Aloha Obama, First Hawaiian President!

November 10, 2008
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Nearly a week has passed since the election, and already it has become difficult to imagine the outcome being anything but Obama. It seems that the world has already embraced our future and we’ve accepted the new wind that has blown through Hawaii, our nation, the world.

But really what direction is the wind blowing? Is it a NE tradewind or a Kona wind, or maybe it’s the breeze created by a passing truck? Wrapping my head around this election, absorbing the blogs and chats, real winds of change seem to be blowing from every direction– not simply the winds of hot air punditry– but a seismic shift where all the winds are struggling for momentum and we are left grappling to struggle for the historically definitive Obama narrative.

Some have suggested that Obama’s electoral mandate occured because of specific “mistakes” in the McCain/Palin campaign. If McCain had won, would they still be mistakes? There were no mistakes, these were simply the strategies and personalities of a presidential nominee and his running mate.

Many have invoked the deus ex machina of a collapsing economy, the seemingly sudden and logical outcome of the blind inheritance and continuation of Reaganomics and the nearly eight years of neo-con foreign policy and general corruption from nepotism and ineptitude.

Others have suggested that it was his use of internet fund-raising, opting out of the taxpayer based public financing and spending limits which allowed him to outspend McCain in advertising. While partially true, I doubt that the excess in his campaign finance was the over-determining factor of his victory

Perhaps the most profound narrative being drawn is that the mainstream press has once again reared its obsession with race, and now focuses the outcome of this election on the African-American experience. The mainstream press sees Obama as having galvanized one of the dark chapters of American or colonialist history and championing it to fruition. Yes, an African-American has become president.

Not to take anything away from the real advancement of race relations in the United States, but as most of us in Hawaii are aware of, Obama is not simply African-American– or half-popolo, in the local vernacular– he is also Hawaiian, a child of Hawaii, albeit an exceptional one.

The view from the contiguous 48 states has been that Hawaii is the melting pot, a shining example of how different races can coexist in (re)productive harmony, a land of beautiful hapa offspring, where the mixing of race, food, language and culture has created a shangri-la of Aloha that will serve all who choose to vacation or fancy overpriced beachfront retirement homes.

It may be a surprise for those who’ve not spent much time here, but Hawaii is particularly, yet inoffensively race-conscious. It is not colorblind. We are all identified by our race first, then our gender– the Japanese guy, the Hawaiian girl, the Chinese/Filipino man, the Haole house down the street, the Portuguese/haole waitress, even our popolo president. I would argue that Hawaii is not racist or discriminatory in quite the same way as those who appear to make-up the most vocal of Sarah Palin’s political base. In other words, haoles are not the majority in Hawaii.

Traditionally, to be white in Hawaii is to be haole, and that makes some uncomfortable, so some haoles choose to live where other haoles live– in haole enclaves, which usually includes a lot of well-to-do asians. Whereas most local haoles and hapa-haoles in Hawaii live where everyone else lives– in relatively affordable places– that is to say, with their parents.

In fact for many, even the most progressive, Hawaii can be challenging to navigate through socially because white-entitlement– or the other side of that coin, white-guilt– doesn’t operate the same way here as it does in other parts of the United States. They may be quite surprised at the ease with which our local islanders use racial slang to identify each other. Coming from the contiguous 48, where one is constantly discouraged from such racial labelling, our island style can be either refreshing or alarming.

Don’t get me wrong. Hawaii is not free from hate crimes that have tainted the darkest parts of America’s civil rights history. There have been occasional lynchings. Albeit none were directed toward those of African descent. In 1889, Katsu Goto, a Japanese immigrant was lynched by a white mob, and then there was the more famous 1931 Thalia Massie rape case in which Joseph Kahahawai was lynched by an angry white mob because she had falsely accused him.

Growing up Hawaii, growing up in the majority of minorities, doesn’t prepare you for the myriad of ways that racism discriminates in the rest of the United States. An important factor is that Hawaii generally instills a healthy racial or ethnic confidence that allows you to move over and beyond the kind of cultural stereotypes still engrained in the landscape of traditional America. Sadly, there is an ongoing movement here led by a lobby of white constitutionalists and backed by the Heritage Foundation that is fervent in doing away with Native Hawaiian entitlements. This will be playing out in the Supreme Court this session and more information can be found here, but again if you are a minority, especially growing up around the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, the issues of race are not an over-determined consideration.

One way to read the history of Hawaii, which is arguably and singularly unique, is that Hawaii has three conflicting narratives: there is the host or Kanaka Maoli narrative; the narrative of the missionary or colonizer, haoles or euro-americans; and the narrative of the settlers– mostly immigrant groups who have come here either as 19th or early-20th century plantation workers, or for in some cases, political asylum. And then of course there is the ever-present military, who would generally, but not always be considered transient. Although the military, like tourists, are not counted as residents, they sure consume more than their fair share of our precious land and water resouces.

For myself, having a somewhat typical local boy upbringing, my maternal grandfather was white, as was my step-mom who raised me. My grandfather was from the Ohio River Valley, and proudly traces his Scot geneology directly to both Martha Wright (Washington’s wife) as well as the first Anglical bishop in what was then called the “American colonies”. My step-mother, who primarily raised me along with my grandmothers, was born and raised on a small tobacco farm in rural North Carolina, a place I’d often visit and curiously be written about in the local newpaper. My maternal grandmother, the one who shares in the legacy of 1617 S. Beretania was born on a plantation in Honoka’a, but who’s parents migrated from Okinawa. My paternal grandmother was born on a plantation in Ahualoa, parents from Japan. My paternal grandfather, the one who’s name I share, was born in a prefecture outside Hiroshima. His lineage and name traces to Kukai (Kobo-Daishi), a revered monk who started the Shingon sect of Buddhism in Japan in the 8th century.

This is not too unusual a story in Hawaii.

Obama’s story is familiar: his mother an anthropologist with roots from Kansas; his grandfather, like my grandfather settling in Hawaii after the war; his father returning to Kenya when Obama was two, to help govern a country that had just received its independence. Obama’s strength of character defines him– and I certainly wouldn’t say that his character strengths are defining characteristics of Hawaii, these were traits clearly developed in other cities, in other circumstances.

What was foundered here was less the narrative of the African-American experience and more the vicissitudes of 80 years of ethnic determinism. Defining the 1970s-era Hawaii were conflicting struggles between the guilt of white missionary descendents (which Punahou school is the symbolic center), native Hawaiian struggle for its rights and cultural restoration, and a vibrant and racially conscious competition for meritocracy between the various ethnic groups that paid their dues in the plantations of Hawaii. This ethnic and cultural diversity is defined by its growing pains of assimilation, and in some cases dissimilation.

I couldn’t declaratively say, but I’d suggest that Obama became African-American in the locales of higher-education, in the cities he lived and worked and fell in love. Beyond that, his story is a Hawaiian story, an American story that developed in the most culturally diverse of American cities: Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. The narrative that should be written should not exclude the cultural history of his birthplace and youth, and consider that inclusive to all interpretations, he was simply the best candidate for America at this time.

One other point I’d like to add in response to Obama’s first press conference, was when he said that he’ll, “probably get a mutt like myself.” A mutt? Uh, Obama- it’s called poi dog.

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