Jonathan Y. Okamura, Ph.D.
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Last Nov. 18, I participated in a public forum with five other speakers on the topic, “What Can Hawai‘i Teach America about Race,” at The Arts at Marks Garage in Chinatown. It was part of the online newspaper Civil Beat’s ongoing “Hawai‘i Storytellers” series and attracted a capacity audience of more than a hundred people. The other speakers were novelist Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Civil Beat columnist Denby Fawcett, entrepreneur Spencer Toyama, attorney Mark Landsberg and kumu hula (hula instructor) Hina Wong-Kalu.
Rather than engaging the panel topic directly, all of the speakers were instructed to tell a personal story related to race or ethnicity in Hawai‘i, which, for me, detracted from what I otherwise would have said. The story I told concerned my experiences as a non-haole professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, where I have been working since 1989, due to the persisting stereotype that non-whites are not faculty. I related how even while walking the picket line during the UH faculty strike in 2001, I was asked by a skeptical haole professor if I was really faculty. I gave other examples of this questioning of my faculty status, including by local students used to having predominantly white professors, which has occurred on numerous occasions on campus. Nonetheless, I ended my talk by emphasizing that the stereotyping I have encountered as a Japanese American is far less demeaning and dehumanizing than what Micronesians have to contend with on a daily basis, especially the racist jokes told about them.
Hawai‘i residents might recall that another public forum with the exact same title as the one that I spoke at was held in September 2015 in Kaka‘ako. It featured four well-known local personalities, none of whom could be considered an expert on the subject of race. They were former Kamehameha Schools trustee Corbett Kalama, venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki, actor Daniel Dae Kim and UH Peace Institute director Maya Soetoro-Ng. PBS Hawai‘i president Leslie Wilcox served as moderator. My assumption is that the event was convened by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in response to the Black Lives Matter movement in the continental United States, where marches and demonstrations were often marred by violence in the streets.
Although I participated in the Civil Beat forum, the problem I have with its title is that we do not really talk about race in Hawai‘i. Local residents are far more likely to mention “ethnicities” rather than “races” as comprising the constituent groups in the islands. We hence consider the cultural differences among ourselves as much more significant than racial differences, such as skin color or hair texture and color, which differentiate races such as whites and African Americans in the continental United States. When curious, as we often are, we ask others about their “ethnicity” or their “nationality,” but not their “race.” In sociological terms, the reason for this cultural practice is because race is much less socially constructed than ethnicity is in Hawai‘i. This means that the social categories we use to distinguish one another are not based on race, but on ethnicity, such as Japanese American or Filipino American, rather than Asian American.
Another problem with the forum title is that it implies that we in Hawai‘i have the expertise and ability to instruct a vastly more racially and ethnically complex and diverse continental United States in how to solve its long persisting problems concerning race and racism, as though we have solved our own. This notion has been around since the early 1990s, when Hawai‘i was represented by journalists and several academics as a “multicultural model” for other racially and ethnically divided societies. To my knowledge, no other state or nation has ever sought to have representatives from Hawai‘i teach them about race. Do we really believe that America can learn about race based on how we treat Native Hawaiians as the indigenous people of the islands or Micronesians as the most recent newcomers?
But is there something about race and ethnicity in Hawai‘i that could be of value to those in the continental United States? Yes, there is, but, unfortunately, it also is the reason why we think America can learn from our experience. In Hawai‘i, unlike in the continental United States, we believe that we should at least try to get along with someone of a different race or ethnicity. Popularized as the “aloha spirit,” this behavioral norm is held up as a cultural value by our government and community leaders and by ourselves, although, admittedly, it is not always practiced. But because it often is, and can be directly experienced at the interpersonal level, we tend to think that ethnic groups, and not just their individual members, also get along with one another with the same degree of acceptance and aloha. Such is not the case, as is evident in the long-term ethnic inequality in Hawai‘i, with groups having very unequal access to wealth, income, employment, home ownership and higher education.
Before we have another public forum on the false claim that we can teach America about race, we should first teach ourselves how to foster a society that truly provides for tolerance, justice and equality for all without regard to race or ethnicity.
Jonathan Y. Okamura is a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. He is the author of “From Race to Ethnicity: Interpreting Japanese American Experiences in Hawai‘i.”