Want to explore race in Hawai‘i? Center those most impacted by it

The New York Times headline and community edits via social media


 by Akiemi Glenn

I recently spoke with New York Times writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff for his piece commenting on the research of UH Mānoa psychologist Dr. Kristin Pauker whose work explores perceptions of mixed-race people in Hawai‘i. The resulting Times opinion article, very unfortunately entitled “Want to be less racist? Move to Hawai‘i,” however, does a disservice to the conversation on race and colonization in Hawai‘i and to the broader, more nuanced conversations Mr. Velasquez-Manoff indicated he was seeking when he visited Honolulu and I connected him and a Times photographer to my colleagues and community. I’m the founder and executive director of the Pōpolo Project. We’re a Hawai‘i-based organization that, through our research and programs, creates space to explore the complicated ways that race, ethnicity, and belonging operate in Hawai‘i. Using the experiences of Black Locals as an entry point, our work tries to understand the structures of race that were brought by the US presence here, as well as how larger global trade and power structures interact with home-grown ideas about who’s who in a place that is at once a militarily occupied space and a crossroads for many kinds of people from around the world. Mr. Velasquez-Manoff ostensibly sought my perspective because I have dedicated my career as a scholar, community organizer, and culture worker to thoughtfully interrogating questions of race, community, and belonging in Hawai‘i. As a Black person living in Hawai‘i, where people of African descent are around 4% of the total resident population, I also represent a perspective that is not often included in mainstream depictions of Hawai‘i, which since the early twentieth century usually focus on notions of exotic hybridity and orientalist fantasy and always erase indigenous Kānaka Maoli.

When we first spoke in April, I told Mr. Velasquez-Manoff that I took issue with the conclusions of the two papers put out by Dr. Pauker’s lab because of their focus on White people to comment on how people of color in Hawai‘i are impacted by race. Pauker’s recent publications, as described in the article, examined White students’ perceptions of race after spending time at UH Mānoa. She also compared Local middle and upper middle class White students to their counterparts in Boston to see how a Hawai‘i setting impacted how they were socialized into specific North American ideas of race by the time of elementary and middle school. Both papers conclude that the volume of mixed-race people here confuses the Black/White categorizations we expect to dominate discourses of race. While Pauker doesn’t imply that the presence of mixed-race people totally erases racial inequality in Hawai‘i, the conclusion supposes that Hawai‘i is appreciably less exacting in how its racial hierarchy operates because the socialization is different than that of North America.

One of the major pitfalls of Dr. Pauker’s publications on individual prejudice in Hawai‘i is that they conflate ethnicity, the dominant mode of social identification in Hawai‘i, with race, an often covert set of power relations. Ethnicity is about language, food, and culturally specific ways of framing the world and transmitting knowledge. Ethnicity is multivalent. Many people in Hawai‘i claim multiple ethnicities and are proud to acknowledge the diversity of their genealogies. That is one of many beautiful things about this place. Race, however, is a set of categories frequently, but not exclusively, assigned based on what Western European culture deems the most salient phenotypic features of individuals, like hair texture, body shape, and skin color. These features are mapped in turn onto ideas about mental capacity, criminality, culture, and worthiness to be full participants in social life. Race in the US context has calcified into a system of power accrual and exclusion and social death. Even when social mobility occurs through education or economic gains, race still factors into who is deemed more valuable, more worthy, more human. In this view, while someone can be multi-ethnic, it is worth wondering if one can truly be “mixed-race” in a categorical system that is essentially zero-sum.

Both Pauker’s work and the Times article conclude that since North American notions of race as a clear analog to ethnicity do not hold in Hawai‘i, White people who come to live here have their race proclivities interrupted—“jammed,” the article says— and these writers take the next step of assuming that it is the fact of phenotypic diversity that creates freedom from the weight of a US racialized identity. They do not consider that East Asians and Europeans occupy undeniable positions of power in Hawai‘i and that not all admixtures here are regarded equally.  Dr. Pauker herself identifies as mixed-race of Japanese and European origin, which to almost every Hawai‘i reader of the Times article is a salient identity category and a privileged position that cannot be a stand-in for other complex ethnic or racial identities. Despite the diversity of Hawai‘i, the structure of power here is arrayed in ways that are familiar elsewhere. Last year, a Local chapter of the feminist organization Af3irm catalogued the genders and ethnicities of major power brokers in government, real estate, tourism, universities, media, and nonprofits and demonstrated that they are overwhelmingly run by White men, followed closely by men of Japanese and other East Asian origins. Race and power are not simply numbers games. A population of 25% so-called “mixed-race” people does not make Whites less racist by exposure to us if our social institutions continue to be dominated by White people, their culture, and their agendas.

Reflecting on Pauker’s “caveats” about what might be different about the White students in her studies, the Times article attributes an innocence and openness to Euro-Americans who would deign to move to a place like Hawai‘i where they are not a numerical majority, writing,

White students who have come here from the mainland are, almost by definition, already an open-minded, adventurous bunch. Maybe it’s not so surprising that for them, spending time in a nonmajority-white place would change how they think about race. The real trick would be to get a white supremacist to enroll here and see if there was the same transformation.

This article, from the title to its last word fantasizes about the redeemability of White people from racism by using the rest of us as props and sages to explain our exotic social order. While Velsasquez-Manoff wonders what would happen if a White supremacist enrolled at the University of Hawai‘i, we already know. Several of my colleagues have been harassed by members of the Proud Boys who call themselves a “European chauvinist” movement. They have targeted and threatened students and faculty of color as part of a strategy to assert the alleged supremacy of European culture and political power. Illustrating how White supremacist ideas appeal as a ladder to power in Hawai‘i, the UH chapter also includes some East Asian members who extol the superiority of Whiteness.

And Hawai‘i has endured waves of White supremacists since Cook’s voyage. Despite the conversations with me and many others of us who have dedicated our careers to understanding how race works here, Velasquez-Manoff’s article offers the overthrow of 1893 as a piece of context when in fact the dispossession of the Hawaiian monarchy was completely fertilized by the racial politics of post-Civil War America and its hunger for a new national project of imperial expansion. Before the US military-backed insurrection of American sugar planters and children of missionaries, the same group spread rumors that King Kalākaua was fathered by a man of African descent in an effort to delegitimize his reign. The King’s supposed “mixedness” was a slander as he enacted social reforms that pushed back on White power in the kingdom. A few years later, his sister Queen Liliʻuokalani would be depicted in American newspapers as an uppity negress put in her place by paternalistic White businessmen who imprisoned her and persuaded the US to annex the country.

You also don’t have to look far to see the specific ways that racialized occupation continues to land on Native Hawaiians, who themselves now have diverse genealogies and many would be considered “mixed-race” by North American standards. The Times article’s first subtitle read “You can’t hold essentialist ideas about race when nearly a quarter of the population is mixed.” Perhaps due to the immediate outrage when it was published online, a few hours later it was changed: “The ‘aloha spirit’ may hold a deep lesson for all of us.” The two versions replay tropes about people of diverse genealogies serving as “missing links” between naturally occurring, antagonistic forces of race, on the one hand. On the other, the alleged magic of aloha, packaged for tourist consumption is divorced from its practice in Hawaiian culture as a relationship of reciprocal expectation and responsibility. There is no aloha “spirit”—that is a tourist tag line—but Hawaiians have struggled against this commercialization of their culture and the implications it has for their lived experiences. In the public discourse on the Thirty-Meter Telescope slated to be built on the sacred summit of Mauna Kea on Hawai‘i Island, Hawaiians are portrayed as anti-science and post-1893 losers in a colonial war that means they should yield to development and desecration of their land and spiritual practices. These are textbook racist, essentializing moves. Government agencies and university administrations run by people of European and East Asian descent chide Hawaiians to yield to their plans in the same “aloha spirit” that the Times article believes compels us to all get along.  Hawaiians’ apparent modern “mixedness” does not insulate them from the ways that the state and the occupation aim to disrupt their relationship with the mountain, their Hawaiian ancestors, and each other. This is the way that race is made: by determining that Indigenous, Black, and other people of color’s claims to kinship with land and each other are inconsequential to the needs of a White-dominated social order and what that order deems progress.

And there are other ways race is enforced. I worked for many years with children in the Tokelauan and Samoan community on O‘ahu who by early elementary school were very aware that their dark brown skin and the texture of their hair marked them as less intelligent, possibly violent, and culturally inferior, especially to Local Asian and White Teach for America teachers. By middle school, many of the kids were anxious to separate themselves from people from the area of “Micronesia” in the Western Pacific with whom they share an ancient culture history, genetics, and some phenotypes because they understand that Micronesians are dehumanized and devalued in Hawai‘i. In introducing the work of Palauan media maker and community organizer Sha Ongelungel, the Times article notes that Micronesians are called ‘cockroaches’ and there are calls for their genocide in public forums in these islands. This is a significant part of the story of how race actually operates in Hawai‘i that the Times piece unfortunately does not give as much time as it does wondering about how racists become better. There is an interesting and important story about how race consumes new communities in its narratives borne out when we consider how this racialization happened to people who represent a small number in Hawai‘i. Sha’s work is much more than cataloguing racist abuses in social media. Through her critical media production she contextualizes how people from the vast and diverse region of Micronesia are looped in to a US racial system that assigns them to the bottom. Their persecutors in Hawai‘i are not primarily White people, but other people of color inculcated and incentivized into White supremacy and the notion of racial hierarchies that are appealing because they place other people a few rungs beneath them.  That is why the kids I know are so worried about being raced in the same way Micronesians are, even though their own racialization has had material consequences. Samoans and Tokelauans have been in Hawai‘i in the largest numbers since the 1960s, but since then their socio-economic status does not mirror the upward mobility of Asian immigrants to Hawai‘i. They, along with people from the Marshall Islands, Chuuk, and other islands of Micronesia have the lowest educational, economic, and social outcomes in our community. How they experience race once in a US-dominated place is a key part of what options and levers for mobility are available to them. Lots of Pacific Islanders have diverse genealogies due to their colonial experiences—the Germans in Sāmoa, the French marauding across the Pacific, the Spanish and Japanese colonization of many places in Micronesia. What is crucial here, though, is that these people are still submitted to structures of a White-dominated society and end up on the bottom of wealth and opportunity hierarchies, no matter what their “mix” is. It is a racialization scheme all the same. 


In the article, Mr. Velasquez-Manoff mentions my own diverse genealogy and my roots in North Carolina. What is missing is the larger context of my sharing about my family. I come from an ethnically diverse Black family in the rural South. We are not brand-new. My ancestry is a consequence of colonization and plantation society, just like Hawai‘i. But with a longer time-depth of interaction between groups and a different legal and social regime, including the so-called “one-drop rule” still operating in North America, I am Black. All of my grandparents would now be considered “mixed-race” people, as is the case for many multi-generationally mixed people should we shift contexts. If we use the same rubrics we employ in Hawai‘i, in North Carolina at least a quarter of the population is “mixed-race” and phenotypically diverse. What is different about the two places is the social and cultural meaning of this diversity. History proves that our having a diverse genealogy or White people interacting with us did not automatically erode how White supremacist structures impacted our lives.  In contextualizing the South and people like my family, our mixedness is moot because race does not care about information on the cultures or specific origins of my ancestors. Both of my “mixed-race,” multi-ethnic parents went to segregated schools in an apartheid system that raced them as Black.

This is where I find the most issue with the article’s conclusion based upon Dr. Pauker’s research that suggests Hawai‘i provides too much phenotypic variation and social interaction for racial ideas to solidify. The Americas are a prime example that exposure to people with diverse genealogies and phenotypes alone does not make anyone less racist, let alone change structures. What is different about Hawai‘i is that the social meaning of being mixed for some mixed people here, and for some ethnic combinations, and some variations of phenotype provides a social space that would not be afforded them in a rigid racial caste system as historically enforced in America.

When I met with Mr. Velasquez-Manoff we talked about Brazil, the Caribbean, and other places in the Americas filled with multi-generationally mixed people who are nonetheless racialized. Though the New York Times article mentions the specter of Blackness and the binary of Black and White as a guide for North American readers to understand how differently race operates in Hawai‘i, Blackness is a key part of why we talk about Hawai‘i differently. We have to think about why the concept of Blackness was available to White supremacists in their efforts to delegitimize the Hawaiian monarchy at the same moment that White supremacist structures in the US were codifying segregation and the “one-drop” rule into law.  Importing racial categories from North America that don’t match reality in Hawai‘i does not mean that racism doesn’t function here —it means that it functions somewhat differently. Even now, Black people, for example, are perceived as perpetual foreigners in Hawai‘i, even when they are born and raised here, even when they are also Native Hawaiian. You can still see that the darkest people, whatever their origin, are usually on the bottom of the hierarchy here. You can see that proximity to Whiteness and European ancestry still opens doors.

Last fall I sat down with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates on stage at the Honolulu Museum of Art for a conversation that considered the complex ways that race has been imported and enforced here and the ways that it has adapted in a uniquely Hawai‘i context. Mr. Coates has written about race and systems of oppression for many years and, having just arrived for our conversation from Australia, he was still struck by the pervasiveness of the structures, the ways of thinking that White supremacy has spawned, even in Oceania, remarking:

What does it mean to go about as far from Europe as you possibly can, to be as far away from Europe as you possibly can, and for Whiteness to find you anyway? I don’t mean for people with blue eyes to find you, I don’t mean for people with blonde hair to find you, I mean people who have erected an ideology around the blue eyes and blonde hair, which justifies the extraction of wealth from other people.  To be that far away and to find that present and to find people in such deep pain that far away and then to come back here [to Hawai‘i ]…I have quite a bit to think about.” 

These structures are active here in Hawai‘i in the ongoing military occupation, in the mass incarceration of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders exported to the private Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona, in Hawai‘i’s housing crisis, in our human trafficking crisis, in the staggering wealth inequality, in the divestment from a public education system that primarily serves brown kids while those with means educate their children in private schools, in the ongoing abuse of Hawai‘i’s lands and waters. These structures are hard to see unless you live with them and unless they impinge on your humanity on a daily basis, unless they weigh heavily on the people and communities you love. That is why conversations about race have to center those most impacted by its architecture. And this is why the Times article’s tongue-in-cheek exhortation to move to a Hawai‘i where many of the most marginalized struggle to remain and thrive was felt by many in our community as an affront.

It is worth noting that there are many, many insightful scholars currently working on understanding how race works in Hawai‘i. Several of these scholars take historical and qualitative approaches to this endeavor, not because they haven’t figured out how to scientize their investigations, but because they rightly perceive that there are layers and there is nuance to understanding the intersections and the contradictions in our diverse experiences. I imagine that part of what makes Pauker’s, and in turn Velasquez-Manoff’s, conclusions about Hawai‘i attractive to an outlet like the New York Times is that they reinforce the notion that multiculturalism is a resource for White people to individually rehabilitate themselves of racism, still giving credence to the anemic idea that racism is about a series of personal beliefs or prejudices imprinted by the right ratio of exposure or lack of exposure to people of color. The article frames a deep problem as having a facile answer: What if there were a place you could go to work through personal prejudice that just happens to come with a tourist economy already designed to accommodate White visions of paradise—a bit of racial rehab served with an umbrella in your glass?

Our community’s energized response to the Times piece demonstrates clearly that Hawai‘i is ready to tell our own complex story of race and belonging and it signifies that we need an expanded vocabulary beyond key terms in American racial analysis to advance the conversation.