I am wondering if a white person can ever be truly counted as “local” in Hawaii. Or if a black person can fit the designation of local.

Recently, I heard an African-American educator say she had been here for 20 years and doubted if she would ever be considered local in Hawaii no matter how many years she lived here.

Local is still mostly about race no matter how strongly some of the academics interviewed in Chad Blair’s recent article, “Are You Local? What These Hawaii Scholars Have To Say Might Surprise You?”, maintain that local identification is based on something deeper including a person’s love of Hawaii and respect for its people and customs.

I care for Hawaii and respect its people and customs yet I am categorized as a haole, never a local.

I grew up on Oahu, graduated from Punahou School and have made Hawaii my home for 70 years.  When I leave the islands for good, it will be as ashes dropped into the sea at Kaalawai, a beach below the finger of lava where I live.

About the closest I have come to being a local is when people refer to me as a “local haole.”

Visitors to Waikiki Beach fronting the Moana Sheraton enjoy crimson sunset. 8 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Hawaii is one of the most diverse states in the country, but the author says whites, many of those born and raised here, are rarely called locals. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Yet that designation is still linked to the color of my skin, with the word haole coming after local. It seems more of an honorific title than being deemed a true local.

In fact, when I wrote a column in 2015 about considering myself a local haole, one of my readers slammed me for engaging in cultural appropriation.

When it comes to identifying people of color as locals, residents seldom, if ever, put a person’s race after the word local. For example, a Hawaiian or a Waipahu-born Filipino are considered locals, not a local Hawaiian or a local Filipino.

When I first started out as a reporter, the police scanner in the newsroom used to blurt out transmissions about police looking for a “local” suspect. That clearly meant someone of color, not a person who loved Hawaii.

Today, police department transmissions leave off the local part.

Local identity is complicated. It seems people of color are local, but only if they are members of the following racial groups: Pacific Islanders, Polynesians, Micronesians, Melanesians, and Asians from all parts of Asia except maybe East Indians. Not blacks, even if they are born here like former President Barack Obama.

If you are a member of those particular groups, the term local can be conferred even if you just got off a plane from Los Angeles — as long as you keep your mouth shut.

A non-white mainlander sauntering through the airport dressed in khaki slacks and blue blazer and speaking with a mainland accent might still be mistaken as a local who stayed too long in California and got “haolefied.”

In the classic pidgin English dictionary, “Pidgin to da Max,” haolefied is defined as “Just like a haole.”

Expectedly, in Pidgin to Da Max, the definition of haole is not flattering: “Caucasian or someone who acts like one. ‘Marie real nice, but her seestah so HAOLE!’”

Getting Past The Outsider Label

It’s clear why animosity toward haoles persists and why a few would rather eat rocks than include haoles in the category of local.

My childhood in Hawaii was in the pre-statehood 1950s when racial exclusion was a fact of life in the islands. Private clubs prohibited membership to local Asians no matter how high their professional or educational standing. My school had only a handful of Hawaiian students and there was a quota on Asian admissions.

The Bishop Estate, now known at Kamehameha Schools, refused to lease land to Asians in Kahala.

Although the outright racial oppression of the plantation era was slowly dissolving in Hawaii’s social-economic revolution after World War II, the vestiges of colonialism still lingered.

Not that I am complaining about my own status. There are a lot worse things than being a haole in Hawaii. In my view, it’s lucky to be any race here.

What Is Fault Lines?

One of the readers of Chad Blair’s article commented that it made him feel bad, as a hapa haole born and raised here, when some of his classmates in elementary school he had known for years asked if he was from the mainland or if his family was in the military.

“To me it was hurtful because it insinuated that I was an outsider. I don’t think anyone wants to be treated like an outsider in a society/culture within which they feel like a member,” he wrote. “So I don’t think it is delusional to be hurt by being mistaken for a mainlander.”

I think he hit the problem of  “local” on the head. The problem is not our racial and cultural differences. Such diversity is our wealth. It’s one group treating others like outsiders.

It’s an unwillingness to lend each other an ear because of a perceived cultural divide.

By talking about our differences and shared experiences, sometimes we bridge this divide in small and unexpected ways.

The problem is not our racial and cultural differences. Such diversity is our wealth. It’s one group treating others like outsiders.

When I was talking about the gap between local and non-local with my friend and writer Kathleen Norris, she told me of a recent experience.

“I was on an express bus (1-L) and by the time we got to Chinatown it was nearly empty,” she said. “I commented to the driver, a Hawaiian woman, that it was like having my own super long stretch limo, and she laughed.

“I was near the front, and we visited. I commented that when I was in high school here there were no express buses. That instead we had a weird, inconvenient zone system if you went outside the city. Of course she asked ‘What school you went?’ When I told her Punahou, she seemed shocked, and said, ‘For real?’ I now realize she was surprised to find a Punahou graduate on the bus.

“I told her my parents could never have afforded it but I got a scholarship. ‘So you’re local,’ she said, as I exited at River Street. ‘Yep, a haole but a local one.’ And so it goes.”

Haoles will never be genuine locals no matter how long they have lived here. But as Norris says, if an effort is made to relate shared experiences such as going to high school here, there’s common ground. “It still amazes me how well this works. I can have good conversations with other local folks because of it.”

In the end, it has to do with mutual appreciation and respect and taking the time to acknowledge shared experiences.

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author