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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.


What I experienced growing up was an odd mixture of privilege and discrimination. I was never quite sure where I stood. I was called names almost every day, from the common slur "haole"(white person) to more creative jokes about my pale skin (pretending to be blinded when I took off my shirt for swim class was a classic). I certainly didn't feel attractive; I mostly wore baggy clothes to cover myself and I didn't go on a single date until after I left Hawaii and went to college. I remember quite a few times being snubbed out of stores by clerks who would simply look in a different direction until I left. I ended up going to private school for middle and high school, in part because of sentiments like Kill Haole Day. Though not often, I did occasionally worry about physical harassment from being in certain parts of the island.

That's not to say I was without friends. My group of friends reflected a wide diversity, as is common in the islands. I wasn't isolated- there really is a welcoming blend of cultures that exist there. However, unlike much of the US that values individualism, I would say Hawaii is more of a collectivist culture. Blending in was key, and I struggled with that.

I learned to code-switch; I used pidgin to identify myself quickly as a local haole so that at least I wasn't a transplant like the military kids (who often fared much worse). I used my kama'aina discount whenever possible just to make sure it was clear that I was from the islands. I threw myself into Hawaiian sports (kayaking and outrigger paddling), and worked to build a persona that would blend best in the culture I was in.

Learn more about code-switching and the problems it can present

However, the ways in which I experienced privilege were also profound, though I didn't always recognize them at the time. The school structure, curriculum, and standardized testing were set by the continental U.S., so my parents' New England upbringing was most definitely an advantage. Being able to also code-switch to the US dominant culture gave me a lot more opportunities and made learning much easier in several aspects.

It's also important to note that while I had some discrimination for being a haole, it's not as though white people are the only ones who deal with some form of prejudice in the islands. Other races and ethnicities are still defined in Hawaii, though admittedly with more fluidity than I have found in other parts of the US and abroad (I think mostly due to the high numbers of multiracial Americans living there). The hierarchies between people of color are nuanced and filled with colorful and often derogatory stereotypes. If you are curious, this is well articulated by comedian Andy Bumatai.

Finally, my experience as a white minority was very different from how many people of color experience race on the "mainland" (continental U.S.). I was never in fear from police, never accused of stealing or assumed to be less intelligent or articulate. I still had that "benefit of the doubt" that comes with whiteness. I recall sneaking into Waikiki hotels on free periods to use their pools as if I was a guest. I don't remember considering much what might happen were I caught in this position, as I imagined it to be no more than light scolding.

This is the crux of why discrimination is not the same as racism. I still had systemic and cultural advantages that persisted despite negative attitudes or behaviors around my presence. Being unwanted is different from being seen as inferior, and the challenges with racism are rooted in systems of power based on that fundamental assumption.

In many ways it boils down to a word. Years later when I began to work with refugee and immigrant populations, it dawned on me with horror that I (and other white "settlers" throughout history) are seldom if ever categorized with the term "immigrant." That somehow everyone else was an immigrant but white people, we just moved there. We are "ex-pats" or "foreigners." These semantics subtly cement the insidious notion of manifest destiny, that white people are entitled to any space they decide to settle.

I share these personal anecdotes to reinforce how complicated race relations are in Hawaii and to reflect on how my own thought process evolved as I grew up. I love Hawaii, and I also choose to no longer live there. These contradictions exist simultaneously for me. Respect and admiration mixing with a critical lens.

I am honestly profoundly grateful for all of my experiences both good and bad, because they opened different levels of awareness for me. I developed a much greater depth of empathy and understanding for different cultures, and a greater humility and nuanced understanding of my own. In many ways, it's what propelled me to spend my life learning from and engaging with others from diverse backgrounds.

I bring these experiences to the trainings I conduct. If you want to learn more about Integrative Inquiry, read our brochure.


As a final disclaimer I will say this: growing up as a white minority does not make you somehow immune to the racism and systemic oppression that permeates US society as a whole. Learning is perpetual, and there are always new areas to learn and grow in. That applies to everyone. There is no such thing as "woke" period. end stop. We can all try to be better. My journey to equity work is about the continued process of discovery, humility, and commitment. It continues to this day.

More reading:

Judy Rohrer, The Contemporary Pacific Vol. 18, No. 1 (2006), pp. 1-31 (31 pages)

Institutional Racism: The Case of Hawaii Michael Haas, (1992) Praeger

On Being Hawaiian Enough: Contesting American Racialization with Native Hybridity Brandon C. Ledward, Hülili: Multidisciplinary Research on Hawaiian Well-Being Vol.4 No.1 (2007)

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