An Essay on Hawai`i's People


by Dr. Herb Barringer, PHD, University of Hawai`i at Manoa

Last Christmas, I was invited to the home of a Korean friend in Waipahu to spend the day and stuff myself, local style. My friend’s family, his wife’s family, friends and neighbors, some forty strong (plus children), packed the house, yard and carport. In one location, one could hear pidgin, standard English, Korean, Japanese, Tagalog and something else I couldn’t identify (it turned out later to be Thai). The food had begun as Korean, but with the contributions of guests, it was transposed to local potluck. This scene is not at all unusual in Hawai`i; in fact it is typical of local style, and is repeated over and over in home after home on any holiday or any other excuse for a gathering.

The characteristic of Hawai`i that makes this possible is the diversity of our population. We are varied ethnically, as everyone knows, but in addition, around 45 percent of our marriages are inter-ethnic, making for mixed ethnicity in children and in families. Added to that is the ethnic and class heterogeneity of many neighborhoods and friendship networks, which makes it very difficult for people to isolate or "ghettoize" themselves. It is possible to retreat to ethnic enclaves in Hawai`i, but most people must work very hard at it to succeed.

Caucasians (please don’t be offended by the use of haole-I’m not) and Japanese comprise the two largest ethnic groups in Hawai`i, followed by Native Hawaiians, Filipinos, Chinese, Koreans, Southeast Asians, African Americans, Samoans, Tongans, and on and on. Haoles, at 27 percent of the total, represent some important ethnic groups too, although Haole ethnic minorities may have some difficulty establishing their identities in Hawaii. Jews, Australians, New Yorkers, San Franciscans, Scotch and Italians all get lumped together in Hawaii, much the same as Asian Americans on the mainland. The only Caucasians to be singled out are Portuguese, and they aren’t Haoles. Still with me? We don't really know how many Native Hawaiians live here. Depending upon definition they could comprise as much as 18% or as little as 12% of the total population. It is significant that one third of all Native Hawaiians reside on the Mainland. We have no idea how many others have left Hawai`i.

The diversity of our people can be seen in the workplace, classroom, shopping malls, public parks, football games, and on the internet. The result of all this is a well-known tolerance, even Aloha, for other peoples. This should not be confused with the pseudo-aloha of the tourist industry, but rather genuine warmth, helpfulness and kindness in everyday relations. This attitude stems from the tolerance of strangers in the old Native Hawaiian culture, and from the camaraderie of fellow workers in the now-moribund plantation economy.

It makes ethnic harmony possible, and is altogether remarkable, given that so many of our people come from East Asian societies noted for their traditional chauvinism. Chinese, Japanese and Koreans get along quite well in Hawai`i, despite historical antagonisms. People from the Mainland may come to the Islands with racist predispositions, but most learn soon enough that to exist comfortably in Hawai`i, they must practice local tolerance. During the early years of this century, Filipino laborers from Ilocos Norte were targets of prejudice and discrimination, but now, second and third generation Filipinos are moving into the mainstream of Hawaiian life-we all know Benjamin Cayetano’s ethnicity well enough.

Historically, at least after the missionaries were converted to entrepreneurship, Hawai`i became extremely tolerant of religion. Even before that, the tolerance of Native Hawaiians permitted the rapid expansion of Christianity. It goes without saying that Buddhists, Mormons, Catholics, Protestants, Jews Muslims and Baha’i rub elbows in all walks of life every day. It is significant that survey researchers seldom bother to ask about religion in Hawai`i; almost no one cares. If I may make an irreverent observation: it is fascinating that the local foes of same-sex marriage felt it necessary to recruit national pressure groups to lobby for a constitutional convention. Could it be that they distrusted local tolerance?

One reason Hawai`i works is that no one ethnic group on the Islands is large enough to have absolute power, either culturally, politically or economically. It is true enough that traditionally, haoles dominated the economy and polity of Hawaii, but today we can make a good case that the political arena is truly multi-ethnic.

Because of selectivity in recruiting people from the mainland, Hawaiian haoles have somewhat higher educations and incomes than others, but the differences from people of East-Asian backgrounds are not very great, and may very well decrease with time. Filipinos are thought by some observers to be underprivileged, but this is largely because of the large numbers of current immigrants from Ilocos Norte, mostly relatives of those already here.

So, is this an ethnic paradise? The answer is "no," of course-we do have problems, some of them serious. First, although most of the many immigrants to Hawai`i have "made it" to some degree, Native Hawaiians have been brushed aside-they have the lowest incomes and educations of any of our major ethnic groups. Furthermore, they have the worst health of any ethnic group in the United States. This is particularly shameful in Hawai`i, which is, after all, their native aina. The Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement appears to be gaining momentum, and may be able to rectify at least part of the problem. It is not clear now how much support Native Hawaiians will receive from other residents of Hawai`i, but their movement has been very non-threatening and peaceful. The success or failure of this movement, however, may be decided outside of Hawai`i.

Second, there are still varying degrees of resentment about haole dominance. Much of this stems from the past, but many haoles are not sensitive to the problem, and sometimes act in ways that reinforce local stereotypes. It is widely believed that businesses give preference to haoles in higher managerial positions. There may be some foundation to this belief because many businesses are controlled from Mainland America or from international conglomerates who care little for local conditions. Since 1960, haoles have migrated to Hawai`i in large numbers, exacerbating ethnic tensions. This is paralled by a noticeable out-migration of local people seeking employment on the Mainland. There is no doubt that the "local-haole" ethnic dimension sometimes leads to unpleasant social relations. But the results can’t be too serious: Haoles keep coming to Hawai`i in large numbers, and many find a comfortable niche in local society, though there is always the question of whether or not haoles can also be "local". We should always remember that Hawai`i is one of the few places in the United States where Caucasians are not absolutely dominant.

Other ethnic antagonisms exist in Hawai`i, of course. New Filipino immigrants, Samoans, "Portagees," Koreans and Southeast Asians all come in for stereotyping and sometimes, outright discrimination. Second and third generations of Chinese, Koreans and Filipinos avoid FOBs (I understand this perfectly-I won’t carry a camera in the open for fear of being mistaken for a tourist). African Americans generally do not feel welcome, but that may be, in part due to large numbers of Black servicemen on the Islands. Still, until recently, the overriding tolerance and good nature of Hawaii’s people has led to a kind of gentle ethnic humor, which struck most of us as harmless fun. There is, however, a growing "mainlandization" concerning this and other manifestations of racism, which may very well signal a coming change. I, for one, am sorry to see the silencing of local comedian, Frank Delima, but perhaps the cause is not only political correctness, but also a signal of dangers ahead.

There is a real and present threat to local style, one that has been around awhile, but is accelerating rapidly; the growing influence of globalization, manifested in both the economy and in culture. Hawai`i has been dependent upon the United States for some time, but now American influence is being supplanted by the international system, which is even less sensitive to Hawaii’s uniqueness than American interests have been in the past. Nieman-Marcus, Computer City, Daiei, you-name--it, are all crowding local businesses. The faceless McDonald’s is not new on the Islands, and has so far been counterbalanced by Zippy’s. But how long can local style hold out against the onslaught of the new international order? Liberty House is on a slippery slope to extinction, like Arakawa’s before it. When Japanese and American or international firms hire employees in their home countries, or train them in the new international style, what is to become of "local?" I have no clear answers, but it is something we had all better think about very seriously. Want kimch’i with your burger deluxe? Forget Burger King!

Many of us wonder what the new millennium will bring to Hawai`i. I, for one, am not optimistic about the future for several reasons: First, globalization will almost certainly continue to accelerate, making Hawai`i even more dependent upon the international economic system. This means even less local control over our future. Hawaii is a convenient economic commodity in the world marketplace, often exploited without regard to consquences for us. Waikiki has been a disgraceful eyesore since I first moved here in 1967, and there seems to be nothing standing in the way of even more concrete and tacky tourist litter.

Second, we have been unable to find a local substitute for tourism as an economic base. The tourist industry is unhealthy for a number of reasons, but very low service wages and zero local investment returns from profits are enough to give pause. Despite political rhetoric, very little has been done to establish an electronics, software, or network-based technological industry. Ocean mining or aquaculture are also opportunities here, but I see no major effort to establish an infrastructure for any of these alternatives. The conditions of Hawaii's highways are ridiculous. Electricity fails with kona winds, with trade winds, from no winds, even perhaps from angry menehunes. The islands are festooned with ugly power lines, like toilet paper after a fraternity party, and HECO whines that neighborhoods refuse to accept more. Pollution looms as a real threat now, and may become critical if present trends continue. Yet unplanned economic growth is encouraged as if there were no twenty-first Century reckoning.

Third, and related to the economy, our population is growing at an alarming rate. There is very little we can do about population politically, but some trends are unhealthy. Local youth continue to move to the mainland, and are more than replaced by haoles from the mainland. The replacements are often either well-to-do retirees or upper-middle-class workers. The local folks left behind are likely dependent upon low-wage service jobs, or as in the case of Waianae, no jobs at all. The potential here for greater inequality and conflict is frightening. It is possible that local values could ameliorate the conflict, but local values themselves are under attack by both the size and suburbanization of our communities. ("Aloha" is not very evident on the freeways of Oahu at 5:00 on a hot September afternoon). New cultural input from such megacities as New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Bangkok clash with local values. Large portions of Maui, for example are indistinguishable from California, replete with yuppies.

 ll this suggests that we have much work to do if we are to save the charm of Hawai`i as we now know it. We must, of course, "live Aloha," but good intentions will not do the job. We must establish a firm economic base for all our people, with decent jobs and a secure future. That can only come by diminishing our dependence upon tourism, and creating new, environmentally friendly industries; high tech, aquaculture, sea mining, diversified agriculture and whatever else the new millennium may suggest. To whatever extent possible, capital for these enterprises should be Hawai`i-based. The change need not be abrupt, but it must come, better sooner than later. Aloha!

 Herb Barringer is Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He is a native of Montana, went to college in San Diego, and has lived permanently in Hawaii since 1967. He received his Ph.D. at Northwestern University, and has spent much of the past forty years in Korea, doing migration research. Recently he has been studying Asian Americans and Native Hawaiians. He teaches courses in research methods, race relations and social deviance. He still can't speak pidgin properly.


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