Jonathan Okamura: Why You Need To Know The Difference Between Race And Ethnicity In Hawaii - 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

Ethnicity yields explanations about how our society operates that race does not, such as which groups are more likely to become infected with Covid.

In my last column, I argued that the people of Hawaii shouldn’t celebrate Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month because it highlights large racial categories and thereby obscures significant differences among the included ethnic groups.

This column follows up on a May 28 article on CNN, “The differences between race and ethnicity – and why they’re so hard to define.” My intention is to provide some clarity about those differences, particularly from a Hawaii perspective. Doing so may also serve as background for my future columns in which I discuss problems and issues related to race and ethnicity.

I’ve discussed the meaning of those two concepts in Hawaii in a chapter, “Race and/or Ethnicity in Hawai‘i: What’s the Difference and What Difference Does It Make?” It appeared in an edited book, “Beyond Ethnicity: New Politics of Race in Hawai‘i,” in 2018.

I also will elaborate on my contention in my previous column that ethnicity and indigeneity matter much more than race does in Hawaii.

The CNN article asserts that the differences between race and ethnicity are difficult to define and that these concepts “are messy and lack concrete definitions.” That probably is the case for the general public but not necessarily for scholars of race and ethnicity and, I hope, for the students who took my ethnic studies courses.

In my chapter noted above, I stated that an ethnic group is defined primarily according to cultural criteria, such as language, religion, values, symbols and meanings. In contrast, a racial group or race is defined on the basis of phenotypic or physical criteria — commonly but not universally skin color, hair color or texture, and facial characteristics.

Based on these definitions, since culture can be acquired or lost, ethnic group membership and identity can change over time for both individuals and groups. However, racial belonging and identity are much less changeable because of the visibility of race, particularly on the human body.

UH Manoa Campus center mural with students walking up and down stairs.
Ethnicity can enable us to address more significant problems and issues, such as persisting ethnic inequality and injustice in Hawaii. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

I can hear readers saying, “Ethnicity isn’t visible?” Not necessarily, if one thinks about cultural meanings or beliefs as defining criteria of an ethnic group, which also are not limited to the body as racial characteristics are. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a dominant meaning of being Japanese American that they asserted was being loyal U.S. citizens, but how was this cultural value evident on their bodies?

One of the scholars interviewed for the CNN article, Tomas Jimenez, a sociology professor at Stanford University, remarks that both race and ethnicity are social constructions, which is a widespread understanding in the field. By his observation, Jimenez is referring to “how people use these ways (race and ethnicity) of categorizing themselves and each other.”

This is what the people of Hawaii do when we categorize ourselves and others into ethnic rather than racial groups; we socially construct ethnic groups. The reason we do this is because we consider the cultural differences among us as more significant than the phenotypic or racial differences, such as skin color. As a result, island residents view themselves and others as belonging to different ethnic and not racial groups.

Thus, instead of using the racial category Asian American, we recognize cultural and other social differences among Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans and Japanese and refer to those groups separately as ethnic groups rather than collectively as Asian American.

In addition, racial discourse that would indicate the social construction of race is generally absent, such as references to Hawaii’s constituent groups as “races” and the use of racial categories, such as white, Latino and Asian American.

In my experience, whites in Hawaii don’t refer to themselves as such but seem to prefer “Caucasian,” and only long-resident whites, such as some of my colleagues at UH Manoa, employ the term “haole,” being fully aware that it is not a racial epithet.

Since racial and ethnic categories are socially constructed, white in the continental United States has very different meanings and experiences from being haole in Hawaii. This highly important difference is evident in haoles being viewed, targeted and sometimes assaulted because they are perceived as cultural and social outsiders in the islands.

This perception and treatment are not dominant aspects of the white experience in the continental U.S. On the mainland, many if not most whites consider themselves as racially unmarked and as simply American.

Thus, I would concede that whites and African Americans are exceptions to my generalization that the constituent groups in Hawaii are ethnic groups because of the visibility of race and its emphasis on physical features, such as skin color.

From a related but different perspective, race and ethnicity (not racial group and ethnic group) are both organizing principles of social relations that structure inequality in societies. Class and gender are also very prevalent principles, and gender is a basis of social organization and inequality in all societies.

As I asserted in my previous column, race is the dominant principle in the continental U.S., but ethnicity prevails in Hawaii. Historically, prior to World War II, race was the leading principle of social organization of island society. It was very common to refer to the various groups as races, such as the “Hawaiian race” and the “Japanese race,” and racial inequality reigned between haoles and non-haoles.

During the quarter of a century after the war, ethnicity became the foremost organizing principle in Hawaii as the political and economic power of haoles was successfully challenged by non-haoles in labor and political movements led by the ILWU and the Democratic Party. Consequently, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans began to separate themselves socioeconomically from Native Hawaiians and Filipinos, further contributing to the predominance of ethnicity over race.

Besides ethnicity, indigeneity is another organizing principle in Hawaii; unfortunately, it is not as significant, although an argument could be made that it should be. Indigeneity differentiates between Native Hawaiians as the aboriginal people of Hawaii and everyone else, who are immigrants or settlers in the islands. The relations between them are also highly unequal to the disadvantage of Native Hawaiians.

From the perspective of indigeneity, kanaka are a colonized people in their ancestral nation and not an ethnic or racial minority in America’s 50th state like other groups are. While they are officially recognized by the state as the native people of the islands, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have been accorded a higher legal and political status, particularly in terms of their land rights, over other groups. Ongoing disputes such as Hakuone and the TMT make this abundantly clear.

Since indigeneity lacks substantive legal and political acknowledgment by non-Hawaiians, as an organizing principle it has been superseded by ethnicity, which maintains the subordinate political and economic status of Native Hawaiians in their homeland.

Unlike other racial and ethnic groups, who is considered Native Hawaiian has been defined in the state constitution since 1978 when the Office of Hawaiian Affairs was established.

Rather than phenotypic or cultural criteria, such as being able to speak olelo Hawaii, that definition is based on ancestry.

According to our constitution, a Native Hawaiian is any person who can trace descent to the people who were living in Hawaii prior to 1778 when Captain Cook arrived. Actually, ancestry is also how other Hawaii residents establish their membership in an ethnic group, although it is not stated in the constitution.

Ancestry has become significant over time because acculturation has diminished the cultural uniqueness of most island ethnic groups, except for the immigrant segments of some groups, such as Chinese and Filipinos.

Ethnicity matters in Hawaii because it yields explanations about how our society operates that race does not, including as we have seen, which ethnic groups are more likely to become infected with Covid. Ethnicity can also enable us to address more significant problems and issues, such as persisting ethnic inequality and injustice 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)

Intersectionality, dividing individuals into groups in order to create more inclusivity? Intersectionality doesn’t even try to fix anything.

rmichaels · 3 months ago

Thank you, Mr. Okumura, for your dissemination of a very complex subject with deep personal roots for all of us. If I may I'd like to give my estimation of racial theory. Race as we know it doesn't exist. Every and any individual of a racial group is capable of doing what that of another racial group can do. Greed, love, deception, harm, help we give these to each other regardless of race. Each racial group has people in it who would take advantage of others in their group. As people we are all the same. Dividing us into race makes large scale victimization dangerously convenient.Those who see us as one people first are rare and lucky. Free of the passed on obligation to a certain group that may not be as smart a choice as someone you can trust of another group.That said, it's too late for that. Once it's become law or entrenched even if it's wrong there is little that can be undone. I think, perhaps, we could learn to celebrate the differences among groups, not belittle them. The less vocal majority needs to stand up and be seen, assert their value.

youknowyouknow · 3 months ago

Jonathan, reading your column I recalled our dear, departed colleague Marion Kelly. Polynesian archaeologist who discovered the charred remains of a 15th century swett potato on Oahu that could only have come from Peru. And on the faculty of the Ethnic Studies department. She wrote a seminal article in 1965 on the Grand Mahele, where private property in land was instituted in 1845. She found that 2 percent of the Hawaiian population ended up with 92 percent of the land, all Ali’i. Originally only native Hawaiians could own land but it became apparent that others could readily afford the land, but not Kanaka, so they began selling the land, not least the King himself, to foreigners. This evolved down to the present. Princess Abigail’s fortune came from land that was very much part of this. And on it sit all those homes on the West Side. Property like ethnicity is a social construct, but infinitely better defined, by law. Another social institution. I would argue that we have to be careful not to lapse into metaphor and simile in discussing these topics. I consider. Specifically are Kanaka really a "colonized people" or is this a metaphor. A not very useful one. Cheers

Lboyd · 3 months ago

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