Haoles in Hawai‘i

A new look at “haole” covers familiar ground
Haoles in Hawaii / Haoles in Hawaii
Judy Rohrer
University of Hawaii, 2010,

124 pages, $9

Once or twice every decade in Hawaii, some sort of incident blows out into a controversy and soon enough we arrive at a flashpoint–a boiling over of latent or simmering or roiling tensions around the meaning, history and relevance of “haole.”

Whether by something as outrageous as the Massey case, as stunning as Haunani-Kay Trask’s unforgettable stint as a travel agent or as comical as Mufi Hannemann’s “compare and decide” Waterloo, the ebb and flow of daily life in the Hawaiian Islands has a way of reminding us that when it comes to the presence and legacy of white people, we have a lot of unfinished business to attend to.

A new book from Judy Rohrer seeks to attend to some of that business. Haoles in Hawaii, the first volume of an exciting new Race and Ethnicity in Hawaii series from the University of Hawaii Press, sets out to “ask readers to think about ongoing processes of colonization and possibilities for reformulating the meaning of haole.” Many readers will agree that both are worthy–if not critical–aims. The book succeeds on the former. That it falls somewhat short on the latter is less an indictment of Rohrer’s efforts than on the tangle of race and history that makes it such a difficult task.

The book’s points of emphasis and rhetorical tone will be familiar to anyone familiar with post-colonial developments or ethnic studies over the past several decades. While Rohrer seems, throughout the book, to want to confront haole readers with hard truths about their own privilege and its roots, it’s hard to imagine an audience for this book that will find anything new here. Instead, Haoles in Hawaii reads like an offertory to a committee of ethnic studies professors–none of whom would be likely to take issue with any of the argument presented.

In a book that seeks to reframe the discussion, that’s a weakness. In her introduction, Rohrer expresses an intent to “not reduce haole to simply the colonizer or a contemporary victim,” but succeeds only on the latter point. In this book, the contemporary haole is almost indistinguishable from the most drooling 19th century imperialist. That is a position many would readily draw for haoles, and vigorously defend, but given the book’s stated intent to go beyond a strictly historicized haole identity, it feels like a cheat.

A prolonged discussion of whether or not “haole” is derogatory begins by invalidating claims that the word’s origins are harmless–via a dissection of the “without breath” etymology–and seems to settle on the idea that “haole” connotes someone about whom Hawaiians should feel a “well-developed caution.” Then, perplexingly, it expresses exhaustion with haoles who feel attacked by the word.

“It seems there will always be haoles who insist ‘haole’ is derogatory,” Rohrer writes.

Well. Which is it? The reader is left to wonder, at least until Rohrer later argues that the question itself, which forms the title of a major chapter in the book, is the wrong one.

Ultimately, Rohrer presents a call for nuance, that “we begin to move beyond the simplistic notion that racial politics is either harmonious or not–that the islands are either racially tolerant or racist.”

Passages asking whether haole residents are appropriately cast as victims of discrimination in Hawaii are much more successful. Rohrer’s comprehensive search for the evidence one would expect to find of such discrimination–widespread violence, socioeconomic performance–finds, of course, none.

“In fact,” she writes, “Hawaii’s colonial history has molded the islands into a place that institutionally works well for haoles.” Acknowledging the existence of entitlements and institutions designed to undo two centuries of colonial domination by serving Hawaiians only, Rohrer asks white readers to consider “What is a just response?” These are sections one wants to press into the hands of everyone, longtime residents and transplants alike.

Unfortunately, the pattern runs the other direction here. If one were to ask for a perfect opportunity to see nuance in haole-local relations, a discussion of Kill Haole Day would seem to be the perfect place. Instead, Rohrer equivocates. There isn’t enough evidence, she writes, to substantiate the existence Kill Haole Day–in fact, the chapter sadly teeters on the brink of branding Kill Haole Day itself a manifestation of haole privilege and bigotry.

Which is–and let’s be clear here–ridiculous. Kill Haole Day probably doesn’t crack the top 100 on the list of pressing problems facing Hawaii, but it is real, and it is a source of fear for white children in public schools. It is possible to acknowledge this–and acknowledge that it’s probably bad for children to be terrified–without begging for sympathy. For whatever reason, Haoles in Hawaii is not capable of this kind of move. Indeed, the book is determined to go after what it views as false reports of the phenomenon, noting that verified reports of anti-haole violence are uncommon. Surely Rohrer knows–in fact, the point is documented throughout the book–that white supremacy can work to oppress people of color without the use of violence. Why then do we need kids showing up in the emergency room to see that Kill Haole Day is harmful?

In an even stranger twist, Rohrer refers approvingly to a 1978 study that held that “the [fifth-grade] haoles…did not receive hostile behavior from locals simply because they were haole, but because they failed to…create the conditions for friendly interracial contacts.”

The anti-haole atmosphere in the classroom, then, is both nonexistent and the fault of the little white oppressors themselves.

It’s unconvincing, to say the least. More to the point, it works against what Rohrer sets out to achieve–a perspective on haoleness that transcends familiar arguments about colonists and victims.

For those who are haole, Rohrer suggests her hope that “we can begin to imagine how we might become haole in different, and hopefully better, ways.”

Rohrer rejects, in her conclusion, the false promise of some combination of guilt and supplication. Yet she doesn’t really offer anything else. Missing here is any sustained discussion of some other way in which people of goodwill might work together across historic barriers to advance shared goals: the preservation of the natural environment, the protection of sacred spaces, the restoration of Native Hawaiian power. These are just a few of the many challenges of our historical moment, and while an informed perspective on the legacy of colonialism is essential, Haoles in Hawaii seems to want haoles to choose: Become swamped in the past, or book a ticket on Trask’s favored airline. Those looking for a different way forward must look elsewhere.