UPDATED 10:04 a.m. 01/06/11

Editor’s note: Author Judy Rohrer will be speaking about her book, “Haoles in Hawai‘i,” Jan. 8-14. A complete list of events is at the bottom of this article.

The recent reference to “Kill Haole Day” by a federal judge prompted another debate about the alleged phenomenon. Judge Stephen Reinhardt’s reference came in his dissent in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling denying four non-Hawaiian students a rehearing on their request for anonymity in their suit against Kamehameha Schools. The lawyers claim the students fear persecution if their identities are revealed (despite contrary statements from the students themselves). The request was denied because it was found that the fear of severe harm is unreasonable and thus, the “paramount importance of open courts” stands.

Yet, even in the face of this latest decision — one reiterating that fears of violence are unfounded – somehow we are left talking about the mythical “Kill Haole Day.” How do we make sense of that? As Lee Cataluna has articulately pointed out, this only “diverts attention from real problems.” How is it that we are once again drawn into a discussion about victimized haoles (this time, those attacking arguably the most crucial of Hawaiian institutions)? Why focus on alleged or potential anti-haole violence, rather than examine the legacies of colonialism and dispossession that shape race relations in the islands?

A look at the history of haoles in Hawai’i can help our comprehension. This is certainly not the first instance where haoles have cried victim. In fact, one of the elements of haoleness is a persistent desire by haoles to be perceived as a victimized group.

Missionary letters and journals are full of descriptions of their martyred suffering in the land of “heathens.” The overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and annexation of the islands to the U.S. were in part justified by a need to “protect” haoles and haole interests. Thalia Massie’s family and their supporters stopped at nothing short of murder to protect threatened white American womanhood from “native brutes” (see David Stannard’s exceptional book Honor Killing). The media cyclically runs articles focusing on ‘haole’ as a pejorative, and an unending stream of letters to the editor call for the banning of the word. Haole parents have publically bemoaned the future of their haole kids as “second-class citizens” (begging the question, of what nation?).

Since the Rice v. Cayetano decision in 2000, there has been a growing pernicious discourse of haole victimization based in U.S. civil rights law (this is the anti-affirmative action strategy imported from the continent). We are lead to believe that Hawaiians are turning Hawai’i into a place rife with racial strife, discrimination, and segregation. In this latest discursive twist, Hawaiian programs and entitlements are said to go against the “aloha spirit” because they are “divisive” and unfair to non-Hawaiians.

It is incredible how this argument is made as it uses Kanaka Maoli cultural values and practices against Kanaka Maoli entitlements, by claiming Hawaiianess for non-Hawaiians (this is native cultural appropriation, haole-style). Scholars, including J. Kēhaulani Kauanui and Patrick Wolfe, remind us that the definitive feature of settler colonialism is the imperative that native peoples disappear so that non-natives can claim their land, their culture, their very indigeneity (hence the romanticized myth of the “vanishing Indian” on the continent along with the growth of the New Age industry).

Haoles fulfill this imperative every time we claim we are Hawaiian or know more about Hawaiian culture than Hawaiians (e.g explaining the “aloha spirit” to Hawaiians; see work by Lisa Kahaleole Hall and Rona Tamiko Halualani). This leaves us free from having to undertake any kind of reckoning with the history of colonialism that has privileged us and disadvantaged non-haoles, particularly Hawaiians, for centuries.

It is much easier to see yourself as a victim than to recognize all the ways you benefit from historical injustices. It is much easier for all of us to name the ways we are oppressed, rather than the ways we are privileged – and no one is purely one or the other.

The legacies of colonialism in these islands are complicated. The recently recovered (but never forgotten) documented history of Kanaka Maoli resistance to colonialism makes it clear that the story of simple acquiescence is a lie. Noenoe K. Silva’s scholarship in particular, shows Hawaiians were never passive victims. Neither were, or are, all haoles greedy colonizers. Haole support for the monarchy and sovereignty has a historical trajectory as well, but unfortunately, it was never dominant. And, of course, no one is simply Hawaiian or haole (or local). We make political, cultural, and personal choices to emphasize (or deemphasize) certain aspects of ourselves at certain times, but we all have many intermingled, dynamic, and sometimes contradicting identities, racial and otherwise.

That is actually an argument Kamehameha Schools has been trying to make. They admit many mixed-race students with Hawaiian ancestry. The point is, these students are Hawaiian regardless of what else they are. Race and genealogy are not the same thing. Racializing indigenous people is at the heart of the colonial project. The Rice decision shows that this is still very much the U.S. agenda.

David Rosen, attorney for the four students suing Kamehameha Schools, brought this point home by publicly declaring the four are “Hawaiian in every sense save the merely genetic.” This statement is clearly meant to undermine indigenous claims and highlights the anti-Hawaiian sentiment behind the case.

At the end of the day, it is impossible to deny (although some never stop trying) that it is native Hawaiians who have suffered most through the violences of colonialism. A quick glance at socio-economic data make it emphatically clear that Kanaka Maoli are the most disadvantaged population in their own homeland. In light of this, it is ridiculous for haoles to continue to claim some sort of universalized victimhood.

Does this mean that haoles never face discrimination, or even physical violence? No, and those things are always wrong and should be challenged. But confusing these instances with structural oppression actually perpetuates colonial violence in the islands by helping to erase its history and material consequences.

It is worth questioning the question, “Are haoles victimized?” Why are we still talking about the fictive “Kill Haole Day” instead of the factual “Kill Hawaiians Centuries?”

About the author:
Judy Rohrer grew up a haole girl on Kaua’i and O’ahu and received her Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Hawai’i. Her book, Haoles in Hawai’i, was recently released from the University of Hawai’i Press.

Book Events:

Saturday, January 8
12 noon to 1:00 p.m.
Book signing
Basically Books, Hilo

Sunday, January 9
3:00 to 5:00 p.m.
Book talk and signing party
Native Books/Nâ Mea Hawai‘i
Ward Warehouse

Thursday, January 13
5:00 to 6:30 p.m.
Author presentation
Windward Community College
Hale Alaka‘i, Room 102

Friday, January 14
12:30 – 2:00 p.m.
Kuykendall Hall 410, 1733 Donaghho Road
UH-Manoa campus

For updates and more event info, contact UH Press
at (808)956-8697 or email: abec@hawaii.edu

About the Author

  • Judy Rohrer
    Judy Rohrer grew up in Hawaii and earned her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Rohrer’s latest book, "Staking Claim: Settler Colonialism and Racialization in Hawaii," was just released through The University of Arizona Press. Her first book, "Haoles in Hawaii, was published in 2010 with the University of Hawaii.