Paradise. Captain James Cook knew he found it when he ‘discovered’ the Hawai’ian Islands. Remote yet self-sufficient, the islands have a nearly ideal climate, an abundance of food on land and sea, and beauty that is renowned throughout the world. Despite Cooks tragic death at the hands of the natives some years after his initial visit, relations with the Hawai’ians were, for the most part, friendly. Unlike their Polynesian neighbors/ancestors to the southwest, they showed little inclination toward cannibalism, and seemed to tolerate outsiders as welcome trade partners.
Annexed into the U.S. as an independent republic in 1894 and becoming a territory a few years later offered security, stability, and prosperity for the islanders, although the events leading to this have since been deemed illegal, which calls the legal status of the state into question. The events of World War II increased the necessity of Hawaii as a strategic military outpost for the U.S., and they joined as a state in 1959. Low-cost airfare and an obsession with holidays in the sun have driven Americans to Hawai’i in droves, and in recent years, owning a piece of the action has become a must for America’s elite. The price of real estate has skyrocketed, and few Hawai’ians can now afford to buy land. The average house in 2007 was priced at $600,000, and climbing.
It is little wonder, then, that Hawai’ians showed no small amount of resentment towards their American ‘benefactors’. Many service and hospitality jobs are held by Hawai’ian natives, and Caucasians (called ‘Haoles’ [how-lees] by the locals in less than flattering terms) hold many of the upper level management positions. In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in racism towards Caucasians, directed mainly at white residents. With the decline of sugar cane and other agricultural industries, tourists bring in the mainstay of income for the islands these days, and so are treated cordially. If you are visiting the islands on vacation, chances are you will never even catch a whiff of the hostility that some white residents face on a regular basis.
After spending several weeks on the islands, we began to notice that the more we felt like locals (meaning anyone who lives in Hawaii, as opposed to those of Hawai’ian ancestry), the more we were treated harshly by the Hawai’ians. There were several incidents of native boys muttering descriptive slurs at Cyrus as he would walk past. All it would take was a passing glance from Cyrus to have a torrent of curses hurled at him. Cyrus is an incredibly gentle and kind boy, and shows no sense of malice in his demeanor. It was quite shocking to him to be treated in this way, and we worked very hard to help him understand that this was nothing personal, that he was the victim of larger circumstance. Other parents we talked to expressed that the situation is quite horrible in the schools, with violence often being the result. Many parents send their children to school on the North Shore, where there is more of a ‘white’ community, and far less racial tension in the classroom. It is a sad reflection to see such evidence of racism on both sides, and something we were not used to seeing in such blatant fashion.
Hawai’ian sovereignty and independence are a hot topic on the islands, and probably not a realistic goal in the foreseeable future, although the movement appears to gaining momentum. There is little chance that Washington is going to give the land back, and indeed, many Americans view the Hawai’ians much as they do the Mainland natives, a race that needs to blend into the American Way. The concept that ‘progress’ and ‘The American Dream’ might not be in the best interests of all people is one that is not often portrayed in the mainstream media, and so rarely enters the collective consciousness. Indeed, one might say that homogeneity is the new American Dream. The sad outcome may well be that the Hawai’ians are going to feel and act more resentful, which will result in less tourism, and leave more tension between everyone involved.
I realize this is a sensitive topic, but I feel that what I have seen is important to share. Racism is a complex issue and is a phenomenon not limited to Hawai’i. Respect for all people regardless of race or colour is the only true solution. It starts with each of us recognizing that we are one human race equally deserving of freedom, liberty, and equality, and having the courage to speak out against injustice, wherever it may be found.