At least Harry Kim didn’t say “popolo.” Or worse, use the N-word.

But Hawaii County’s mayor, by referring to an African-American FEMA employee as “that colored guy in the back there” — in a public meeting, no less — managed to overshadow Kilauea this week.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that the mayor explained to Willie Nunn, the FEMA coordinating officer, how people joke in Hawaii, and that Nunn “doesn’t take it personal.” But columnist Lee Cataluna said Kim came off sounding like “racist grandpa.”

Nunn laughed off Kim’s comments, according to the Star-Advertiser report. 

I admire Nunn’s graceful response — his priority is to address a natural disaster, after all — but having a top public official call a black man a “colored guy” in 2018 is not so funny. It’s unfortunate. 

Mayor Harry Kim made his remarks Monday night in Pahoa:

As one Hawaii resident posted on Twitter, “Oof. 1968 called. It wants Harry Kim back.”

As another wrote in an email to Civil Beat: “Racism in Hawaii toward African Americans has always gotten a pass.”

I called Kim late Thursday to ask him about his remarks. He left a voice message on my phone around 9 p.m. in which he explained that his comments should be understood within the context of how proud he is of Hawaii, especially as compared to other places

“And somehow, the comment I made in that context (got) twisted into racism. I guess that’s the sadness of where we are today,” he said. “Because that is the reality of where we are today.”

Kim expressed confidence that Nunn would “confirm everything I said and more,” and that he would welcome the opportunity to talk more.

He continued: “And here we are talking about something that came up because I’m proud of Hawaii and the mixed ethnic groups and blending and working and playing and making fun and all that. I realize that is the world today, but that’s their problem, I am not making it mine. Thank you.”

At minimum, Kim’s remark at the meeting illustrates a core continuing challenge to us in these islands.

Hawaii, among the most diverse places anywhere on the planet, has a global reputation as a welcoming land of aloha where we all get along just fine. But while we may do better than many other locales, we are far from a racially harmonious society.

Kim, who was praised in no less than two Star-Advertiser columns in recent days for his calm, cool civil defense leadership, will probably not see his reputation suffer for his poor choice of words.

But at a minimum, he ought to stop using such archaic language in a public setting.

“The thing that jumps out to me is that Mr. Kim said this is how we talk about things in Hawaii,” said Akiemi Glenn, founder and executive director of The Popolo Project. “While that may have been true in the past, it’s not how we have to talk about things today.”

‘Blackness’ In Hawaii

Popolo is local slang for black people.

Pukui and Elbert explained in their pre-politically correct 1971 Hawaii dictionary that popolo (PO-polo) is the Hawaiian word for black nightshade, adding, “In modern slang, Negroes are sometimes referred to as popolo.”

Queens, N.Y., June 11, 2013--Deputy Federal Coorinating Officer (FCO) Willie Nunn, for DR-4085 NY. K.C.Wilsey/FEMA

Willie Nunn is the federal coordinating officer in Hawaii for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Popolo Project is dedicated to highlighting, as its website states, “the vivid, complex diversity of Blackness” in Hawaii and the Pacific.

Glenn noted that the FEMA official laughed off Kim’s comments.

“But I think we also have to think how our public officials comment on federal workers in that way, and how that affects our community that lives here. Often, when we talk about the open way we address race and ethnicity in Hawaii, it’s kind of an inside joke for locals. But it is also part of how the rest of the world looks at Hawaii.”

The Popolo Project website notes that Pukui and Elbert also define the word “nika.” The dictionary entry begins this way: “1. Nigger; black, blackness; blackened.”  It is an older term for black people, according to The Popolo Project, “borrowed from English in the 19th century.”

African-Americans make up only about 2 percent of Hawaii’s population, and it doesn’t serve the state well to have such a revered role model spouting racial slang.

Kim’s comments came the same week that President Trump referred to some undocumented immigrants as “animals,” saying later that he had been referring to members of the brutal transnational gang MS-13.  (Clarification: This story was revised to add President Trump’s defense of his statement, which had not been included in the original version.)

Starbucks instituted workplace sensitivity training that week following the arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia store, and a white student at Yale called the police after discovering a black graduate student taking a nap in a dorm common room.

Here at home, in recent years a former Honolulu City Councilman (a Chinese-American) called Latinos “wetbacks,” a candidate for governor (of German and Samoan ancestry) reminded a multiethnic union that “I look like you, you look like me,” and a local man in a road rage incident in Waikele called a white man a “fucking haole.”

Alphonso Braggs, president of the NAACP Hawaii Branch, said it’s important to understand the context in which a word like “colored” is used. If it is used disparagingly, Braggs said that would be a problem.

“However, if he said there was a colored gentleman in line behind me, I don’t know in that context that it would be inappropriate,” he said.

Ethnic Jokes Can Have Consequences

Braggs said he did not know the exact context of the Kim-Nunn exchange.

As a member of the national NAACP board, this week he is in Salt Lake City, where the organization is working to build bridges with the Mormon church. Taking the long view, Braggs noted that Thursday was the 64th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

But others are upset at what Kim said.

Mykie Ozoa and Nadine Ortega of AF3IRM Hawaii — self-described as an organization of women engaged in “transnational feminist, anti-imperialist activism and dedicated to the fight against oppression in all its forms” — do not think Kim’s words were appropriate at all.

“The term recalls the Jim Crow era, not so long ago, when water fountains, bathrooms, restaurants, entrances and sections of public accommodations and transportation were divided between ‘coloreds’ and whites,” they said in a statement. “Using this term today as if it is devoid of its original use and reference (when it was used to refer to Black people as less than human and non-citizens) is unacceptable.”

Ozoa and Ortega said racial humor in Hawaii can be dehumanizing:

“Ethnic jokes” in Hawaii have real consequences for many of us who are often the ones that are the “butt of the jokes.” Who gets to make these jokes and comments? Who are the subjects of the jokes and comments? What is being said? These jokes and narratives and images have a history. These have been used in Hawaii to demonize certain groups for purposes of control and domination. The perpetuation of these jokes and narratives and images maintains the status quo and allows for justification of harm against people of color.

If one good thing can come out of Kim’s remarks, it’s that Hawaii should talk about the appropriateness of those words and race and ethnicity in general. 

It’s instructive to recall the life of Helene Hale, the first African-American woman elected to the Hawaii Legislature who in 1962 was elected chair and executive officer of Hawaii County, a position equivalent to mayor at that time.

“With that election she became the first woman and the first African American mayor in Hawaii,” according to a profile of Hale. “One of her significant achievements during her term in office was the establishment of the annual Merrie Monarch Festival in honor of King Kalakaua, an event celebrating traditional Hawaiian culture and hula.”

That’s a testament to Hawaii at its best.

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