UH Football Coaches And The Culture Of Hawaii - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Y. Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii where he worked for more than 30 years, 20 of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to serve on the UH Manoa Commission on Racism and Bias and to research, write and lecture on race and ethnicity in Hawaii and the continental United States.


In her recent commentary, “Todd Graham’s Unforgivable Sin? He Didn’t Understand Our Culture,” Lee Cataluna offered a number of points I agree with regarding the significance of Hawaii’s culture to its people.

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However, I have to disagree with her argument concerning an “emphasis on cultural understanding,” which she maintains is “practical.”

Cataluna wrote:

“It’s about fit and the ability to adapt, which are basic business, leadership and survival requirements. If what you’re doing doesn’t work in the place you’re doing it, either change tactics or move somewhere else.”

Cultural understanding should be mutual among different groups, whether racial, ethnic or Indigenous. While we can give priority to local, Hawaii or Native Hawaiian cultures, we should also make an effort to understand and respect the cultures of others who are not from here or who are different from us, although with obvious exceptions, such as racists and religious extremists.

It’s much too easy to tell others to move elsewhere, to go back to where they came from or, much worse, to stop practicing their culture, which is what enables them to be who they are.

In this regard, I’m thinking about the widespread hostility toward Micronesians or Compact of Free Association citizens, who can be said to share Pacific Islander culture with several such groups in Hawaii, including Native Hawaiians. Nonetheless, Micronesians are subject to extreme forms of systemic racism, including racial profiling and so-called ethnic humor, which makes them the butt of jokes maliciously told about them.

the homepage for the UH football team Jan. 24 featured new coach Timmy Chang.
The homepage for the UH football team on Monday featured new coach Timmy Chang. He replaces Todd Graham, who resigned under a cloud. Former Head Coach June Jones was also in the running for the high-profile position. UH Athletics/2022

Micronesians, Filipino and Korean immigrants, who began arriving in significant numbers after passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, used to be the primary targets of xenophobic racism. In addition, Hawaii has a long history of racism and violence against newcomer haoles from the “mainland.”

Besides those not from Hawaii, cultural understanding also needs to be extended to those who were here first — Native Hawaiians. Based on their cultural traditions, including chants, moolelo stories and myths, they have established and asserted the sacredness of Mauna Kea, which underlies their opposition to construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Cultural understanding should be mutual among different groups, whether racial, ethnic or Indigenous.

Nonetheless, understanding and respect for their cultural traditions, values and practices appear to be in short supply among most Hawaii residents who support building the TMT. Since opposition to the TMT doesn’t seem to be working in their own homeland, should we then tell Kanaka Maoli to move somewhere else, such as Las Vegas?

We are officially the Aloha State, and we like to emphasize the aloha spirit in how we relate to others, and it is certainly valued as a major feature of island culture. I fully agree with Cataluna that “there’s something about these islands that brings out the best and the worst in people,” which isn’t something one can readily say about other places — consider Los Angeles or Chicago.

While not ignoring the worst in us (e.g., persisting inequality, racism and discrimination), let’s focus on the best of us, on what can bring us together to work toward the Hawaii we value and which has a place for those who are culturally different.

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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Y. Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii where he worked for more than 30 years, 20 of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to serve on the UH Manoa Commission on Racism and Bias and to research, write and lecture on race and ethnicity in Hawaii and the continental United States.


Latest Comments (0)

I like what Jonathan Okamura was saying in the article, but I don't think Lee Cataluna was being xenophobic in her criticism's of Todd Graham's difficulty in adjusting to Hawaii's culture, I think Cataluna was more focused on non-local people in high positions who don't understand their leadership style doesn't work here like it did in places they came from. It wasn't a bash on all immigrants or even all European-Americans from the continent

pablo_wegesend · 5 months ago

From my experience, "culture fit" is little more than a cloak for prejudice, intolerance and various types of bigotry. It may be a defensible criterion for choosing dates, friends or roommates. However, it has no place in employment, education, government, etc. (perhaps with a few very narrow exceptions, such as being a public ambassador for a particular ethnic or cultural group).

Chiquita · 5 months ago

Losing Coach Graham exposed major faults in priorities in HI. Hiring Tim Change reinforced Hawaii’s desire to carry on with a local at the helm, which may turn out well. Besides, if you’re going to be a Head Coach, you have to start sometime/somewhere, so why not in a place where you’ve already got a support network/system based upon being from here?A recent letter to the SA editor stated that UH was in the top 1% of universities worldwide for research and academics.I’d sure like to know where that comment can be researched and vetted.Hawaii’s failures center on lack of readiness, willingness, and ability to adapt to 21st century needs, not wants and "nice to haves" .We need our own indigenous talent pool of Engineers, Physicians, and Teachers, not Hawai’ian Studies and Journalism majors.

Shoeter · 5 months ago

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