Having grown up in the most multi-cultural city in the world, I lived amongst people of all races and creeds, beliefs and backgrounds. It was not uncommon to walk down the street and hear numerous different languages as smells of varying cuisines wafted towards me. In high school, I was actually a minority as a Caucasian.
And I loved it.
The Toronto I remember had a generally open attitude towards everybody and everything, no matter the colour of their skin, accent, or even sexual preference. At least I thought so, as somebody who wasn’t different in any of those ways, nor did I feel any resentment towards those who were.
Hawaii is also a very multicultural place, as recorded in all the guidebooks and evidenced on the streets. So I figured I’d feel right at home.
Note: This article was originally published in 2007. It has since been updated for links and small tweaks, but the content remains the same. What you read here was my experience in 2007, after living on the Big Island of Hawaii for six months.
In the comments (which have since been closed), readers have reacted across the entire spectrum from solidarity to rage. It seems that racism in Hawaii is a very touchy subject indeed, and I apologize in advance if you feel my observations are incorrect. They are observations; nothing more, nothing less.
A dozen years of full-time travel later, I have traveled through and lived in 55+ countries. I don’t know if the Hawaii I experienced in 2007 is the same today.
I believe that each Hawaiian island (and even various places within each island) is very different. This was evidenced by my experience moving to the Kona side of the Big Island after having the experiences below on the Hilo side.
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Okay, enough preamble. On with the show.
Experiencing Racism in Hawaii
I had been warned that many of the native Hawaiians resent white people, known unaffectionately in certain circles as Haoles, which has a few literal translations, depending on who you talk to. Some Hawaiians have told me it means “colour of the dead”, and others have said it means “without breath” or “soulless one”.
One could surmise this is simply a physical observation of the white colour of the skin, which would have been foreign and sickly-looking to indigenous Hawaiians on the first arrivals of white people. Others could surmise that “haole” is a term of resentment, and quite frankly, that resentment is not unfounded! Hawaii’s history ain’t pretty, and why it is a part of the United States is beyond me.
But in my first few weeks here, I saw no signs of this resentment, and my limited dealings with the friendly locals actually debunked the myth in my mind.
But then I started to see and experience a different side of Hawaii. When standing at the side of the road once, a car full of Hawaiian “kids” (mostly adolescents) began jeering out the window, stopped the car, got out and threw things towards us (we were about 50ft away), and even started to run towards us looking for a fight. Lucky for us they spied another car coming and scurried back to their car for a getaway. But who knows what they would have tried to do if that car hadn’t come; we were well outnumbered and in a pretty remote area.
A fellow who gave us a ride recently was originally from the mainland (also referred to as the “meanland” and “madland” depending on who you speak to) but who has lived in Hawaii for over eight years. He said to this day he still gets verbally (and at times physically) abused by the locals. He recalls that learning to surf was a challenge, since every time he got in the water, he was physically taken to task by the locals.
When we got out of his car, we asked if he wanted us to roll up the passenger window for him. He said he can’t: there is no window. Last week somebody broke it in the town centre of Pahoa and stole a pack of cigarettes sitting on the front seat. And the irony is he drives a very unique vehicle, so all the locals know it is him – it wasn’t just petty theft.
Since then, we have been glared at, stared at, and made attempts at conversation getting nothing but monotonic answers if we were so lucky to get verbal answers at all.
Walking by schools at lunch time is no fun; the kids yell and jeer and call names. “Go home, get outta here, Haole!”
My concern, is that those kids had to learn about racism from somebody, which means at least some of their parents are leaving a legacy of racism and resentment for future generations to carry on.
There Is History Behind It
Like I said, the local native Hawaiians may have good reason to resent white people, and I won’t delve into those issues here. As Canadians and Caucasians, we are outsiders here, and despite our best efforts to learn about Hawaii’s history respectfully and integrate ourselves, the average local doesn’t know that and sees yet another Haole trying to live the easy life on their island. I don’t blame them or even feel any resentment for this.
What I’ve Learned From It
What these lessons ring home for me is a whole new level of respect and admiration for others, historically and presently, who have sought out a better life and had to do it in the face of racial prejudices.
I always have stood in awe of immigrants who have left their countries to come to Canada (or the U.S. or any western country for that matter), leaving behind their culture, language, food, family, and familiarity for a better life…or to escape an unliveable life. To supplant yourself in a completely alien world, to learn new languages, to adjust to new customs, and to do it in the face of racism is a monumental challenge.
It takes courage, self-confidence, patience, persistence, and thick skin. In many ways these pioneers have paved the way for others to follow with less strife and pain. But I’m sure that was no consolation after coming home from a day of physical and mental abuse.
I always respected these people, and I have never been the one to judge or point the finger. But having seen the tiniest glimpse of what it is to be on other side of racism has given me all the more respect and admiration for the courageous few. It is an inspiration and to them I say “hurrah” and “thank you”.
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