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 jokamura@civilbeat.org.

Faculty at the small department are publishing books on subjects that range from Hawaii to far afield challenging injustice and inequality.

This coming year, University of Hawaii Ethnic Studies faculty will publish two books and complete manuscripts under contract for two more, a remarkable achievement for a small department.

These scholarly products are just the latest of its notable accomplishments in research and teaching, which have challenged racism, settler colonialism and racial, ethnic and Indigenous inequality and injustice in Hawaii over the decades.

I would like to highlight these forthcoming publications by Ethnic Studies professors so that the public can understand and appreciate the significant work being conducted by the department, which has only six full-time positions. Note that I’m not mentioning community service activities, such as working with community-based organizations, which also are a major aspect of Ethnic Studies contributions to Hawaii’s people.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a tenured faculty member in Ethnic Studies for 20 years until I retired in 2020. Before being hired, I regularly taught ES courses as a lecturer throughout the 1990s while a researcher in the Student Equity, Excellence and Diversity office at UH Manoa.

Started in 1970 at Manoa as a result of student and community activism, Ethnic Studies can be considered the first diversity, equity and inclusion academic program in Hawaii. Courses on Native Hawaiians, Filipinos and Japanese in Hawaii were offered by representatives of those communities the following year, and a course on haoles in Hawaii was taught by Noel Kent soon afterward.

Like current university DEI programs, which have been criticized by conservatives, such as billionaire investor Bill Ackman, as “inherently a racist and illegal movement,” the Ethnic Studies Program has faced elimination by the UH administration and Board of Regents beginning 50 years ago. In response, in 1972 and again in 1976, students, faculty and community supporters organized sit-in demonstrations at Bachman Hall, the latter protest under the rallying cry, “No Jam Da Program.”

As for the 2024 books by Ethnic Studies faculty, Professor Monisha Das Gupta’s “All of Us or None: Migrant Organizing in an Era of Deportation and Dispossession” (Duke University Press) concerns anti-deportation organizing by and for the most indefensible of migrants and refugees — those labeled criminal aliens.

Monisha Das Gupta

Her book, which includes a chapter on Hawaii, frames deportation as “settler carcerality” and argues that the U.S. exerts territorial control through deportation in the face of Indigenous presence, politics and self-determination against such dispossession. Das Gupta contends that migrant organizations have reformulated immigrant rights through direct action and political education into an “abolitionist” vision of migration justice.

Professor Roderick Labrador, who is the Ethnic Studies department chair, is co-author of “Brownouts: Seattle, Representation, and Musical Autobiography” (University of Washington Press). The book, which includes captioned visual representations of Seattle, is a collaboration with Geo Quibuyen, Filipino rapper in the Seattle-based hip-hop duo Blue Scholars.

It examines the connections among music, place, and self-representation, which Labrador also has discussed regarding hip-hop in Hawaii. He previously published “Building Filipino Hawaii” (2014) that reviewed the effort to construct the Filipino Community Center in the larger context of asserting a Filipino identity that challenged their racist stereotyping.

Professor Ty Kawika Tengan’s “Koa Returns: Indigenous Soldiering, Memory, and Futurity in
Hawai‘i” (University of Hawaii Press forthcoming) asks the central question of what it means for Native Hawaiian men who have served in the U.S. military to return to lands and communities that are actively redefining the place of koa now and in the future.

Based on extensive ethnographic research and oral history interviewing, these “returns” include the stories and ceremonies of coming home from wars waged in the service of the same U.S. empire that has been illegally occupying the Hawaiian islands since 1898. Tengan also discusses how some veterans have returned to Hawaiian cultural traditions of koa, a term that references warriorhood, courage and the Hawaiian hardwood tree.

Pongamia Tree UH Bachman Hall.
Protesters in the 1970s staged sit-ins at UH Bachman Hall to protest the proposed cutting of the Ethnic Studies program. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

“Deploying Blackness: Black Soldiers at the Margins of the Pacific” is assistant professor Ethan Caldwell’s first book, under contract with the University of Washington Press. It analyzes the intersections of Black life and U.S. militarism in Okinawa toward an understanding of how militarism impacts the way Blackness forms beyond the U.S.

Caldwell uses the term “deployment” to frame the relation between race on the one hand and, on the other, militarism and occupation. He argues that this perspective demonstrates how these structures enable Black military personnel to participate in the continued desecration of non-American lands and communities in order to obtain access to resources and freedoms often denied them on the continental U.S.

As is evident, Ethnic Studies research and publications have ventured well beyond Hawaii and its peoples to encompass communities and critical problems and issues in the continental U.S. and across the Pacific. This expansion of its scholarship and advocacy affirms the department’s recent focus on developing an Oceanic Ethnic Studies program while still maintaining an overall emphasis on ethnicity, race and indigeneity.

Nonetheless, I continue to be reminded by the local news media of the detrimental consequences for Hawaii’s people had the Ethnic Studies program been abolished by the UH administration 50 years ago. Without publications, research and teaching by Ethnic Studies faculty, we might have had to depend primarily on oral history recollections of Hawaii’s past, which tend to emphasize the “good old days” instead of the decades of struggle and resistance.

A recent Hawaii News Now story, “The Plantation Built This Town: New Exhibit Reminisces on Plantation Times When Sugar Was King,” on the opening of an exhibit on the Hamakua Sugar Co. at the Honokaa Heritage Center, shows how memories of the past can distort the hard reality of people’s lives.

These remembrances of former workers and residents bring out the paternalism of the plantation management, who viewed and treated them as children who couldn’t take care of themselves, although they don’t seem to realize this.

A former employee interviewed for the news story recalled, “Every Christmas, like now, had Christmas at the Honokaa Gym,” sponsored by the plantation. “They had plays at the gym, and they gave us candies, apples, and whatnot from the plantation.”

Why not higher wages and increased benefits for workers so that they didn’t have to go on strike to obtain them?

Instead of exploitation, plantation paternalism is also evident in the recollections of other community members: “The plantation was like our mom, and the plantation took everybody in and took care of us.” Yet another person recalled, “Living in the plantation camp was like one big family. The plantation was good to the people, although it wasn’t a glamorous job.”

Fortunately, through its research, teaching and publications, since its inception Ethnic Studies has provided a necessary corrective to such romanticized and nostalgic views of plantation life and labor and of other aspects of Hawaii’s past.


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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 jokamura@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

ah yes. Gotta love that 20/15 hindsight vision.a necessary corrective to such romanticized and nostalgic views of plantation life and laborWhen one is a kamaʻāina of places such as Honakā, or Pahau or Haina, and is living in moments of those times, itʻs impossible to exit body stage left and look down from above 50 years later and criticize the romance and nostalgia. Living those plantation days allowed folks to move up and out. Or not. Itʻs easy these days to look back and point finger at colonialist settlers. And, a brown paper bag with an apple and an orange and mixed nuts in the shell, along with a couple yellow pencils; those were treats for keiki, not for adults being treated as children. Too, the one-time cost of those goodies was way cheaper than raises for all. And Strikes, if anything, created tighter bonds amongst all workers and their families, united in their disdain for owners.And, living in the camps was indeed living in a huge family. You had to be there...

Patutoru · 1 month ago

Jonathan Okamura: UH Ethnic Studies Keeps Correcting Rosy Versions Of Hawaii’s Past My observation: A large majority of comments corrected Okamura's rosy version of the legacy of the UH Ethnic Studies Department.Generations of students have been subjected to relentlessly one-sided propaganda persuading them Hawaii's history is American invasion and colonial oppression. Each non-White racial/ethnic group competes against the others to establish a hierarchy of victimhood with corresponding anger and demands for restitution. Even multigeneration families are guilty of "Asian Settler Colonialism" as White-adjacent oppressors of the most downtrodden victims (ethnic Hawaiians), whose gods, lands, culture and language have been stolen and are entitled to a tribal government of their own or total secession from USA. Other UH departments, knowing their dogmas will be bolstered by ES curriculum, send students to fill ES classrooms ensuring ES faculty job-security. So we get lawyers, judges, politicians, medical doctors and teachers shaping our victimhood society. Even the most rigorously objective fields of math and science have been infiltrated with courses in ethnomath and ethnobotany.

KennethConklin · 1 month ago

There's only one reason for encouraging/facilitating mass migration movements, and that's to drive down wages by undermining collective bargaining. Today's plantation owners have learned to hide behind the language of the civil rights movement, and I wonder how supportive academics would be if it was their jobs on the line and not just working class people.

ItsOK2bHaole · 1 month ago

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