Tam And The Hateful ‘W’ Word

Rick Hamada
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Wednesday - June 11, 2008

The latest dust-up involving City Councilman Rod Tam begs the question, “Just what is appropriate or inappropriate language?”

In a May 13 Zoning Committee hearing, Tam said, “We don’t want any, uh, wetbacks, basically. We have been receiving reports about developers or contractors bringing in wetbacks from New Mexico. Uh, Mexico.” You can read the details of this story at www.starbulletin.com or view the proceedings at www.olelo.org and reference the hearing.

Did Rod Tam do anything wrong? Absolutely.


This story needs a bit of context. First of all, any use of any slur by a sitting elected official is abhorrent and completely inappropriate. Again, this word was used twice in a committee hearing of the Honolulu City Council. It did not take place at a bar or cookout or on a nightclub stage. Tam, the Zoning Committee chair, was contemplating the need for restrictions to be placed on the University of Hawaii’s zoning request for the UH-Oahu West campus. There were numerous people in the room who, according to reports, audibly gasped when Tam invoked the “W” word. Clearly, this reaction should have signaled to Tam that something was amiss.

An interesting sidebar to this story is the lack of intervention by fellow councilmembers on the Zoning Committee. I am not aware of any interruption or admonishment by them when Tam used this racially charged word. It was not until after the meeting that, reportedly, Councilmember Nestor Garcia took Tam aside to simply say he should think twice about using “that” word again. Councilmember Gary Okino also has expressed support for Tam.

I have heard people defend Tam. Some have tried to say that “wetback” is an accepted term, and many try to draw an equivalent to our local use of ethnic monikers as totally acceptable.


Wrong. “Wetback” is intended to inflict pain, embarrassment and prejudice. It should not be used in private, much less in a city council hearing.

The claims of ignorance and the tepid apology issued by Tam were impotent and disingenuous. If you are contrite, you don’t parse your phrase with, “If anybody was offended ...” which he did. The plea of ignorance is shallow, too. Tam referred to illegal workers as “wetbacks,” the widely known derogatory term used specifically for Mexicans. Clearly, Tam was aware of the connotation and the association. If he is not, then his ignorance of everyday parlance is troubling.

Racial epithets, slurs and invectives are totally and wholly inappropriate. I know Hawaii can laugh at humor intended to highlight the lighter side of our ethnic differences. But when a sitting councilmember invokes a spiteful word intended to hammer a political point, there is no jocularity or “good fun.” The use of inappropriate language while executing the duties of an elected official, at the very least, demonstrates a lack of understanding and comprehension of what is appropriate. This may be the most unsettling aspect of this story.

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