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