Life in Hawaii - Racial Tensions

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Volcano on Hawaii

I moved to Hawaii almost two years ago to pursue a marine biology degree at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.  Back then, I couldn't wait to get to paradise.  When I left California for the Aloha State, my vision was of a happy place full of friendly people who like to gather on the beach for luaus and volleyball.  I had seen pictures of rainbow adorned forests, lush and impenetrable, with exotic flowers and majestic waterfalls.  From postcards and coffee table books one gets the impression that island life is a charmed existence, that people live in harmony with a million natural wonders, and that the native islanders are open and friendly.

(I wish I had some sound effects here-Boing!-record scratch).  Boy, was I misled!  Don't get me wrong, I love it here.  It's just that I was so far off with my expectations that a lot of things came as a shock.

The first thing that signaled trouble in paradise was several warnings to stay away from Waianae, a small town on the West side of the island. Waianae is off the beaten path, so I wasn't concerned about finding myself there by accident the way some people stumble into East LA, but I was curious about why I should avoid that place.

The general, and always brief, explanation was that Waianae wasn't safe for tourists.  I wouldn't learn why until I had made some local friends.  It seems that, like any European conquered land, there are some tensions between natives and Caucasians. 

I have a 47-year-old Caucasian neighbor, Amber, who grew up here.  Her father was stationed at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base and she went to a military-run school.  Before I got to know her well, I noticed that she had some emotional and trust issues.  She was always telling me to be careful when I was out by myself and it was from her that I first got the low-down on Waianae (and other potentially dangerous places).

It seems that quite a few Caucasians have been beaten up and mugged-some have even met their end-in Waianae, but as someone who has lived in Oakland and near LA, I am used to a bit of ethnic tension.  The thing is, there's something very pervasive about the ethnic gap here on Oahu.  Much of it flies under the radar and, indeed, discrimination can be wielded with a smile.  I have experienced what I consider discrimination by university staff (an important paper doesn't get filed on time, or I am left out of some key communication).  I have also been given the stink-eye in restaurants and I've been called "haole" (pronounced howlie) on several occasions when I wondered into an area "not for tourists."

Amber explained to me that a Haole is a mythical creature that has no soul.  It's a name that Hawaiians used for Caucasians, mostly when they are not present, but apparently some islanders feel more at liberty to use it as a quick insult or to let a Caucasian know that they are not feeling particularly friendly.  White folks who have been on the islands for a long time and have learned some of the Hawaiian ways are called hapa haole (half haole).

I don't know about you, but this all stinks of some serious racism to me.  It recalls the "N" word (see how stigmatized that slur is?  We don't dare say or write it), a word that is now only used by hardened rednecks and among African Americans (ironically as a term of endearment).

Anyhow, by the time I got to know Amber, I had already noticed that many islanders treated me as a second class citizen.  To a large extent, the degree to which one experiences racism in Hawaii depends upon who you are.  I have attractive female friends from the mainland who say that they have never seen it, but I don't know one Caucasian guy who has not experienced at least a little bit of hostility, and most have quite a few stories to tell.  Those that fair best seem to be the ones who don't present any "threat."  One of my neighbors is a serious pot-head who wears shabby cloths and has long shaggy hair.  By his account, his experience on the islands has been mostly free of racial issue, though I cannot rule out his drug-induced obliviousness.

People of Asian descent don't really experience racism from the Hawaiians, but they know about it toward whites.  My roommate is Japanese and he has really opened my eyes about some things.  His father manages one of the big hotels down in Waikiki and he has worked summers there.  He tells me that there is a great deal of anti Caucasian sentiment among the native islanders, even in tourist areas.

I have noticed that tourists often don't experience racial tension.  This is largely because they stick to the highly commercialized areas like Waikiki, which is definitely not typical of the rest of the island.  Islanders who work in Waikiki hide any sore feelings they have toward tourists.  I guess it's not good for business.  The resort areas seem to be the only places where "the aloha spirit" is alive and well, and one wonders if that spirit was not manufactured to boost tourism.

Going back to Amber, Caucasian kids who grew up in the Honolulu school system often report having been picked on-sometimes brutally.  Amber was one of those kids.  She told me that she had been fearful when walking to and from school, that she would go out of her way to stay near walls, and that she sought out routes that had good hiding places that she could duck into if she saw Hawaiian kids.  She has a large scar on her forehead and some hidden under her hair from when she was beaten to within an inch of death by a mob of Hawaiian kids.  She said that she had not done anything to provoke the attack and she didn't even know many of the kids involved.  None of them got in any trouble for what they did to her.

I could go on about how Caucasians are sometimes mistreated by locals, but actually I believe that more of us should experience some of the separatism that we have oppressed others with in the past (and present).  Caucasians can seem arrogant to islanders.  We take their high-paying jobs, usurp their native lands, control their legal system, and commit a million other transgressions, so it's no wonder they feel animosity toward us.  I pride myself in having been educated toward tolerance.  I just wish that tolerance and humility showed like skin color-then maybe I wouldn't have to deal with misdirected anger.

I was going to turn my attention to the condition of Hawaiian ecosystems, the mess that they are, but I'll have to return to the topic in another post.  Hawaii is a beautiful state, but there really is trouble in paradise.

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Trouble in Paradise
written by sxe60, October 23, 2008
Interesting post, as a tourist you would probably never realize that there were serious racial problems, since you would only see the parts of paradise that the Chamber of Commerce and the Tourist Bureau wanted you to see. I would imagine their mantra is; Problems with the locals, no that can't happen here. This is the land of friendly people.

Sadly, ethnically charged issues are found almost everywhere that there are indiginous groups and newcomers. Paticularily, if the newcomers become the landowners and employers. Maybe it's from many generations of tribal existance.


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