What I learned from a year in Hawaii


Halawa, Molokai
Halawa, Molokai

The most important lesson I’ve learned during my years traveling is to be adaptable. It’s important to learn about new cultures and to respect local customs even if they are different from your own. This may mean a temporary restriction of certain freedoms enjoyed back “home” , but in the long run the education is worth the sacrifice. For me this has always meant dressing modestly where society dictates or refraining from consuming alcohol in public. Each culture has amazing jewels we can glean. The result is that for the most part I have been able to adjust to a wide variety of environments.

There have been numerous new stories in recent months covering racism and the unfair treatment of people of color on the mainland. Unless we learn to start accepting new cultures and learn to tolerate difference these problems will continue to persist. This semester one of my term papers was on white privelage. This is what I learned from a year spent in Hawaii.

Art in the park, Kihei

Racism: It’s the tingle on the back of your neck

On September 6, 2015, Fay Wells a small black woman called a locksmith to help her into her Santa Monica apartment after she had forgotten her keys. Living in a predominately Caucasian area her white neighbor assuming she was breaking into the place called the police. According to Wells, 19 officers responded. Guns drawn and in the company of guard dogs the officers, who failed to identify themselves, illegally searched her apartment, refused to answer her questions, or accept proof of residence. After the house was “cleared” Wells requested the names and badge numbers of the officers involved many of whom boldly turned around ignoring her requests. When she tried to discuss the gravity of the situation with her neighbor he swore at her and walked away.

The recent interactions between the police and people of color led Wells to believe her life was in jeopardy. One wrong move and she could have been shot. The trauma has caused Wells lingering sleeplessness, and paranoia. Her house no longer feels safe. She feels she can no longer approach the police for help if she needs it. Wells states that she is heartbroken “that a careless assessment of me, based on skin color, could endanger my life” (Wells, The Washington Post)

“White privilege” a common term used in academic circles, the average American person may have never heard the two words strung together, let alone understand their significance. According to Peggy Mcintosh, the author of White Privilege: The Invisible Knapsack privilege can be compared to an “invisible knapsack” filled with special provisions and blank checks. While most people link racism with oppression, few willingly acknowledge the advantages of white privilege.

Whites are taught to think they are average, and ideal. They are indoctrinated that being equal is to allow others to be more like themselves. Many people deny that this conditioned oblivion creates an air of unconscious oppressiveness to people of other races (Mcintosh).

Ariel view of West Maui
Ariel view of West Maui

What is white privilege? It’s being able to go into any store without being suspected of a crime or treated like a criminal. It’s being able to walk down the street without someone clutching their handbag tighter to their side. White privilege is the ability to get a job based on your qualifications without anyone implying that an affirmative action policy was involved in the decision (Mcintosh).

Most Americans are raised to think of people as individuals. Many whites claim to live in a colorblind society (Hammon). As a predominately white society we deny the problem exists. Before moving to Hawaii I thought some of my friends of color were overly sensitive to racial overtones. Racism in Hawaii is very real. Locals have faced years of oppression from wealthy landowners. A strong military presence floods the islands with unwanted brawlers and an exclusive tourist community with entitled guests has left many locals with negative feelings toward “mainlanders.” Haole originally a Hawaiian word for foreigner now almost exclusively applies to Caucasians. “Haole go home” is viewed by some as the white equivalent of the N* word.

Working as both a travel writer and special education teacher who is fluent in American Sign Language, I have traveled all over the world. I lived in Central America for over four years, two of which were teaching in a remote jungle village. Being the only white person in a community of color is nothing new for me. Sometimes the differences were completely forgotten. As a white person living in Hawaii I am never allowed to forget. I have never “felt” racism until I moved to Hawaii. Locals would refuse to rent to me saying “You just aren’t quite what we are looking for,” or “I’m not sure you are a good fit for the area,” all insinuated with racial undertones.

Forget about going to the store after a business meeting. If you are white and dressed up you will get what the locals call “stink eye”. Rude behaviors for no reason other than they think you are an entitled tourist. Even on your best behavior they will still treat you like dirt.

Island Art Party, Kihei
Island Art Party, Kihei

Once you have fought your way into island life it’s “easy” to make friends. There are areas for locals and areas for tourists. If you are fortunate enough to find someone who will rent to you in a local area it’s relatively safe once you’ve met the neighbors. My friends all warned me however, about going to local places by myself. They tell me someone local needs to go with me so I don’t have trouble. More than once in the short year I’ve lived here I’ve felt the tingles running down the back of my neck like warning bells.

It has opened my eyes to what my friends of color have to deal with on a daily basis. Maybe they are sensitive, but as my friend says the tingles on the back of your neck happen for a reason. Hate crimes, police shootings, and constant scrutiny– the pressure erodes one’s health leading to higher rates of heart disease and high blood pressure among people of color. I find myself being overly sensitive, analyzing every sentence. Why did they say that? What was meant by that comment?

According to U.S. census figures Hawaii has the highest racial minority population of any state with 75 of the population counted as non-white and only 25 percent of the population counted as white (Hawaii Is Diverse, But Far From A Racial Paradise). This unusual demographic means affirmative action policies and strong local solidarity ensure representation in all strata of government and education. This is a refreshing change for many people of color. Unable to catch a break some lower class, local born, whites can struggle in this environment. In spite of this complaint about “reverse racism” the wealthiest homes in the most exclusive areas are still predominantly white. In Hawaii there is a strong link between socioeconomic status and white privilege. The affirmative action policies implemented by the state have sadly proved to be just a life raft amongst the rapidly rising living costs.

Papohaku, Molokai
Papohaku, Molokai

One of the biggest changes I noticed about Hawaii was the lack of representation of whites in the media. Commercials and local stations almost exclusively model people of color primarily of Asian or Pacific Island descent. At first this struck me as a refreshing change to the mainland. However as time has passed it feels increasingly like a reminder that I don’t belong here and that I will forever remain a foreigner born thousands of miles away. Before moving to Hawaii I had barely noticed that the majority of American cinema casts Caucasians for roles despite the great diversity that lies within our country. Since 1939 only 12 persons of color have won Academy Awards (African American Oscar Winners & Nominees). This lack of representation negatively affects one’s self-esteem. It’s as if someone was saying “you don’t belong here” every time you turn on your television. I had never felt what it was like to see a complete lack of representation of your culture before moving to Hawaii. It’s like you don’t exist or at least that you don’t matter.

The general demographic of the United States can be broken down into whites making up 78.1 percent of the population, Hispanics comprise 16.7 percent, blacks make up 13.1 percent, Asian and Pacific Islanders complete the pie at 5.2 percent. Despite being 13 percent of the population or roughly 39 million people only 13 African Americans have ever been CEO of a fortune 500 company (MacKinnon p.306).

Traditional management degrees indoctrinate the importance of promoting self-interest over the thoughts of others. This effectively silences the voices of different races, gender, and classes (Simpson). The majority of the “power holders” in America are white males. Strong ties connect big business, government, and the media, to white privilege. The trickle-down effect from our current education system leads to a white culture and a predominantly white way of thinking. This creates an oppressed, underrepresented minority group who need help to change current conditions.

Papohaku, Molokai
Papohaku, Molokai

When affirmative action policies went into effect in the early 1960’s many whites began to play the victim. Claiming that whites have to pay more in order to get the same education that minorities receive as “special” treatment. This ignores the fact that many whites occupy a distinctly superior place in America (Hammon). White Americans enjoy greater earnings over the course of their lifetime and are given more chances to enroll in higher education. They have longer life expectancies with better access to health care when needed than many people of color do.

Being confronted with evidence of privilege is a negative experience for many, often evoking self-protective reactions (Phillips). Most white families fight to improve their life and hate to acknowledge they had a head start over people of color. Some whites even claim to have faced more discrimination than blacks (Phillips).

When confronted with privilege many whites are likely to claim personal hardship as a shield reluctant to admit to personal privilege. This way whites can perceive their personal lives as being more difficult than the lives of people of color. “However whites’ non racial hardships are irrelevant to racial privilege. White privilege shields it victims from the worst possible consequences. For instance joblessness is less likely to result in homelessness, crimes are less likely to result in jail time, and illness is less likely to result in death,” Phillips.

As a white American I often feel uncomfortable calling myself white. Just voicing the word feels like I’m exerting some sort of privilege. Growing up in the predominately caucasian Midwest I never thought of race until I moved away. It’s hard to understand white privilege when it’s all around you. We somehow think of ourselves as neutral but being white does not render us race less. We need to admit and embrace our own culture. People should be more comfortable identifying themselves with their culture. If we acknowledge our whiteness then suddenly we are part of the racist equation not separate from it.

We need to know what racism feels like so that we can identify with others. We need to talk about racism openly and without shame. We need to understand how people of color feel every day of their lives. This means that we need to diversify our news sources. We need to read and watch videos from different perspectives. Our children deserve to know about racial justice. We need to train our youth to explore different aspects of identity so they can grow up in a more racially tolerant world (Bruce). Only then may we be willing to give up a little bit of our privilege so they can feel as neutral and ideal as we already do.

Garden of the gods, Lanai
Garden of the gods, Lanai

Works Cited

“African American Oscar Winners & Nominees.” uticapubliclibrary.org. Trainor,
n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2015. <http://www.uticapubliclibrary.org/rescources/literature-and-film-guides/african-american-oscar-winners-and-nominees-acting/>.

Bruce, Allie Jane. “On being White”, Children & Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children, vol. 13, no. 3, pp.3-6

Hammon, Brett. “Playing the Race Card: White Americans’ Sense of Victimization In Response to Affirmative Action.” Texas Hispanic Journal Of Law & Policy 19. (2013):95. LexisNexis Academic: Law Reviews. Web. 5 Dec. 2015

“Hawaii Is Diverse, But Far From A Racial Paradise.” npr.org. NPR, 21 Nov. 2009.
Web. 7 Dec. 2015. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120431126>.

MacKinnon, Barbara, and Andrew Fiala. Ethics Theory and Contemporary Issues.
Stamford: Cengage Learning, 2015. Print.

Mcintosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: The Invisible Knapsack.” From Inquiry to Academic Writing. Boston: Bedford, 1990. Print.

Simpson, Ruth. “Masculinity And Management Education: Feminizing The MBA.” Academy Of Management Learning & Education 5.2 (2006): 182-193. Business Source Elite. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

Phillips,Taylor L., and Brian S. Lowery. “The Hard-Knock Life? Whites Claim Hardships In Response To Racial Inequality.” Journal Of Science Direct. Web. 5 Dec. 2015

Wells, Fay. “My white neighbor thought I was breaking into my own apartment. Nineteen cops showed up.” The Washington Post. Post Everything, 18 Nov. 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/11/18/my-white-neighbor-thought-i-was-breaking-into-my-own-apartment-nineteen-cops-showed-up/?postshare=9491447881213148&tid=ss_mail>.


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