Race relations in Hawaii came to the fore this week as a result of two extremely vocal Hawaii residents. One is a young homeless man from Maui. The other is an elected state official from the island of Hawaii. The reaction to them has been fierce and both could face serious repercussions.
Let’s start with the 21-year-old Maui man, who is likely to face a second-degree terroristic threatening charge after his racially charged rant aimed at a group of visitors in Kalama Beach Park. Maui police Capt. Tivoli Faaumu said investigators spoke to the man as well as the targets of his tirade. The man is likely to be formally charged by the end of this week and Maui County officials are considering banning him from public parks for about a year, said county spokesman Rod Antone.
Then there’s state Rep. Faye Hanohano, who faces possible censure over a number of recent incidents, including allegations from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairman William Aila that she conducted herself with an “angry spirit and discriminatory intent.” She also belittled a Hawaii Pacific University student who is from Portland for being a young outsider as he testified at a legislative hearing.
Hanohano was elected in 2006 as a strong advocate for Native Hawaiians. But she has gone beyond just advocating. Last year she ended up apologizing after lashing out with racial slurs at state employees over the lack of Hawaiian art at the Capitol.
Both of these people have drawn attention on the mainland. They have also highlighted that Hawaii is a place where some pretty intense resentment over history remains, and sometimes that resentment spills out in a way that feels a lot like racism.
These islands are also a place where, when someone throws a stone, it creates ripples, especially in the online world.
Civil Beat‘s blog post on the Maui incident drew a lot of attention and generated more than 250 comments.
“I don’t condone his behavior, it is wrong, but it is also very easy to understand if you have any background knowledge on the history of our occupied nation,” wrote reader Keone Rivers. “I don’t know what these haoles said, and I am certain they never intended to offend this man, but its blatantly obvious to me that whatever they said invoked in him our long history of being looked down on by white people.”
On Reddit and The Huffington Post, the comments were numerous and, in some cases, vicious. I won’t go into those, but a lot of people argued that the man was on drugs.
“There are definitely places you don’t want to go as a white person,” one Reddit user commented, in an apparent reference to parts of Hawaii.
Many others portrayed Hanohano — a Native Hawaiian who proudly uses the language with little regard for who may or may not understand her — as racist and unhinged.
One danger of social media is that news — or bits of news — can spread far and wide, but without context. In the case of the Maui man, we don’t know what else was said before the tourists started filming, we can’t be sure if the guy has a drug problem or suffers from a mental illness, or if he really just feels deep anger at haoles over the U.S. occupation of Hawaii that began way before he was born.
Beyond the reactive online comments, the wider context for both incidents is resentment over the occupation of what was once the Kingdom of Hawaii, where its people were forced to become Americans regardless of what they wanted. So it isn’t entirely surprising that resentment still bubbles up over the growing number of people from the mainland who have changed and continue to change, the way of life here. Often, they make it more like the mainland.
Not wanting outsiders isn’t necessarily a racial or ethnic identity issue. Kailua residents — many are wealthy haoles — don’t want overnight tourists, as is noted in a CNN article (that makes the classic mainland error of calling all Hawaii residents “Hawaiians”).
Some activists against genetically modified crops use a similar tactic against biotech companies in an attempt to drive them out of Hawaii. They portray those large international corporations as outsiders — greedy ones — who are just using the islands, but many of the anti-biotech activists are also from the mainland. Some don’t even live here now. (People from anywhere can be for or against biotech, but people who are far away probably shouldn’t suggest they are locals when they are not.)
Some local farmers who want the right to use what they consider to be the fruits of biotech to facilitate their farm work likely see some such activists as “haole hippies,” which is what local advocates of the failed Superferry line called some of the people who helped to sink the route.
It is clear there’s been a pretty steady flow of issues and incidents that directly or indirectly create outlets for people in the islands to vent about their historic resentments.
For a few minutes, Hanohano and the guy from Maui unloaded purely emotional responses that ended up unnecessarily tying racial issues into things that had little to do with them.
None of this excuses what Hanohano or the young man in Maui said.
Hanohano, who serves in our state’s government, probably deserves to be censured. The homeless guy, who seemed upset at the “dog lovers” (as you can see in the video), clearly needs some help. I don’t know if it is anger management assistance, drug treatment, time in a counselor’s office, regular employment or a healthier outlet for his frustrations. Given the circumstances of the many homeless people around Hawaii, I’m not sure he will get the attention he probably needs.
But I do know that on social media our instant-response culture allows people to react before they know the whole story or, in some cases, much of anything at all.
There’s been plenty of judgmental comments along the lines of: “He’s on ice” and “She’s crazy.”
In the more extreme cases, people comment in ways that can be described as unhinged emotionally — a lot like the people they are criticizing.
Even more people will respond to the more inflammatory comments, and the ripples will continue.
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