Our Melting Pot Still Percolates
Wednesday - April 11, 2007
Hawaii is a scary, scary place. How did I discover this startling fact? From a tourist.
I recently chatted with a man, a guest at the same Maui hotel where my family and I were enjoying a short vacation. He mentioned he was moving from the Mainland to Kula. I congratulated him. Kula is a beautiful area, I said, cool and rural and one of the charms of the Valley Isle. The man looked dubious. I could tell he wasn’t actually thrilled with his imminent relocation to upcountry Maui. What happened next explained why.
Three local girls standing in front of us overheard us, turned, and the blond one said, “Yeah, we live there.”
“Oh?” he said, and that’s when he asked the question - dipping his head, lowering his voice, and pointedly addressing the young haole girl.
“Is it hard, being white?” the man asked, as if to say, you can tell me, I’m white, too.
I was surprised and perturbed and suddenly felt very - well, brown. But the girl’s reaction was simple. She shrugged with typical teenage nonchalance.
“No,” she said, and turned away to chat and giggle with her two obviously not-white girlfriends.
The man edged away. I wondered, was he embarrassed? Was he satisfied? I think the answer was no to both questions. I think he has already talked with people who told him stories that scared him. But I hope he talks with a few more people who can help him put things in perspective.
What I hope he doesn’t do is surround himself with folks who are just like the people he’s used to back home. I hope he doesn’t build a wall between himself and “the locals.” It’s a syndrome I’ve seen before. People come here and are intimidated. They don’t know how to fit in, they don’t like the food, pidgin sounds like a foreign language. I’ve heard it said that Hawaii is the closest you’ll find to a foreign country in the U.S. That may be true. But it’s no reason to live in a bubble.
It doesn’t help that one of the big news stories recently has been the attack of a military couple by a local man and his son. The term “f———haole” was used. This man probably heard about that, or he will very soon. It will make him even more fearful for his safety.
I wish I could sit him down and reassure him. Hawaii’s not like that, I’d tell him. This place is special - as close to a melting pot as you can find in the world. Everyone’s part of a minority here.
But there are tensions, just like there are anywhere else. Those who grew up here need to acknowledge the truth, that wrongheaded stereotypes abound, and they’re not confined to one race.
How many of these have you heard - pushy Haoles, elitist Japanese, dumb Hawaiians, penny-pinching Chinese. If someone goes “pssst” in a crowd, everyone knows they’re imitating a Filipino, and probably doing it while telling a Portagee joke.
How many of these stereotypes have you perpetrated yourself? There are plenty of targets if you really want to insult someone, and ignorance and intolerance exist here despite what many want to believe.
In the past we’ve dealt with the stereotypes by laughing at them with a type of gentle ethnic humor that is unique to Hawaii and loved by most who grew up here.
But we’ve also dealt with intolerance in another, more insidiously destructive way - and that is by not acknowledging its existence. By hiding behind the “melting pot” and behaving like an alcoholic in denial, we refuse to help ourselves by admitting the truth.
That, thankfully, is changing. People are more educated about race now. The stereotypes are being challenged and they’re making people feel uncomfortable. Making fun of or talking stink about another race is not -should not be - viewed as acceptable. That is a very good thing, especially in this place so many consider paradise.
The reality is we do live in the closest thing to paradise on earth. We have a truer mix of colors and cultures than anywhere else in America. Those who embrace it find it hard to imagine living anywhere else.
If I could have a conversation with that man in the hotel I would tell him to look for the good in his new community, to get to know the locals and their customs. If you encounter prejudice, don’t let that color your life in Hawaii. Instead, accept what thousands of people of many different races have already discovered - that being white or brown or black isn’t the key to acceptance or alienation in Hawaii. That clearly is determined by attitude and heart.
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