colonialism?” Yup. Back in the 1920s and ’30s, this was how colonialism reared its ugly head - defining a social status with language, such that standard English was seen as superior to the “bastardized” pidgin spoken by the “lowly” locals. 

Well, duh, you might say. Pidgin’s not a real language. People who speak it are less educated, or less intelligent, because obviously pidgin does not deserve a legitimate place as a language. /s

You might be right, if you were talking about a literal pidgin. In linguistic terms, pidgins are languages created on the fly by people attempting communicate when neither has a shared language or enough ability/knowledge in the other’s language to have a real conversation. Pidgin is most closely analogous to the kinds of communication a young toddler might make when his vocabulary is only sounds, motions, and 27 words that all sound like “mama”. 

((Oh, and by the way, in no ways does this imply anything about the level of intelligence of a person or make them literally comparable to a toddler - but it would be true that someone using a true pidgin in the linguistic sense would be undereducated in the language used by the person they are communicating with.))

Despite its misleading name, however, the pidgin in Hawaii is not a pidgin at all. It is, defined in linguistic terms, a creole. Creole languages are fully-formed languages that emerge from pidgin usage. The most major difference, though, is that creole languages are not on-the-fly last-ditch efforts at communication. They have logical, if often simplistic, grammar rules and vocabularies. They have all the features of a fully-fledged language, although it is true that due to their historical nature they tend to be fairly simple in practice. But, so do many non-creole languages, so that is not a good way to categorize languages anyway. 

Creole languages, by the way, are officially defined as such when they are acquired by children. That is, rather than being a language used by adults due to circumstance, it is inherited as a first language by children, in the same way a child of two English-speaking parents will likely inherit English as a first language. Given that the original immigrants to Hawaii’s early plantations are long since passed on, and that several generations of Hawaii’s children have been born in that span of time, Hawaii Creole English is frankly nowhere near a bastardized pidgin - its survival at all indicates that it is, very clearly, a native language (or a close second) for many Hawaii residents and has developed just as much as any other language class might have to be considered a separate and legitimate language (such as, for example, modern English out of old Anglo-Saxon and/or Norman French).

So why didn’t Senator Inouye give speeches to Congress in Pidgin? Why doesn’t Hawaii have Pidgin listed as an official language (not that, apparently, that means much, given how much Hawaiian Language speakers have to struggle to get their rights met)? Why do we not have Pidgin translations of newspapers, books (although there are at least two Pidgin translations of the Bible), standardized tests, or other media? 

If you guessed colonialism, ding ding ding! Ten points for Gryffindor. Yup. Pidgin was derided, mocked, and banned at various points by people who, blind to their own privilege, decided that standard US English is simply a more superior language, and that educated people must necessarily communicate in standard English.

Now, again, this is not necessarily a bad thing itself. (Standard) English is, in fact, the lingua franca in the US and much of the world. It is obvious that being at least bilingual would be necessary to participate in much of the economic, political, and social infrastructure of our country. And, frankly, that’s not going to change any time soon. Teaching standard English in schools is logical and realistic. It is simply a skill that students will need, far more than speaking a localized language group that isn’t understood much outside of Hawaii. 

However, it is still worth considering the ramifications here. It should also be possible to teach one language in, for example, a school setting without also portraying another language as being inferior or wrong. It is possible to acknowledge that, given that pidgin is actually many students’ first language, conceptual understanding may be easier to acquire in that language rather than in their second language. For those readers who are even nominally bilingual, or heck, have ever taken a foreign language class - consider how much easier it is for you to understand material in your native language, especially if you have only had limited training in the second language. That goes double if the languages in question are easily-confused related languages, like French and Italian. 

Now imagine what that’s like for students in their formative years of education, given no choice, when they are constantly scolded for doing it “wrong” without any curriculum to teach them how to do it “right”, besides accidental immersion. 

Let’s make the analogy with “real” immersion schools. In a Hawaiian immersion curriculum, students’ families all participate. Parents are required to acquire a basic level of Hawaiian and speak only or primarily Hawaiian in the household as well as their curriculum at school. Instruction is given such that it may acknowledge English-language concepts or words, and such that translation may be necessary for students who are living in a bilingual world. 

By contrast, in a “standard English immersion” program for HCE-speakers (i.e., regular public or private schools), no effort or instruction is given to parents to model standard English in the home. No effort is given to provide translation assistance or acknowledgement of a concept or word that is foreign to the student. Students are not instructed mindfully knowing that they are being taught a second language - it is assumed that they are being taught a first language because the other language doesn’t actually exist, in the eyes of curriculum development.

Is it any surprise, then, that HCE speakers tend not to do well in school, tend to have low self-esteem regarding education and/or language usage? This is compounded by the fact that, despite the best efforts of English-touting colonialists, HCE is still seen as a vivid and integral connection of speakers to their culture. Language is a major part of culture, and it is often said that the first step to understanding a culture is to understand its language. HCE is a status symbol of participating in a certain cultural paradigm, in the same way that speaking Japanese is an integral part of participating fully in the culture of Japan. Moreover, I believe that HCE speakers have a certain sense of resiliency due to the acknowledgement that their language and culture are actively under attack. People speak pidgin “despite” stigma, in order to still access that part of their cultural history left unexpressed by standard English.

The analogies are as varied as the fish in the sea, but leave that as an example of the way Hawaii’s culture continues to be touched by colonialism and Western privilege. 

To bring this back to racism… the next time a white person derides the language or accent of someone in Hawaii, it is not simply an off-hand comment based on a misunderstanding, but a perpetuation of a history of abuse in that context. The next time someone mocks pidgin by deliberately using it incorrectly or to illustrate an unfounded stereotype of unintelligence or primitiveness, it’s not just a poorly-timed joke, but a representation of how widely spread these damaging attitudes have come.

This applies outside of language, too. The next time someone judges you because of resentment about colonialism, the overthrow, or any other action of the past, remember that we are still dealing with that aftermath today as we mourn the loss of our cultural heritage. The next time you carry racial baggage, imagine all the other races in the world who have carried that baggage since birth, and instead of reacting by pointing fingers and calling names, vow to eradicate that feeling of racial stereotyping for all people, not just yourself.

Finally, remember that we are all human, and none of us are perfect. But, we are all individuals and we don’t need to be held accountable for things we can’t control. Rather than being offended at someone’s frustration at systemic oppression, control your own participation in that oppression. And work with that person to identify their own blinders and how they can also control their participation in harmful behavior, knowing that not all harmful behavior is inherently oppressive. Know that bad feelings happen, but they are not always because of hatred or racism or sexism or anything else. They are sometimes just because of individual actions that meshed in the wrong way. 

That is not the same as racism, so don’t levy the accusation of racism when the answer is actually just an individual misunderstanding. Assuming that someone is attacking you for racial reasons, absent of any other context, is just as damaging as actually attacking someone for racial reasons.

As one final word (because I know this is WAAAAAYYYY too long), remember that racism (and anything else) is not a black-and-white issue. There are subtleties and nuances. You can be totally not racist in one way, but that does not insulate you from other ways you participate in racist culture. Complacency can be the biggest blinder of all - stay vigilant to all of the ways you can control your participation in oppression.

Mālama pono.