It was supposed to be a lighthearted joke at a celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islanders of the 116th Congress.

Instead, as Rep. Ed Case soon discovered, a seemingly harmless comment about being “an Asian trapped in a white body,” became a source of outrage over the internet.

After an explosive response on social media, many mainlanders have drawn crude criticisms to Case’s recent comments at this event.

While a majority of the critics are Asian-Americans, it appears that most of these commentators are attempting to ascribe the polarizing racial situation occurring in the mainland to Ed’s personal experiences, ignoring the unique cultural atmosphere in Hawaii.

They have drawn the conclusion that Case’s goofy comment was simply another example of whitewashing the Asian-American experience. A simple review of Hawaii’s culture contradicts their unnecessary, and frankly, caustic commentary.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case talks to visitors who stopped by his office on his first day back in Congress. Nick Grube/Civil Beat

Hawaii has been unique in terms of its racial composition long before its statehood in 1959. As one of the only states without a white majority, its representatives in Congress have continuously represented an extremely diverse constituency. 

Because of this, Hawaii’s approach to its multicultural atmosphere has designated it as a cultural “melting pot.”

As residents of Hawaii, we have heard and shared a large number of casual ethnicity-related comments that highlight Hawaii’s distinct culture of multiculturalism. Ethnic humor, while considered taboo in the mainland (as these authors found out during college), is still the mainstream culture in the islands, a fact that distinguishes our state from the mainland.

No Racial Paradise

Residents living in Hawaii, a state still far from a “racial paradise,” live and embrace a culture where differences are not only shared but treasured. While Hawaii’s residents may disagree over the racial aspects of Hawaii’s demographics and history, most everyone can agree that our shared “melting pot” culture sets us apart from our mainland peers.

The cultural uniqueness of the islands is highlighted in the diversity, acceptance, and cultural mixing that most every resident, including Case, experiences. In Hawaii, most facets of culture aren’t rigorously separated and experienced based on race, but are things that most everyone is exposed to and participates in.

Both Japanese and non-Japanese residents crowd to attend Obon festivals every year, Native Hawaiian and non-Native Hawaiian residents relish eating poi, and we’ve all ordered saimin, a local favorite dish that derives from the Japanese ramen, Chinese mein, and Filipino pancit.

Hawaii also shares the honorable distinction of having the most interracial marriages of any state, at 42 percent. Every aspect of our lives is derived from the multicultural environment that we live in, from the food we eat to the people we interact with.

Every aspect of our lives is derived from the multicultural environment that we live in.

Rep. Case shouldn’t have to apologize to mainlanders who do not understand the culture that Hawaii residents share. Instead, they should take a hard look at Hawaii and understand the multicultural experience that we share before tweeting boorish criticism all over social media.
 Indeed, many of the replies on the original tweet regarding Case’s comment have devolved into crude insults on his character and family.

Instead of drawing light to the real issues of racism against Asian-Americans, some of these “activist” commentators have written offensive comments about both Case and his Japanese-American wife, accusing him of fetishizing Asian culture. Hardly a constructive approach to serious issues that affect millions in minority communities.

Unfortunately for many of the commentators, it seems that the cultural experience Hawaii residents share has been lost in the increasingly polarized racial tensions present on the mainland, where the link between cultural heritage and an individual’s given race seems to be the only narrow framework in which one can analyze any cultural experience.

Indeed, the same sort of rhetoric appeals to people both on the far left and far right of the political spectrums. Instead of targeting real racism that minorities face daily and uplifting the relentless efforts made by the unsung activists who work tirelessly to fight racial tension, these commentators have targeted and vilified a harmless comment, ignoring its very context and the cultural background it was derived from while doing so.

It seems that in today’s world, instead of reaching out and celebrating our different cultures as is often done in Hawaii, mainlanders would rather bicker about ownership of “whitewashed” prom dresses and lighthearted cultural jokes, displaying an ultimate act of self-righteousness — that being individuals claiming an entire culture and all of its nuances for themselves, and themselves only.

Finally, to the mainlanders who quickly ran to social media to fire off criticism about Rep. Case’s comment, we extend an invitation: Sit down and take a look at our islands, have some saimin, and try to understand and experience Hawaii’s multifaceted culture before judging it too quickly.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

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