Racism and Hate in Hawaii – Does it Exist?

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Racism in Hawaii?

In May of 2007 I started Aim for Awesome as a site about helping people move to Hawaii from other parts of the world, primarily from the mainland U.S. The most common topic I’ve been asked by readers over these seven years is about the racism issue on the Hawaiian Islands.

Does racism exist? Is it that bad? Should I bring my kids to attend the public schools?

In the past I haven’t even attempted to tackle the question in an article here because of a number of reasons:

1. Racism and hate among Hawaii locals toward tourists exists, and vice-versa.

2. Most people are not affected by it that much.

3. It isn’t going to change anytime soon. It’s a contentious topic that people get all worked up about and yet little gets resolved because most don’t want to change their minds about it.

I hope by writing this post today I can help some people decide whether moving to and living in Hawaii is a good idea or not. I’ll try to cover the topic of racism and hate against non-locals from as many sides as I can see. Surely I’ll miss some things, and I hope you write to me to let me know what I missed. I’ll add it to the article with an update in the future if it adds something to the discussion.

My Own Experiences with Racism / Hatred in Hawaii

I first arrived on Oahu in 1985. I was in the Air Force. I lived at Hickam Air Force Base. I worked with many locals over the course of my enlistment at Hickam. I had many local friends as a result. I was invited to local family barbecues and picnics. I ate local foods that most tourists never get to try or even hear about. I briefly dated a local hapa girl and her family seemed to accept me.

The locals working in my office at Hickam Air Force Base were rather enlightened as a group. I mean, they had worked with the military for many years. Their livelihood was dependent on getting along with people of all backgrounds, even those from other islands they might have had a problem with, like people from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and Tahiti. Many locals in our group had other family members that were also employed by the military, and they seemed, at least while with us, that we were part of the group. They gave us the benefit of the doubt to begin with, and I didn’t notice any sort of racial discrimination, hatred, or anything like that on the Air Force Base or off during times we got together at Ala Moana, Waimanalo, or right in the backyard of someone’s home.

There was a block party in town one time and a bunch of us piled into my friend’s Jeep and headed down for the festivities. We had been drinking, but we were all pretty coherent. Traffic was bumper to bumper, and it was around midnight. Things were just about getting out of hand, meaning that most people were at the tipping point for having had too much to drink. There were thousands of people walking around on the street and thousands of cars crawling around the city with music blasting and everyone having a great time.

Hawaii TouristOne of the idiots in our Jeep, Gary, decided to flip off the entire car of locals that was driving behind us. I’m not sure what prompted it, maybe they did it first, no idea. But as I was looking another direction, a guy got out of the car behind and came up and punched Gary on the side of the head and yelled ‘haole!’ and ran back into the car. I don’t remember what happened next except that I think we just figured Gary was being an ass and deserved it. He didn’t appear to want to go fight with them, and I sure didn’t, I was having too much fun. Anyway, that was the extent of it.

Another time, a couple of years later, I was driving around the west side of Oahu with my girlfriend. We were around Waianae, and though I knew it was a locals area, I figured since we were still in the USA – we’d be fine. I was rather naive back then.

I remember us driving down this rather small road that I thought must lead to the beach. A group of locals coming in the opposite direction pulled in front of us, then by us slowly and were screaming ‘go home haoles’ out the window and holding knives up to the windows, threatening us. I smiled and shook my head to let them know, we’re leaving! I turned the car around quickly and got out of town. In fact, I don’t think I ever drove back to the west side again.

Another time I was on my motorcycle and going maybe sixty miles per hour when a car full of locals pulled up very close beside me and again I was threatened by them holding up knives and yelling ‘haole’ out the window.

When I moved back to Hawaii, and visited other times, I don’t remember having any incident at all with racist locals. Probably because I wasn’t going to clubs at night or doing other activities in which I interacted with locals of low socio-economic status.

So, those were my three up-close experiences in which I felt like I wasn’t exactly wanted on the islands. There were other times when at clubs in downtown Waikiki or elsewhere and I heard arguments between locals and tourists or others that included a lot of negative ‘haole’ accusations and taunts.

My thoughts about these incidents is that, things like this happen all over the world. It isn’t just Hawaii. It’s just a symptom of groups being different from each other. Locals have a feeling of ownership of the islands. It’s like if you grew up in your home town, your parents and their parents grew up there, and then six million Uzbekistanis a year started coming in tour groups to see your town. They arrive in buses, rental cars, on scooters, bikes, walking and skating around. They don’t know how to drive, they run motorbikes off the road, they laugh at your food and wear shirts with your town printed on them. They have money they blow on the most ridiculous things like Humvee rentals, and they enjoy eating at the finest restaurants in your town night after night.

If this happened in your home town, you might have some anti-Uzbekistani sentiments.

Don’t you think?

Then, some of them want to MOVE TO YOUR TOWN. They start businesses, they demand local discounts because they live there. They surf on your favorite break, they don’t know common courtesy on the water, on the roads, etc.

The Uzbekistanis are there because they love your town, they love your culture, they love the whole atmosphere. They don’t know how to act because they aren’t locals. They act in ways you don’t understand and that you call ‘stupid’ sometimes because they’re just so different from you. And this is how it goes…

I think Hawaii’s locals wish they could have the islands to themselves. They don’t really, because there wouldn’t be much infrastructure there to support them, but they at least want to have some places they can go without seeing visitors and having to deal with them. They want to have some sense of home that makes it seem like their home, not a home they share with outsiders from all over the world all the time.

They don’t have that. They won’t have that unless they successfully secede from the nation and make all non-locals leave. I don’t see that happening. Not ever.

Shaka SIgn HawaiiSome locals get that. So, instead of focusing on the negative aspects of their home, they focus on the positive. They try to educated outsiders. They try to introduce them to their culture, their food, their ways. They go way beyond the usual welcoming attitude to try to help people assimilate into the culture, into the ways of the locals. I met many people like this. There are many locals that have transcended the negativity that is expressed toward outsiders and they are focused on other things that will make Hawaii a better place to live and visit, not a worse place.

Now we have social media and we can see how locals act in Hawaii, from wherever we sit in the mainland, or from wherever we live in countries across the globe. I was looking at Twitter this morning to see what I could find. As expected I found many negative comments from locals about outsiders in Hawaii.

I think people in Hawaii that make little money, and have little education, are primarily those that have conversations with others which involve racist or hateful feelings being expressed. Same as in the mainland. Same as in China, Thailand, or anywhere else.

I don’t expect not to find surfers who dropped out of school throwing the haole word around in the line-up at Makapu’u, Walls, Bowls. I don’t expect to never see someone drunk at a club in Waikiki griping about haoles in general. I don’t expect to never see locals on Twitter griping about tourists wearing Maui shirts to Maui. It’s the normal state of things. I wish it were different, but of course racism happens all over the place, not just Hawaii.

On the other hand, when I’m with friends that have graduated from a university, and especially those that have seen some of the world, those that have a better big picture of the world we live in, and the differences and commonalities among people, it’s different. I expect this to be a more respectful group that is aware of the harmful effects of racism, racist taunts, hateful speech. And I do. As I said, when I moved back to Hawaii – both Oahu and Maui, I saw none of what I saw as an uneducated and low-socioeconomic status airman living on base in 1985.

Hawaii’s primary and high schools are filled with kids that pit themselves against each other in groups. There are groups of local Hawaiians, Filipinos, Koreans, mainland kids, etc. Each group believes they are fundamentally different from the other kids. It is a sad state of the public school system (and private schools) but, it mirrors life. The parents of these kids teach them these differences and the cycle is perpetuated until someone figures out there are no qualitative differences between groups of people. We’re all human. We’re all flawed. We all need to do our best to get along by focusing on the positives, the commonalities, not the differences.

As I read all the twitter posts this morning with the word “haole” in them, I was motivated to post what locals were saying about visitors to the island here in this article. After writing all the above, I have a different feeling about it. It’s sort of the same feeling that led me away from writing about this subject here on this website before.

Racism and hate is out there. We all know it’s out there.

It is based on ignorance, fear, anger, and not being able to meet basic needs for one’s self.

Posting two or two-thousand negative tweets by racist locals here in this article is just going to stoke the differences between them and visitors to the islands. I think no point in that really.

Racism exists in every society. It’s a sad state of things. It won’t change tomorrow, but we can all do our part to focus on the common things among us, not the differences. Locals didn’t choose to be born in Hawaii. I didn’t choose to be born in Western Pennsylvania. We are what we are. We are all trying to create a life for ourselves that meets our physical, spiritual, and emotional needs. The sooner we can do this, the sooner we’ll find peace within. The sooner we find peace within, the sooner we’ll find peace outside ourselves in interacting with people different from us. The sooner we do that, the closer we will get to the ideal…

Listen to some more Bruddah Iz and everything will be fine…

I hope by writing this I can help at least one person take a lighter look at the differences between us…

Aloha!

Vern

2017-05-18T20:52:48+00:00

About the Author:

Moving to Hawaii was one of the most amazing moves ever. I strongly encourage you to consider it if you're in the financial position to make it work. Living in Hawaii has a fair bit of both positive and negative experiences awaiting each of us who give it a try. Read some of the articles here and try to get a feel for whether you might thrive in the islands. I wrote an entire book on the subject and it's usually less than $5. It's up there on the right side column. Best of luck and life to you! Aloha! - Vern L.

16 Comments

  1. Bill Littlejohn 05/17/2017 at 9:56 am - Reply

    I have visited Oahu twice. My family are ones who do not want the “touristie” experience. We want to learn about the culture and it’s people. Once we learned about the truth of how the US obtained the Hawaiian Islands, we understood the negative undertones that existed in some areas. We were lucky enough to come across a tour bus driver who when he discovered that we were not your average tourists, was overjoyed to share his culture and history.

    He advised us of places we would be welcome and places to avoid. He showed us some beautiful spots but told us do not ever come here without another native Hawaiian with you!

    We really enjoyed that trip but as with everything, for every great experience, there is a bad one waiting for you. We decided to take one of those snorkeling tours and as my family and I are waiting to be issued our equipment, one of the locals working there takes one look at my 6’3 250lb self and says loud enough for me and my wife and daughter to hear, “LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THIS HAOLE!”

    Sometimes I wonder if they think that we as tourists simply have no idea what the word means? Anyway, I waited until after the tour was over, simply walked over to him and said in a quiet voice, “some of us know what haole means” I shook his hand and left.

    The shocked look on his face was priceless and I hope maybe I created a memory for him that not all haoles are horrible people simply looking to destroy their lives.

    Anyway, just my experiences in Oahu…

  2. Sonia Evans 04/12/2017 at 7:57 am - Reply

    I am black, female – 60’s. I grew up during the civil rights movement era. What I saw and heard was horrendous, the atrocities committed against human beings was heartbreaking. Black people, white people, old and young people, were murdered, beaten, banned from schools, libraries and restaurants; forced to enter through back doors, there were white only drinking fountains and toilets; acid poured in public pools on black people to make them get out; women and men were raped, called niggers and anyone who sympathized with them were nigger lovers; people were spat upon, attacked by police dogs, assaulted with fire hoses by men representing the LAW. I have visited Hawaii 2 times and only experienced one incident. The offender was Japanese. No one else was rude, Racism still exists because WE (humans of all races) have not done much to end it. We have preconceived ideas about anyone who is not like “us”. When we decide to not (pre)judge people because of their skin color, when we decide to not hold the transgressions of our predecessors against ALL those who came after them, when we learn to forgive and be the change we want to see, we will be on the way to stop the ugly madness and not perpetuate the sickness we say we despise. My experience was pretty ugly but I do not hold it against all Japanese people. I have had white people treat me like I was less than dirt; but I have some white friends I would fight for and I know they would do the same for me. We have to learn to love people, forgive one another and move on lest we continue to call each other names, look at each other with hatred and feed the monster. I want to live in Hawaii — it has been a dream all my life. I pray that it is the paradise I dreamed it would be and the Aloha / Ohana vibe I got is real. No place is perfect but we can make anywhere we are better with everyone’s effort.

    • Peter Kay 04/12/2017 at 9:28 pm - Reply

      Best. Comment. Ever. The Aloha Vibe is real. Aloha!

  3. Nuff Already 04/04/2017 at 12:14 pm - Reply

    Educate yourself before preaching. You are the reason the word Haole has a bad rap. It is not a racist term, it is a Hawaiian word meaning foreigner! You say you moved here in 85? Yet you didn’t take the time to educate yourself on Hawai’i’s history. The Kingdom of Hawai’i was overthrown and STOLEN from foreigners aka haoles. Our anger towards tourist doesn’t come from “not wanting to share our beaches”. This is our ‘āina, it is a privilege not a right for you haoles to come here. To the people moving here, you guys are taking all the homes and driving up the prices so that Hawaiians that belong here end up on the street. So, to answer everyone’s question, is Hawai’i racist? No. Do we want foreigners to visit? No. Do we need forefingers to help us be sustainable? Absolutely NOT! GO HOME

    • Kai 04/09/2017 at 10:25 pm - Reply

      Im from Oahu and you darn well know that haole means without spirit, it is a negative term and there are plenty folk who are white and now born here so they aint foreigner…stop living in the past brah, we never get it back so have aloha and one with all the ohana here now.

  4. Eric Riske 09/01/2016 at 6:17 am - Reply

    I went to Hawaii and lived there homeless for six Month’s It was the most predjudice , place i’ve ever experienced but it wasn’t all bad, its a beautifull island & I wasn’t treated bad by all the Hawaiiens, some we’re very nice and fair, others we’re extremely mean. I was in several fights with locals, I showed no disrespect, I did no vandalizing, or litering the predjudice was simply from me being white, it was sad too see how the volcano on the big island had become a Disney tourist attraction. I could see why the bad feelings existed much like the Native American situation between whites and Indians, These things were personally not my fault. sadly, when you go there your skin color represents the brutal history of the past I had the Hawaiien experience, I loved seeing the volcano , the wildlife, etc, but due too the overwhelming hard time I had being white I won’t be going back, that being said, I won’t let the negativity win, I survived the place , I recovered from it, and I am a stronger person today because of it, I will always love “pele” and I hope the best for the survival of their culture

  5. Kawika 08/26/2016 at 2:10 pm - Reply

    You can’t say any of this because you don’t know what struggles and problems locals have gone through, haoles have built towers and buildings on our land that was stolen from us by haoles. You don’t ask permission and expect you can do whatever you want because we are apart of the U.S. colonies, by force I might add, and then you think that we are just going to be fine with this?

  6. hawaiianbyheart 08/11/2016 at 8:02 pm - Reply

    I like the we are equal and all Hunan approach and would support it one hundred percent if it was true. The problem often with this approach is it underminds or poo poos away the seriousness of inequality and suffering. Often those who haven’t studied Hawaii history don’t know that our history is full of classism and racism. Not haole hate that you hear so much about today. Back in the day rich white people on the islands have hung local kids for false allegations. Rich white people have imprisoned thousands of Japanese Americans and took there properties during WWII. Rich white plantation owners paid slave wages to immigrants to work in there cain fields and a few rich white plantation owners overthrown a Hawaiian government because they were afraid there profits would be effectted. What does past history have to do with today? Well the spirit of classism hasn’t changed today. Look at populations of communities on Oahu. The poorer the community the more local or native Hawaiians you will see and the less Caucasians. As you goto richer communities the more Caucasian and less local or Native Hawaiians you see. Further ignoring that the top 1% of the wealthy in our country who own majority of the wealth is 80% white. Sorry I’m not one of those guys that scream go home haole , but it’s convenient to now want equility when haole privilege is challenged. I’m against all forms of racism but even today on Oahu with the gentrafication of Oahu communities to welcome more richer outsiders one has to ask if history has changed?

    • Glen Baker 09/15/2016 at 12:21 pm - Reply

      There’s truth in what you’re saying, but there also holes. The poor Natives and rich Caucasian communities are a sad reality. Plantation owners mistreating immigrant workers is another sad reality. Haole privilege in Hawaii today? Total nonsense. There is a lot of privilege for those rich white people, but their white skin has nothing to do with it. If I am wrong I seriously wasted away mine in HS lol. Nobody told all the local guys that I had white privilege and to take it easy on me. I didn’t ask to be born in Hawaii just like you. I love Hawaii and all of the people. History is history. If you go back far enough you’ll find that your ancestors killed and displaced to gain control of the land as well. I know you know that the Tahitians oppressed the Marquesas and took over the islands. Nobody in Hawaii is an original inhabitant. You don’t have any personal responsibility for this. We have to do our best to be good to each other now, or we can live in anger and keep pointing fingers.

  7. jasmin 07/06/2016 at 2:41 pm - Reply

    jajajajj stop playing the race card you guys were looking for trouble and you found it jajaj how does it feel now

  8. Cameron 04/19/2016 at 12:12 am - Reply

    I agree with everything you have written and encouraged in this article. I arrived in Hawaii 4 days ago for my older sister’s wedding. My family has flown all the way from Australia and whilst my Dad is Spanish and most of my family dark, I am very pale and white.

    Every single day I have kept my head down, and yet every single time I have walked alonein Waikiki, I have been verbally abused. The other day I was walking with my father and man started threatening to kill me and my father. He discribed me as a white fascist, a Nazi Hoale etc.

    My home has a history of violence and extreme racism, as such my family have always been commited to seeing people and never skin tone. Stopping and fighting against racism, not taking advantage of it.

    I was shocked, frightened and am genuinely looking forward to leaving Hawaii. It makes me incredibly sad as Iam experiencing first hand the very thing I have sought to abolish.

    I hope Hawaii talks about this issue. It is not our fault that your country has a booming tourist culture, that your society is interesting and that the world wants to know about you and your people.

    But after this visit, I will never return to Hawaii. I refuse to be told by strangers who know not of me, what I am. It is racist and inhumane.

    • Samuel 08/14/2016 at 4:05 pm - Reply

      Haha! Australia has one the most racist immigration policies. Look how the aboriginal people of Australia are treated and you will understand the fear Hawaiians feel when they see too much of you…The kingdom of Hawai’i was overthrown by the U.S military and unfortunately, you remind them of it…

  9. Totem 03/26/2016 at 10:03 pm - Reply

    I must agree that racism is within a certain realm of reality everywhere one goes.
    I have seen isolated incidents that would be construed as racist , but in fact was a cultural misperception or random bantering which evolved into a cliché racist end. I have witnessed both sides of the proverbial coin in relation to “one or the other” and I must agree that people in large numbers can produce overwhelming energies that can divide or drive the crowd, and hatred in general is the core problem, not just one facet of it.
    I have lived in Hawaii for five years, and I must emphasize the cultural difference (even as we agree concerning focus on similarity instead of difference) between people and that nobody is wrong to feel their heritage and want to express concerns regarding preservation, conservation, etc.
    I see the tension in Hawaii at times, and I believe you are right in your metaphor.
    I also feel that the islands deserve the efforts of conservation and environmental awareness.
    When I witness conflict between Hawaiians and Caucasian Americans , I sometimes can see that the confusion is real , and the desire to express is inate in us all, but hatred is not a solution to the concerns that are so prevalent in Hawaii.
    Hatred is the enemy of Understanding… those who feel the urge to express those concerns should turn their aggressions towards those entities that are doing the damage. The average person is not applying for permits to build. The average person is not building huge corporate buildings on ancient burial grounds. The average person is not sacrificing trees for the benefit of the view. The average person is not the enemy, and I believe that once We Earthlings start putting our energies in the proper directions to solve issues, things will get better… until then racism is just useless hatred that solves nothing , and the Expression is never redeemed. I think there should be changes made to protect Hawaii. I believe we should respect certain elders. I believe in focus and forward thinking , and it is sad that people have such passion in a short round, but do nothing to direct those feelings in the correct direction and venue.
    The concerns in Hawaii can all be linked to overdevelopment. Not the color of the visitor’s skin.
    Much Aloha!

    • Kyle 05/20/2016 at 2:25 am - Reply

      Hawaiians sold their own people out for material gain. Hell, Kamehameha even killed all of Mauis opposition when he formed the kingdom …. But it’s all the haoles fault. Hawaiians aren’t always the smartest

      • Samuel 08/14/2016 at 4:09 pm - Reply

        So was G.Bush when he sent thousand of U.S. soldier to invade other countries…Great display of your narrowed-mind!

        • Eric Zerkel 09/30/2016 at 6:12 pm

          eric zerkel

          I grew up on Oahu and suffered from racial discrimination but who can blame the locals? Many sleep on the beach now… I am a descended from Ludwig Von Zerkel My father Larry Zerkel went there to do hurricane relief for the Red Cross and went on to be instrumental in founding Hawaii Bound, Hawaii Public Radio and was a reporter and an anchor man for the local Channel 13.
          I integrated until my parents divorce forced me away.
          I suffered the same discrimination in the California for being different (whites) and it continued in Oakland (blacks) and I ended up with a 3rd generation Chinese wife in New Mexico.
          I must say that it seems to me that every segment of racial division discriminates freely within its self as well as against everyone! Prepare to accept that it WAS the IGNORANT human nature of us all and that we are overcoming it as we realize that we are all connected and must unite to survive.

What do you think?