Sunday, October 9, 2011

Poi dog: thoughts about race

I have a complicated and confusing relationship with race. I'm a poi dog--I'm Hawaiian on my dad's side and white on my mom's. I look pretty non-white, though it took me a long time to recognize that. I joke that I'm the tallest Hawaiian woman ever (5'10") and I don't like coconuts or Spam (joke). I'm paler than most Hawaiians, but I have black hair, a fairly Hawaiian face, and I'm built like a Polynesian woman.

After my family moved to Arkansas when I was eight, I was raised white. Very white, as in my brother and I were part of the .1% non-white population of our small town. I never connected to the white southern culture around me, but I didn't identify strongly with Hawaiian culture because I was only raised with bits and pieces of it from my dad, who was never a present or a positive figure in my life. I always really wanted to connect to Hawaiian culture, because I sensed that it might be more welcoming than the white Arkansan one.

White people tend to think I'm white because they can't identify me. My legal name is also incredibly German, which doesn't help. At the same time, people saw me differently than they did other white people. It took me a long time to figure out that people were Othering me in part because of the way I looked. Growing up, I got called "exotic" or "ethnic" a lot by people who might have thought it was a compliment. They didn't understand that they were making me an Other, and I didn't understand it either. When people asked, "What are you?" (oh yes, it happened), I called myself Hawaiian, but inwardly I told myself I was more white than brown, even though I didn't want to.

When I went to college, far away from home, I noticed that non-white people of all varieties would give me this searching look as if they were wondering if they could call me one of their own. (Hawaiians are the only ones who can recognize each other and we can do it from 50 yards away. I'm only half kidding.) I figured I just had one of those faces. I still wanted more to identify with non-white groups than I did white people, because really, what had white people ever done for me besides confuse the hell out of me? Then, after college, I went to the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival and made a beeline for the Hawaiian booth, desperate to connect in some way to the culture I thought I should be a part of. After admiring the woven baskets, I struck up a conversation with one of the women at the booth. I mentioned that I was part Hawaiian but had never been to the islands, although I wanted to go and learn more about the culture. She gave me a "who cares?" look and promptly ended the conversation.

It took me a while to process her instant antipathy and longer to figure out why the hell she had shut me down. Years later, in grad school, I met a white woman who had grown up in Hawaii. She knew ten times more about Hawaii and Hawaiian culture than I did with my piecemeal knowledge from my dad and my own studies. She spoke the pidgen. It hit me then that this white woman, this haole, was more Hawaiian than I was because she had grown up on the islands and participated in the culture. I was confused and hurt because, well, I have native blood. My brothers and I were the first in our family to be raised completely on the mainland. I wanted to learn more about the people I was born to and instead had gotten shut out, again.

I'll back up here for a minute and explain: Hawaii is a colonized place with a dying culture. The story is, unfortunately, very similar to other native stories. The British stomped right in, as they tend to do, then the Russians, the French, the Chinese, the Japanese, of course more British, and the Americans stopped by to take advantage. Qualifications to be considered native for the purposes of government benefits is "any descendant of not less than one-half part of the blood of the races inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands previous to 1778." This qualification hasn't changed since it was first enacted in 1921. The problem here is, not unlike Americans in general, Hawaiians are all mixed. We're all poi dogs. So the natives have to decide somehow who gets to participate in the culture and who should be kept out. That's how minority groups work, unfortunately--they decide who gets to play in their sandbox and everyone else can fuck off. Understandably, because they need to feel safe.

Here's the thing, though. That kind of thinking breeds an isolationist philosophy, which isn't good for anyone and isn't good for the culture. When you start turning away people who honestly want to learn about and participate in your culture? Yes, we should all be concerned with cultural appropriation, but if a culture is concerned with perpetuating itself, inclusion is more beneficial than exclusion. Hawaiians have demonstrated their willingness to pass their culture on to those who may not look the same way they do, but they still (in my experience) exclude those who may have the same blood but haven't yet participated in the culture in a direct way.

Recently I saw my dad's side of the family for the first time in 14 years. All of a sudden I was back in a huge group of people who looked just like me and who acted the way I remember from my earliest childhood. I don't really identify with them on the surface, either, because I've spent half my life away from them. At the same time, that's the part of my family that has been most formative to the racial part my identity. That side of the family is a mix of just about every type of non-white you can imagine, but we were all taught to identify with the Hawaiian part of us. I'm left confused. In my daily life and in the larger American society, I'm caught between a group that doesn't want me because of the way I look and a group that doesn't want me because I've grown up elsewhere.

To me, all this brings up a couple of questions. What can we consider "race" anymore? Is it color or blood or identification? Who gets to participate in what culture? I'm of two minds on these issues. On the one hand, a minority group ought to be able to determine who participates in it. Minorities need safe spaces, and in order to create them, they have to be selective. But where does selectivity cross the line into exclusion, and is exclusion really healthy and fair?

The experience at the Smithsonian festival was a formative one for me. It's hurtful to be shut out of a group I identify with. It's just as hurtful when people don't acknowledge part of my identity. It's a complex issue and I'm still trying to work it out. What are your thoughts?