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‘Eh Haole, You Want One Soda?’: On Being White and British in Hawai‘i

In Hawai'i white people are coded haole and the term can be applied as a simple descriptive label as well as with pejorative force in more tense contexts. In today's Hawai'i what does it mean to be white and British? What does it mean to be haole?

Lucy Pickering

In 2004-5 I conducted fieldwork on the Big Island of Hawai‘i as part of my PhD research into white ‘drop outs’ living on the island. During fieldwork I met a young man who after several years’ residence on the island had turned away from his ‘drop out’ or New Age friends to build relations with Hawaiians living locally. One day I went out boogyboarding with one such friend, Kapila, and after catching a few waves and (in my case at least) being pounded by several more we drove into the village to visit his auntie and uncle. While in their house being talked through the family photographs by one of auntie and uncle’s grandchildren, Kapila’s uncle turned to me and asked, ‘eh haole, you want one soda?’ which I gratefully accepted before turning my attention back to his granddaughter. I was surprised, then, that Kapila immediately turned to assure me that his uncle didn’t mean to be racist and that he hoped that I wasn’t offended.

Before going to Hawai‘i I had done some reading on haole identity in Hawai‘i and this reading had prepared me for encounters such as this. Hawaiians and locals, authors such as Elvi Whittaker (1986), Judy Rohrer (1997) and Eric Yamamoto (1979) had assured me, talk freely about race – white people are coded haole and the term can be applied as a simple descriptive label as well as with pejorative force in more tense contexts. Rather than concern at being the victim of racism (after all, they were happy for me to play with their grandchild), being called haole in that space seemed simply a means of getting round his inability to grasp my name (not an altogether different reason for my calling him ‘uncle’). Yet Kapila interpreted – or feared I would interpret – this label from the position of a different yet co-existing discourse of race in Hawai‘i.

This is what I want to talk about here. Like any – at least potentially – pejorative racial or ethnic label, haole has developed out of a specific context of cultural contact as well as against a backdrop of colonization and globalization. As such, being British, my nationality affords me a somewhat different perspective than the two major theorists of haole identity, Elvi Whittaker (1986) and Judy Rohrer (1997, 2005), both US citizens one anthropologist, the other growing up haole in Hawai‘i. It is from this perspective that I wish to think about this offer of a drink, and through it see if I can understand a little of the uses and meanings of haole.

Before proceeding, however, it is worth briefly discussing some of Hawai‘i’s history in relation to Britain and the United States and some of the ways in which haole emerged out of this set of encounters. Although the date of initial settlement (probably by Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands) of the Hawaiian archipelago is unknown, it was probably 1000-2000 years ago. Jumping forward several centuries, the ‘discovery’ of Hawai‘i by the British Captain James Cook and his subsequent death at the hands of Hawaiians in 1798 has been taken as the starting point of several histories of Hawai‘i and the starting point against which revisionist historians of Hawai‘i position themselves. Following Cook’s death, several colonizing nations including Britain and the United States traded with Hawaiian ali‘i (chiefs). Entry into a cash economy combined with the decimation of the population through disease served to fundamentally alter Hawaiian society; change put into writing and given the force of law in the Great Mahele of 1848.

This document put into effect the private ownership of land and resulted in extensive land purchases by missionaries from the USA and their children, often at the cost of disenfranchisement of Hawaiians from the land. The period following this new land division and lasting up until the last quarter of the twentieth century can be characterized as a plantation era in which sugar and pineapple plantations formed the mainstay of Hawai‘i’s economy; in 1898 Hawai‘i was ‘annexed’ to the United States of America following the violent overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by US marines at the behest of (haole) plantation-owners in Hawai‘i, statehood followed in 1959.

Most plantations were owned by white elites, missionaries and their children. Over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries waves of different nationalities were brought in to work on the plantations, dividing much of Hawai‘i’s population into plantation owners (haoles) and workers (Hawaiian, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Puerto Rican, Portuguese). Discouraged from mixing socially, haoles and plantation workers and their children began to develop different ways of speaking; while white children continued to speak Standard American English, immigrants developed Hawaiian Pidgin English to communicate across language lines and with their offspring. Hawaiian Creole English (referred to in Hawai‘i today as Pidgin) became the first language of ‘locals,’ the descendents, usually of mixed nationality, of these (non-haole) immigrants.

The development of haoleness obviously took place in relation to the plantation economy and emerging ‘local’ identities, but it also emerged out of the context of missionary work and national philosophies being developed on the mainland. Missionaries and their children became government advisors and plantation owners, forming a white elite in Hawai‘i and constructions of haole that emerged in the nineteenth century reflected their Puritan values of capital accumulation, lack of cultural sensitivity and an unequal distribution of power. In the twentieth century, constructions of haole developed in new ways as a result of increased US tourism, initially elite and then more popular following statehood. Based on encounters with these missionary and tourist haoles, Judy Rohrer argues in her dissertation, ‘Haole Matters: Interrogating Whiteness in Hawai‘i,’ that, ‘Haole in local discourse is generally arrogant, aggressive, ignorant of island culture(s) and histories, greedy, loud, and rude. Haole stubbornly continues to be ‘foreign;’ will not or cannot adapt to the island environment and culture.’ As one University of Hawaii professor quoted by Rohrer put it to a white, American student frustrated at being racialized as haole, ‘you can be a haole, a dumb haole, or a dumb fucking haole, the choice is yours.’

In pointing to this frustration, Rohrer discusses much of the same territory covered from a somewhat different perspective by the outspoken Hawaiian Studies Professor Hanauna Trask. In one discussion, Trask (1998) points to concerns expressed by another student of the University of Hawaii who complained in the pages of the campus newspaper Ka Leo of being the victim of racism, likening being labeled ‘haole’ to the term ‘nigger.’ Trask’s response drew attention to significant differences between ‘nigger’ and ‘haole,’ pointing out that ‘nigger’ is a label applied (historically at least) by the numerically and politically dominant racial group in the USA to a minority; a minority once considered, incidentally, as ‘sub-human’ and denied certain basic rights including the right to vote. Haole, on the other hand, is a label applied by a racial (ethnic?) majority of Hawaiians and ‘locals’ towards a racial minority who historically and – in some respects at least – in the present wield(ed) disproportionate political, economic and social power. Rather than being politically disenfranchised as African-Americans once were, it was white people, mainland US citizens, haoles, who disenfranchised people of color (and Portuguese – racially white but classed as plantation workers not owners) for a long period in Hawai‘i.

Although for the purposes of this discussion I am collapsing Hawaiian and ‘local’ together, it should be born in mind that in relation to the idea of haoleness, as well as similarities – such as frustration with escalating taxes as incoming haoles push up property values and dislike of tourists – there are differences. ‘Local’ as a social category emerged, as we have seen, out of the plantation economy, developing as a racialised social class. In addition to being placed within this racialised hierarchy, Native Hawaiians also had their population decimated in the early ‘contact period,’ lost out in the (bureaucratic) process of conversion to private land ownership in the Great Mahele of 1848 and lost their system of government to one which suited the interests of the haole plantation owners initially in increments and then ultimately by force. This latter issue is of particular importance, having become a focal point for Native Hawaiian movements and evidenced by the bumper sticker visible, at least on some of the vehicles owned by people with whom I worked, which read ‘Haole for Sovereignty.’ While the paradox of this bumper sticker, and accompanying difficulties in comprehending that sovereignty may result in the deportation of the driver is beyond the scope of this discussion, it highlights the importance of sovereignty to anti-haole sentiment, and one of the ways in which (at least ‘drop out’) haoles can exclude locals from sovereignty discourses.

What was the source of these students’ discomfort and how does it connect to Kapila’s response to his uncle’s question? Whiteness has been an emerging theme in studies of race and nationality and most point to the invisibility (at least for white people) of whiteness as a racial category. In her discussion of discourses of race in the United States of America, Ruth Frankenberg identifies three discourses, each historically located, each persisting to the present day. The first is a racial discourse focused on biological difference between black and white people, the second a discourse of disappearance, if you will, in which racial difference is ignored in the name of equality and the third a progressive multiculturalism based around celebration of ethnic (cultural) rather than racial (biological) difference. Each discourse informs the next and the second of these points the way towards an answer.

Relocating from ‘the mainland’ (continental USA) to Hawai‘i, white US citizens are forced to confront racial identity in a new context. Instead of the dominant paradigm of ignoring racial difference in the name of equality and discretely shying away from at least the public use of racial categories, white people in Hawai‘i are openly identified as haole – a category based both upon skin color and behavior; indeed a local who spends too much time on the mainland risks becoming ‘haolefied’’ during their time there. The politically correct pretense to ignore race does not take place in Hawai‘i, and not only are white people forced to come to terms with the idea that whiteness is as raced as any other color but also to face up to a colonial identity.

Frequently during fieldwork I was asked how it felt to ‘get your ass kicked,’ at first interpreting this comment in the context of England’s humiliating run in the 2002 World Cup before having it explained to me that this was a reference to the War of Independence. I vaguely recalled a high school history lesson on the British colonization of North America, something to do with the Boston Tea Party and maybe stamp duty or window tax or something. But an event covered in one or two short lessons for me had clearly played a much more pronounced role in the high school history lessons of my research participants. The repeated appearance of this question, coupled with outrage as the people with whom I worked learned of the 1898 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy made me realize that while the history of my education focused on Britain as a colonial nation (of which North America was just one conquest), this was not true of my haole counterparts – instead, the history of their nation was one of a colonized not colonizing nation; in relocating to Hawai‘i they were no longer the colonized, but became the colonizers.

When Kapila’s uncle offered me a soda, he did so operating from within a Hawai‘i-specific racial discourse in which drawing attention to racial identity carries as much or as little political weight as pointing out age or gender. During my time in Hawai‘i I was a haole, often a dumb haole and on one or two occasions a (dumb) fucking haole. In this context I was just a haole. Auntie expressed surprise at how well I got on with a Polynesian baby, a comment that speak of the power differences between haoles, locals and Hawaiians, but also of their relative insignificance in settings of intimacy. In their living room I was a haole--I could not escape my skin color and the political and cultural assumptions it entailed--but I could decide what kind of haole I was going to be; in playing with the toddler, in sharing sodas and food with them I wasn’t a fucking haole, or even a dumb haole, just a haole.

Kapila, unlike his auntie and uncle, of a post-plantation era and with haole ‘drop out’ friends, was more sensitive to the type of racial discourse with which he assumed I would be more familiar – namely of disappearing race. In a discourse in which to even name is to run the risk of being labeled ‘racist,’ this simple attachment to an offer of a drink was deeply political and in his response Kapila expressed an understandable fear of my misinterpretation, a fear so strong it was based not on how I did react but how he assumed I would.

Whether my response would have been the same without my literary preparation for going to Hawai‘i or without the experience of being called a ‘fucking haole’ simply for driving the other way down a dirt track the week before I do not know. But I do know that these experiences in both text and body added to and exploded assumptions so deeply held I did not know them until called haole by different people and with radically different meanings. Rereading fieldnotes back in England, I found these discourses interweaving in my writings as I shifted between critical analysis and uncritical usage of British, US and Hawaiian discourses of racial identity.

Towards the end of fieldwork, I met a white, middle-aged American woman and wrote of her,

She was really the kind of person I visualize when I'm reading about haoles in local/Hawaiian related literature, she was loud, arrogant, didn't listen and definitely saw Hawai‘i as just another part of the US for her to exploit rather than a separate entity. If that's people’s image of haoles, no wonder they hate them.

Reading Rohrer’s thesis upon my return, I wondered if perhaps I’d begun to grasp something of haole. This woman I labeled haole in a moment of frustration does not seem a million miles from the ‘Haole in local discourse… generally arrogant, aggressive, ignorant of island culture(s) and histories, greedy, loud, and rude.

I have argued that there are two dominant discourses of race in Hawai‘i: one imported from the US mainland which understands racial difference as biology and is trying to correct the oppressions of the past by ignoring difference, and the other indigenous to Hawai‘i which collapses together – but does not ignore – some of those differences. Outside the island of Ni‘ihao, there are very few who would call themselves ‘pure’ Hawaiian, but many locals claim a partial Hawaiian identity; the term ‘local’ celebrates the cultural mixing of the plantation era, a celebration based on difference not from Hawaiians but from haoles; haole is raced ‘white’ but is not confined to physiology – just as Hawaiians and locals living on the mainland can become haolefied, so white people born on the island and growing up speaking pidgin, with predominantly local friends, can become a local haole.

Island discourses of race recognize the importance of performance, while acknowledging the inescapability of physiology. One can by physiologically haole but perform local, and one can be born local but perform haole. As a white visitor or resident on the island it is impossible to escape haole, to avoid this identity based on conquest and plantation domination. Yet it is a label with plenty of room for maneuver, in which individual actors can shape what kind of haole they perform. This recognition of the importance of performance in day-to-day racial discourse in Hawai‘i opens up a space for a rooted engagement with the third and at present least common of Ruth Frankenberg’s archaeology of white racial discourse in the US – a recognition of difference, a celebration of that difference, an understanding of it as cultural and performative, rather than racial and biological.

Lucy Pickering is a PhD student at the University of Manchester, England and works on 'hippie' and 'alternative' identity in the USA.

Copyright © 2006 by Lucy Pickering. All rights reserved.