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?


  1. Of course you know that I struggle with these questions too, often in terms of the trans community. Who gets to decide if you're "trans enough" to participate in our history of oppression and our pains with trying to be accepted while society tries to erase us and anything about us? Who gets to make that call? Anyone? No one? No easy answers but I do think everyone has a right to construct their own identity. It's not so simple anymore. You can't just look at someone and know anything about them, beyond very basic break downs of privilege, but you can't know how they do or do not experience oppression, privilege, what religion they grew up with, whether they know a damn thing about their Korean side or whether they call themselves Irish even if their black, or if a person wants a male pronoun, a female, or something else entirely. I think that's a good thing, speaking from my own vantage point only, because hopefully it forces us to talk to and respect one another instead of just leading with a bunch of assumptions.

  2. *they're.

    I hang my head in shame.

  3. It is my perception that this is where the flaw in "labels" comes into play, Tiger. The only useful purpose for labels, whether they have racial, gender, religious, or financial origin, is to negate the need to get to know someone. To find out who they actually are, how they define and/or see themselves. No matter who we are, or what our background or upbringing or racial/ethnic heritage, no two of us are the same, have the same perceptions of the world around us, or even the same perceptions of ourselves.

    Viv, it's entirely possible that the individual you encountered had deeper issues beyond the visible. Although I do know that what you say about the Hawaiians is also true here on the mainland US with Native American tribes. Despite the fact that there are many "outsiders" who would love to learn and even embrace their culture and belief systems, they are very strict about keeping them out.

    And it's a shame, because ignorance only breeds fear. Knowledge feeds understanding. I don't blame the Native Americans--they've been soundly taken advantage of since Europeans set foot on this continent. I don't think that justifies, though, the sins of the father being visited onto the seventh generation.

    Your experiences, sadly, aren't unique either. I know a man who is Samoan and Italian descent, and has been perceived and treated as an African American since he entered military service. It was only then that he had an understanding of why so many people had abused him when he was younger, in fact.

    Isolationism isn't really the answer. It's a withdrawal and a defensive mechanism, and ultimately it's counter-intuitive if what one is striving for is ethnic understanding and socio-cultural acceptance and tolerance.
    Much like any relationship, though, blending two together doesn't mean each loses their sense of self identity. They become something more than themselves, though, in addition to what they define themselves as individually.

  4. "I don't think that justifies, though, the sins of the father being visited onto the seventh generation."

    Except sadly for every rad non Native person there are ten jerks who are pushing Natives around and telling them to get over it, or who think of Natives as nothing but casino employees. It's tough because I am all jesus people let's get along, but then every day I run up against someone just being plain ass ignorant, and willfully so. So it's not really the sins of the father. The sins are continuing even though I like to think more and more of us are wanting to break away from that. That's part of what makes it so complicated. I hope more and more people are going to realize that even if they're not part of a struggle directly (say, Native rights) that discrimination is something we should all be allied against.

  5. "Much like any relationship, though, blending two together doesn't mean each loses their sense of self identity."

    Well said. I wish more people understood and really conceptualized this. Isolationism is a completely understandable defense mechanism, and unfortunately the reasons for it are barriers that are difficult to overcome on both sides. Racial minorities have a lot of inherited distrust of the majority, so much so that it's built into the culture.

  6. Thanks for inviting me to read! I'm a 3rd gen. "haole" in Hi. I grew up on Kauai, getting called racial names every day and having the dubious privilege of being a white minority. It continues to irritate me to be judged as FOP (fresh off the plane) because of my coloring. I wrote a blog on this myself! I work in a school with the Hawaiian immersion program, & these folks would be Very offended to hear their culture called "dying"- in fact in my estimation the culture is alive and vibrant and actually very generous... Once you prove yourself sincere and humble in your respect and desire to participate. I've danced hula, participated in kava, had the honor of ho'opopnonpono (making things right) the Hawaiian way of reconciliation. BUT I had to build relationships, prove my willingness to be subservient and teachable. As a therapist at the school it took 3 years before the Immersion teachers began consulting me and referring students to me. Trust is critical in minority groups and having blood isn't enough to get it immediately- you could be a "coconut"- brown on outside, white inside. So sincerity and relationship building can't be shortcutted. Don't give up, the Hawaiian culture is one of the most beautiful native cultures in our country. Join a halau. You will find a much different reception when they get to know you!
    Aloha, Toby

  7. Thanks for the comment and the clarification, Toby. I appreciate your insight and knew I needed it, since you have been immersed in the culture and I haven't.

    There are always people "inside" and "outside" of a culture willing to judge and exclude somebody on any arbitrary basis. I distinctly remember that my mom was referred to as The White Girl when I grew up, partly in the spirit of racial humor (which my family is a big fan of) and partly because she was very much a racial and cultural outsider in the family.

    I've never had much of a chance to participate the culture and I suppose I've hesitated to do so because of the isolationist philosophy I've perceived. This is the conundrum, I suppose, of an outsider trying to participate in any group. The group members are quite understandably wary, and this can drive away people who might otherwise be genuinely interested. My personal confusion is my family's identification with Hawaiian culture when none of the second generation (mine) had actually interacted with it.

    Thanks for your enlightening words. Apparently there are a fair number of Hawaiians in Washington, so I'll see if I can find a halau. :)

  8. Being teachable is so important. I think you hit on something great there, Toby. Be out there in the world. Be a learner and a seeker.