I arrived in Hawaii fresh off the boat from Minnesota, naïve and as white-skinned as they come.
About to cross the street to my first day of classes at the University of Manoa, a pickup truck came careening around the corner with two locals in the cab. “Hey, look at the haole!” One of them shouted, laughing at me. I did not know then exactly what the word meant. I didn’t have to. I was keenly aware for the first time in my life that I was a minority. And I was disliked and unwelcome because of the color of my skin.
Most of the people who live in Hawaii are “chop suey” or a mix of various ethnicities; Philippine, Chinese, Japanese, Polynesian, Hawaiian, and Caucasian. ‘Haole’, the short version, is a term that refers to white people, foreigners, nonlocals. When Captain Cook arrived he was called haole. It was believed people were white because they didn’t breathe, or had no breath.
My timing was such that I arrived that semester to a brewing debate in the campus newspaper between a Hawaiian professor, of Hawaiian Studies, and a white student over the use of the word. It was the student’s contention that the term was used in a derogatory manner. The professor countered that the word was steeped in Hawaiian history and was merely a word to describe white people.
Nearly 30 years later, the memory of this debate still stings. Not because I have bad feelings about being called haole. They come from the unbending, and unsympathetic position of the Hawaiian professor.
Along with being the head of her department, she belonged to an angry group of Hawaiians who advocate for the return of Hawaiian sovereignty. In short, they rail against the illegal take-over of the islands by the U.S. in 1893. It’s a complicated history that involves sugar plantation owners and the abdication of the Hawaiian Monarchy at the time.
Really, the sovereignty movement should also target the missionaries who took away their language and their culture, but that’s another story.
It is common knowledge — or should be — among white people, not to venture into certain areas of the Islands unless accompanied by locals, where brutality based on white skin color alone is not uncommon.
Is racism ever justified? The Hawaiians, as well as others including Native American Indians, and black people, have every right to be angry. White people have done — and continue to do — unforgivable, atrocious things to their fellow human beings. And in some people’s eyes I am just as guilty, based on the color of my skin.
In my 25 years in Hawaii, that feeling came and went on a daily basis. There were of course the majority of people who embraced the Aloha spirit, and my love of the people and place is as strong as ever.
In-between graduating from UH and moving to Hawaii for the long term, I spent a summer at the University of Oklahoma, as a linguistics consultant for a Native American program. I drove down there from Minnesota, and not three feet over the border of the state I was pulled over by a state trooper asking what I was doing in Oklahoma. There, it wasn’t the color of my skin, but the state on my license plate. Later, it also became a case among certain women in my dorm, of my not being Christian in the Bible-quoting sense.
Back in Hawaii, I applied for an administrative job at the University of Hilo. I was granted an interview before some board members and department heads. I wore a new sweater, and in an odd turn it was the same sweater as one of the Hawaiian department heads was wearing. When she noticed, she took her sweater off.
During the interview she proceeded to grill me on what I knew about Hawaiian history and culture in a way that I can only describe as veiled hostility. There was one white guy at the table, and he tried to point out some positive aspects of my resume, like my graduate degree from UH, but it was futile. I didn’t get the job, nor did I expect to.
You can reach Cynthia Sweeney at 942-4035 or email@example.com.
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