Jonathan Okamura: What Did Filipinos Get When They Rose Up Against Racism? More Racism - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

The 1998 protest over a local book is worth remembering.

Twenty-five years ago, Filipinos in Hawaii led a nationwide protest against racism directed toward them. Unfortunately, many people in the islands, including Filipinos, are unaware of this significant event, despite it being reported locally and nationally in the news media, including The New York Times and Los Angeles Times.

The protest was against the selection of “Blu’s Hanging,” a novel set on Molokai in the 1970s by then-popular local writer Lois-Ann Yamanaka, to receive a fiction award from the Association for Asian American Studies, the largest academic organization devoted to that field.

The award was given at the annual AAAS national conference, held at the Ilikai Hotel in June 1998.

I decided to write about this event because over the years I have learned that many people, except for academics, don’t know or have forgotten about it. I also am motivated by comments from a Filipina doctoral student, Demiliza Saromosing, who is from Kalihi and now at the University of Minnesota, during a panel discussion about the protest at the 2017 AAAS conference.

She said she had never heard about it and, after learning at the panel how Filipinos are portrayed in “Blu’s Hanging,” she could not believe that others would write about Filipinos in such demeaning ways.

Several years later, Demiliza wrote to me. “As a first-generation college student, I felt very moved and empowered learning about the protest that paved my way to pursue graduate studies today,” she said.

I need to add that I was involved in the protest campaign in Hawaii beginning in the summer of 1997. I also was an elected member of the AAAS executive board at that time, although I resigned my position in protest the following year before the conference.

The reason that Filipinos and their supporters in Hawaii and in the continental United States were opposed to “Blu’s Hanging” receiving the AAAS fiction award was because, as they argued, the novel resurrects racist stereotypes and representations of Filipino men as sexually threatening, which were prevalent prior to World War II.

It's worth remembering the 1998 protest of Blu's Hanging. (Courtesy: Amerasia Journal/Mary Uyematsu Kao/2000)
It’s worth remembering the 1998 protest of “Blu’s Hanging.” (Courtesy: Amerasia Journal/Mary Uyematsu Kao/2000)

These objections by the local Filipino community of Yamanaka’s depictions of them began earlier in 1994 in an article about her first published work, “Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre,” which appeared in the Fil-Am Courier newspaper written by Bennette Evangelista.

Protests Call For Novel’s Award To Be Rescinded

In “Blu’s Hanging,” the historical stereotype of Filipino men as sexual predators is graphically evident in the character Uncle Paulo, who engages in sex with his adolescent nieces, the Reyes sisters, and rapes Blu, a Japanese boy from a poor family.

No positive Filipino characters appear in “Blu’s Hanging” to counter the racist representations of them, including the Reyes girls, who also are portrayed as sexually promiscuous with their classmates.

Prior to the AAAS conference, the protest organizers sought to gain support from the Filipino community in Hawaii and across the continental United States. They asked local chapters of the Filipino American National Historical Society and other Filipino community organizations to send letters to the AAAS board expressing opposition to “Blu’s Hanging” receiving the fiction award.

In Hawaii, they appealed to the University of Hawaii Pamantasan Council, UH Filipino student organizations and the Oahu Filipino Community Council to submit such letters objecting to the award being given.

As noted above, I resigned from the AAAS board, which occurred after another board member sent an email message to all of us. This professor at an Ivy League university claimed that, if Filipinos think Yamanaka’s writings are racist, then they don’t know how to read literature.

This pronouncement, straight out of the late 19th century when Americans began to colonize the Philippines, constitutes the essence of racism, which emphasizes the inherent inferiority — in this case, intelligence — of a racial group.

I was so disgusted by the blatant racist nature of the statement, which was evident among others who supported the award to “Blu’s Hanging,” that I refused to work anymore with the AAAS board.

Besides anti-Filipino racism, what was absolutely astounding in the “Blu’s Hanging” dispute was that one of the founding purposes of AAAS as stated in its constitution is “to promote better understanding and closer ties among various subgroups within Asian American studies: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Hawaiian, Southeast Asian and South Asian.”

This objective, as the protest leaders emphasized to the board, of fostering closer relations among Asian American groups was not being advanced when AAAS, and its non-Filipino members did not take seriously the objections of Filipinos to the award being given.

It seemed like the AAAS board and most of its members had completely forgotten the coalition-based struggles of Chinese Americans, Japanese American and Filipino Americans at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley starting in the late 1960s.

Together with Black and Chicano students, those protests, marked by lengthy student strikes at both campuses, eventually led to the establishment of ethnic studies and Asian American studies programs.

As for Yamanaka’s supporters, well-known Asian American writers were asked by one of them to send letters to the AAAS board.

Anti-Racism Coalition Is Formed

After several months of email communication, those who were opposed to the fiction award to “Blu’s Hanging” finally met for face to face discussions when the AAAS conference convened in Honolulu in June 1998. They also decided to call their group the Anti-Racism Coalition, indicative of their primary concern.

From those meetings led mainly by Filipino graduate students from the continent, the strategy that developed to overturn the award was to submit a resolution calling for its rescinding, which would be voted upon by the assembled AAAS members. Almost 500 of them were registered for the conference.

At the afternoon conference plenary session when the book award was given to “Blu’s Hanging,” Anti-Racism Coalition members sat together in the first several rows of the hotel ballroom. When the award was announced, instead of Yamanaka, three young Filipina former students of hers, who were sent by her, went onstage to receive the award.

To demonstrate their opposition, perhaps 60 to 70 coalition members stood and turned their backs to the stage. Looking out at the audience in the large ballroom, I saw that many more AAAS members remained seated and presumably would vote against the resolution. But I was wrong.

As a result of the debate concerning the resolution going on for about two hours, voting on it didn’t begin until about 5:30 p.m. By then, many of those who were opposed to the resolution had left, so the final tally was an unexpected 91-55 in favor of revoking the award to “Blu’s Hanging.”

But the front-page story of the next morning’s Sunday Honolulu Advertiser was not that Filipinos had triumphed over the racism against them. Instead, it was that the AAAS had dissolved in turmoil because all except one of the board members had resigned out of fear that Yamanaka would sue them for rescinding the fiction award, which she didn’t bother doing.

AAAS leaders were quoted in the Advertiser saying that next year’s scheduled conference would have to be canceled because the association no longer existed.

I had no doubt that the conference would convene on schedule, which it did, because these same leaders, primarily Japanese American and Chinese American, thought of AAAS as theirs alone and resented the initiative by Filipino Americans and their supporters to have a say in how the association conducted its affairs.

What these AAAS leaders were really doing was blaming Filipinos for causing the supposed dissolution of the association when they were resisting the racism against them, including from AAAS.

A quarter century after the “Blu’s Hanging” protest, systemic racism continues against Filipinos in Hawaii but is not as blatant and denigrating as before.

Racist representations of them in fiction and popular media, including so-called “Filipino jokes,” seem to have declined in expression and acceptance.

However, discrimination in employment and education persists as a major problem for them and other Indigenous and minority groups, which is how ethnic inequality is maintained in Hawaii.

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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

There is a lot to unpack here. On one end there needs to be an unpacking of the author herself (Yamanaka). On the other end an unpacking of colorism among the Asian psyche, the group Yamanaka is a member of. In the middle is the system of racism white supremacy. This perspective is to point out an observation of the collective racial image, not individual. Colorism within the Asian psyche, there has always been an inferiority and superiority complex towards the Filipinos by less-melanated Asian groups. So historically, there has always been an ostracizing of the Filipino Archipelago to fact that there's been a questioning/debate of whether the archipelago is even a part of Asian culture or the Pacific and etc.? Historically, non-melanated Mongoloid Asians who later made up majority populations in China, Japan, Korea's, pushed out and undermined melanated groups indigenous to these regions. Most notably the later Japanese towards the Ainu's and the Okinawan's to the south. The later Chinese or Taiwanese towards the Formosans of Taiwan. The various "negritos" isolate groups scattered throughout Southeast Asia (Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia), Andaman Islands and yep...

808sman · 4 months ago

For perspective from the past, a useful article is Jamie James's "This Hawaii Is Not for Tourists," a review of Heads by Harry in The Atlantic for February 1999. One thing you'll learn from it is that at least some of the controversy about Yamanaka stemmed from local envy of a local girl who wound up being published by a prestigious New York publisher.For perspective from the future, here's a bet. It's this: fifty years from now, Jonathan Okamura will be forgotten but people will still be reading Lois-Ann Yamanaka. Good writing has a way of convincing readers that it's worth listening to.

JonathanMorse · 4 months ago

What is Yamanaka's opinion of all that happened?

gumpster · 4 months ago

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