What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Ideas

Is Hawaii a Racial Paradise?

Races, Ethnicities, and Cultures Mix More Freely Than Elsewhere in the U.S., But There Are Limits to the Aloha Spirit

Sunset at Waikoloa

Early in the 2008 film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jason Segal, playing a guy who travels to Hawaii to get over a breakup, drunkenly pours out his feelings to two people in his hotel, a newlywed man and a bartender. The new husband encourages Segal to think there’s still hope for the relationship, but the bartender, Dwayne, has no sympathy for Segal’s sadness.

“You’ve gotta move on,” Dwayne says. “It’s that easy, I promise you it is. I lived in South Central. South Central. And I hated it. So I moved to Oahu. Now I can name you over 200 different kinds of fish!” He starts naming them.

The scene is hilarious, but it also hints at one of America’s fundamental Gordian knots—race—and the various ways we’ve tried to untie it. The story uses Los Angeles’ “South Central” neighborhood as a code word for a place where gangs are divided along color lines, racial tensions can erupt in violence, and residents feel stuck in the cycle. The implication is that Dwayne, who’s black, escaped all that by coming to Hawaii. He puts forth Hawaii as a paradise—a place where the only thing he has to worry about is learning how to pronounce Humuhumunukunukuapua`a.

Hawaii is one of America’s most diverse and happiest states. Some would contend people get along better here than almost anywhere else. But tossing different groups together also means there are frictions—ones that perhaps are too often are obscured by the sunshine and ukuleles in tourist guides.

So what’s the actual nature of racial relations in Hawaii? And what can the rest of us learn from it? In advance of the “What It Means to Be American” event “What Can Hawaii Teach America About Race?,” we asked a variety of experts on and off the islands that same question.

Rudy Guevarra, Jr.

Rudy Guevarra, Jr.

There is an ‘aloha spirit’—but with limits

Nitasha Sharma

Nitasha Sharma

The lens of race reveals inequality

David A. Swanson

David A. Swanson

Compare Hawaii and Mississippi

Lee Tonouchi

Lee Tonouchi

We talk about ethnicity all da time, so it’s jus regulars

Roderick Labrador

Roderick Labrador

Think of Hawaii as a ‘racial volcano’

Maile Arvin

Maile Arvin

The ‘melting pot’ vision obscures the struggles of Native Hawaiians

Rudy Guevarra, Jr.

There is an ‘aloha spirit’—but with limits

Unlike the continental United States, Hawaii has no group that is the racial majority, and people can identify with multiple races and ethnicities over several generations. This is the norm, rather than an anomaly.

Early social scientists, the tourist industry, and visitors credit this long history of mixing to the “aloha spirit,” or culture of tolerance and inclusivity, that is the hallmark of living in Hawaii. True, Hawaii is a place where a mixed-race person like myself can blend in, and where people of color are not seen as a curiosity. And yes, people generally get along here.

But even the aloha spirit has its limits. We must be mindful that the present multicultural society grew from the collapse of the Native Hawaiian population and the dispossession of their land. And while locals use ethnic humor to make fun of all ethnicities, specific groups are repeatedly the targets of racial stereotypes: Filipinos, for instance, and, more recently, Micronesians. Latinos have been the victims of racial profiling by law enforcement, similar to what they experience in the continental U.S.

While Hawaii may not be the racial paradise the tourist industry imagines it to be, these islands do offer us a way to see how we can grow if we learn to live together and embrace our differences.

Rudy Guevarra, Jr.

Rudy P. Guevarra, Jr., is associate professor of Asian Pacific American Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. He is the author of Becoming Mexipino: Multiethnic Identities and Communities in San Diego, and the co-editor of a forthcoming volume on race in Hawaii.

Nitasha Sharma

The lens of race reveals inequality

Race is curiously missing from the way Hawaii residents talk about one another and understand island life. It’s true that people note distinctions, often through comedy and stereotypes. But we understand these to be ethnic and cultural differences, rather than racial.

My study of the experiences of black people in Hawaii reveals that we have much to learn from a race-centered perspective. For instance, both local and continental blacks recount numerous instances of anti-black racism that they faced from family and community members, as well as from teachers. Second, black malahini (recent transplants to the island) find common cause with Native Hawaiians whom they see as being subjected to the similar—albeit distinct—processes of dispossession and oppression that African-Americans have faced.

Unlike ethnicity, which focuses on heritage and shared practices, race centers on history, power, and inequality. Race exists in Hawaii, although it may not operate in the black and white ways we are taught to think of it. The islands did not have a slave past, and we boast a healthy multiculturalism and diverse demographics. But its history—one shaped by colonialism, plantation economics, military domination, and tourism—also explains the unequal location of various local groups within the economy and their access to political representation, education, and rights to land. Looking through the lens of race would help us get a better grasp on issues such as the maltreatment of Micronesians, high poverty rates among Native Hawaiians, anti-Black racism, and the disproportionate incarceration of Polynesians. These factors exist alongside the political and economic dominance of Japanese, Chinese, and Whites.

Hawaii gets many things right about culture. But a racial analysis would highlight the inequities we still have to contend with.

Nitasha Sharma

Nitasha Sharma is an associate professor of African-American Studies and Asian-American Studies at Northwestern University. Born and raised in Honolulu, she is writing an ethnography on Black people in contemporary Hawaii, and is the co-editor of a forthcoming volume on race in Hawaii.

David A. Swanson

Compare Hawaii and Mississippi

In terms of what Hawaii can teach the U.S. about race, figures speak volumes, especially when comparisons are made.

According to the latest data from the Census Bureau, 2.4 percent of the population of the United States identify themselves as belonging to two or more racial groups. In Hawaii, the figure is 23.1 percent, the highest among the states; in Mississippi, the figure is 1.1 percent, the lowest.

Hawaii and Mississippi are also at opposite extremes in terms of health, education, and income:

• For the U.S. as a whole, life expectancy at birth is 78.7. Hawaii has the highest life expectancy at 81.3 years, while Mississippi has the lowest, 75.0 years.

• Nationwide, 28.8 percent of people 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree. In Hawaii, it is 30.1 percent. In Mississippi, 20.1 percent.

• 15.4 percent of the U.S. population lives below the poverty level, compared to 11.4 percent in Hawaii and 22.7 percent in Mississippi.

What is it about these two states that relates the number of multi-racial people and health, education, and income levels? Historically, both states were dominated by a small social-economic elite primarily made up of white plantation owners. But in Hawaii, this domination occurred in the late 19th century, whereas in Mississippi, it was already part of the political fabric when the territory was admitted to statehood in 1817. Racism and labor exploitation existed in Hawaii, but they were neither as extreme nor as embedded as they were in Mississippi, where slavery preceded anti-miscegenation and Jim Crow laws.

David A. Swanson

David A. Swanson is professor of sociology at UC Riverside. He received his doctorate in sociology/population studies from the University of Hawaii in 1985.

Lee Tonouchi

We talk about ethnicity all da time, so it’s jus regulars

Dis question bogus, brah. “What Can Hawaii Teach America About Race?” Cuz das not how we tink. I tink Hawaii can try teach America dat itʻs not about race, but more about ethnicity. To me if you jus tinking about tings in terms of race den dat signifies you only care about people based on their exterior appearances. And maybe das how it is on top da continent. Cuz ova dea itʻs considered rude for talk about race, so therefore when people ask, “What ARE you?” because people not used to it, it comes off as being kinda offensive, like you tink people stay judging you cuz of your lookings.

Ova hea, Hawaii Local people can ask almost dat same question, except we say ʻem in Pidgin. We tell, “Eh, what you?” And no mo no judgment. Itʻs pretty much jus one friendly, get for know da oddah person type question. Kinda like “What school you went, what year you grad, you know my cousin?” Cuz Hawaii so ethnically diverse, we talk about ethnicity all da time, so itʻs jus regulars when people like know. Plus it too Hawaii get lotta hapa people with all kine diffʻrent ethnic breakdowns. In fack, people who get more ethnicities, dey jus waiting for anybody for ask dem, cuz den dey can brag what kine ten-twelve ethnicities dey get.

Dis not for say Hawaii stay perfeck. Like any oddah place, we get prejudice too. Yet we like for imagine ourselves as being supa-friendly. Da Hawaii optimist might argue dat das cuz we all stay naturally filled with da aloha spirit. Da Hawaii pessimist might put forth da contention dat with so many different cultural groups dat stay living on top small little islands, did we really eva have one alternative oddah than for try get along? Did nature make us friendly? Or wuz it nurture? In da end, no mattah, ah?

Lee Tonouchi

Lee A. Tonouchi stay one Pidgin writer from Hawaii.

Roderick Labrador

Think of Hawaii as a ‘racial volcano’

Hawaii is widely regarded as a “racial paradise,” a multicultural place where “everyone is a minority.” Based on population statistics, Hawaii is primarily a “paradise” for Asian and Pacific Islanders, so where do blacks, Latinos, and whites belong? And what about Kānaka Maoli, Hawaii’s native people—especially when there is an active and thriving movement for Native Hawaiian sovereignty and self-governance? Is the “racial paradise” ideal simply a rhetorical strategy that disguises unequal access to wealth, resources, and power?

In Hawaii, whites, along with local Japanese and Chinese, are dominant. Though whiteness is not the sociocultural norm in the same way it is on the continent—it’s often marked or called out by locals—whites collectively wield significant political and economic power. They are the biggest population group in the islands, especially when the larger racial categories, like “Asian,” are disaggregated.

To understand the effects of this dominance, we must unmask the islands’ history of colonization, U.S. occupation, and Native subordination. The widespread celebration of “racial paradise” can lead to a “racial vog” (or volcanic smog) that blankets the islands, where some residents have an allergic reaction to talking about both contemporary racism and colonialism. This resistance perpetuates a violence against Native Hawaiians, because it forces them to disappear; they’re incorporated as just another racial minority group, not recognized as people who have a different historical relationship to the land and to the state.

Instead of seeing Hawaii as a “melting pot” or “mixed plate,” it may be more instructive to see Hawaii as a racial volcano. In this metaphor, magma represents indigenous identity—a coursing undercurrent that seeps through societal rifts and fractures. It’s subterranean, but resists erasure. So if we are going to talk about race in Hawaii, the conversation needs to include discussions about indigeneity.

Roderick Labrador

Roderick Labrador is associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa and director of the UCLA Hawaii Travel Study Program.

Maile Arvin

The ‘melting pot’ vision obscures the struggles of Native Hawaiians

Maile Arvin is assistant professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside. She is currently at work on a book about the social scientific history of race in Hawaii and broader Polynesia.

Maile Arvin

When a cadre of American sugar plantation owners overthrew the government of the Kingdom of Hawaii and petitioned for annexation by the U.S. in the 1890s, Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) organized a massive petition drive, gathering 38,000 signatures against annexation, and sent delegates to Washington to restore the sovereignty of the kingdom. For the American public, annexation was only secured after years of debate about the dangers of Hawaii’s population of native “savages ” and “Oriental heathens” was effectively overridden by the U.S. Navy’s need for a re-coaling station on its way to secure the conquest of the Philippines.

For Kānaka Maoli such as myself, this is not ancient history. We are engaged in daily, yearly, generational struggles over sovereignty, land and water rights, cultural revitalization, and basic survival. For instance, Kānaka Maoli comprise a majority of the ever-growing homeless population in Hawaii, in part due to the high cost of living and the generally low socioeconomic status of Kānaka Maoli. In another example, Hawaiian language revitalization has made great strides in the last few decades, even shifting Hawaiian language words, like Hawai‘i, often simplified in English, back to the proper Hawaiian spelling.

The fact that many Americans know nothing of the ongoing struggles Kānaka Maoli and others in Hawaii face today is in part due to the popularity of the idea of Hawaii as America’s unique “melting pot,” which stems from the work of social scientists like Romanzo Adams, who, in the early 20th century, envisioned the state as a “racial laboratory” due to its relatively high rates of racial intermarriage. This “melting pot” idea obscures ongoing structural racism—a trend that’s similarly evident in the idea that changing U.S. demographics and a black president has made the U.S. “post-racial.” Such structural inequalities in Hawaii and the continental U.S. must be addressed in any discussion about race.

Primary Editor: Paul Bisceglio. Secondary Editor: Jia-Rui Cook.
*Photo courtesy of Cord Cardinal.