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My Journey to Equity Work: Understanding Whiteness in the Context of Hawaii

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

There are many moments that led me to the path I am on today. In these "Journey" posts, I aim to explore the different elements that influenced my own understanding of identity, diversity, and equity, and articulate why I infuse it so deeply into the work that I do today in organizational culture.

Read more articles on our publication Transformative Readership


I was born and raised on the island of Oahu, a white child born from two New England-raised parents who had moved to Hawaii a decade before I was born. Growing up as a minority, I became aware of race and difference fairly early on.

The expression of Hawaii being a "melting pot" is not entirely accurate, but I will say that I was exposed to and encouraged to participate in many different cultural practices. I danced in a hula halau, I became addicted to Japanese soap operas, I celebrated Chinese new years, and developed a lasting love for spam. That is a big part of what it's like to be from Hawaii.

Tourism has promoted the cultural concept of "aloha spirit," so much that it has co-opted it, creating a veneer of welcome and the illusion that all communities get along in perfect harmony. This masks the complicated challenges Hawaii faces. But living in the islands you are able to see how both racial tensions and the spirit of aloha are true.

It was my education that taught me the parallel narrative to the stereotype of "aloha spirit."

At the time I was in public school we were required to take 7 years of Hawaiian history, language, and culture from K-6 and an additional Japanese language class was required grades 4-6. Our science classes focused on learning about the evolution and eco-systems of the islands, and the challenges they faced from development and climate change. As students, we were incubators for the political discourse in Hawaii today.

I highlight my schooling because at the same time that I was brought into cultural practices and traditions I was also made very aware, from a young age, of the systemic oppression of Hawaii and it's indigenous population. I learned about the continued unlawful occupation (you really can't call it anything else) by missionaries, plantation owners, and the US government, culminating with the seizure of this land as a US territory and eventual state. And I internalized, on a deep fundamental level, that I was a product of this colonization.

Despite the fact that Hawaii has the highest racial minority population of any state in the union and the largest percentage of multiracial individuals, there is a clear socio-economic stratification that is a legacy of this historical occupation. Native Hawaiians disproportionately struggle with long term effects of systemic oppression in access to services, education, and social determinants of health.

The truth is race is still an issue in Hawaii despite its diversity, and these complexities around race are often categorized as an example of anti-white racism (or reverse-racism). I do not agree with this statement, as I will articulate below. I will say that the context of Hawaii is a unique space to study, and that whiteness holds a different space than it does in areas where whites are the majority as well as the dominant culture. It has profoundly shaped my own understanding of race and identity, and impacted the way that I work today.