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Racism in Hawaii. It needs to be discussed.

Today’s a heavy reading kind of day.


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.

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Race relations in Hawai’i are weird compared to the rest of the United States, and this is a really long and good read on how and why this state came to be.

To go off on a tangent, one topic keakealani doesn’t cover is local humor, which largely comprises racial stereotypes. I’m being extremely loose with ethnology there, but there’s kind of an agreement among the “constituent Hawai’ian races”—native Hawai’ian, Filipino, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Caucasian, etc.—that we can all tell racist jokes about each other and all have a good laugh.

Local comedians like Frank De Lima have built careers on this sort of material. Jokes are traded with friends at work and get-togethers. You can even hear them on the radio.

On a personal level, I grew up idolizing De Lima, and I could recite many of his skits and songs from memory. (I probably still can.) I have distinct memories of trading jokes during elementary school. And members of my family, to this day, occasionally refer to doing boneheaded things as having a “Portagee moment.”

But it’s never done with any sort of malice. Was a person ever offended if I told a joke that applied to them? Probably not; far more likely, they would tell one right back that applied to me. We’d even tell jokes about ourselves. The popular sentiment is that it’s how we people of widely different origins deal with our differences.

So the question is, does that make it okay? If it’s all in the name of camaraderie and there’s no visible harm, then is there still a problem?

As someone who was born and raised in that culture, I have a really hard time answering “no” to the first question or “yes” to the second. I was there! I saw the laughs!

But as someone who now knows vaguely about such things as stratification, I have a hard time accepting that it should be okay.

In Vol. 30, No. 1 of the University of Hawai’i Law Review (winter 2007 issue), Karyn R. Okada wrote a piece titled “An Analysis of Hawai’i’s Tradition of ‘Local’ Ethnic Humor.” In section V, she analyzes the connotations of the common stereotypes levied against various races and some very real discrimination and inequality in the state that they reinforce:

On an individual level, evidence of harm inflicted by the racist messages conveyed in local humor is quite prevalent. Scholars have noted that amongst the local Filipino population, for example, feelings of self-doubt and shame of cultural background are especially prevalent.

This is all some very difficult stuff I haven’t figured out how to deal with yet.

  1. old-kentucky-shark reblogged this from ziplockandload
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  4. nullarysources reblogged this from keakealani and added:
    Today’s a heavy reading kind of day. This is all some very difficult stuff I haven’t figured out how to deal with yet.
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