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Book Review: Haoles in Hawaii

Haoles in HI cover

If you’re interested in Hawai’i or just interested in critical race studies, you ought not miss Haoles in Hawai’i. I found it to be a fast, accessible read, mercifully short and to the point, unapologetic without being polemical and one-sided, and highly educational.

Literally translated “haoles” are foreigners, but in contemporary Hawai’i, “haoles” include all white people, including those born in the islands. Living as they do in a state of racial limbo, at once the power elite by race in the U.S. (and Hawai’i is most definitely even if reluctantly part of the U.S.) and as both a racial minority group and perpetual foreigners to the islands, white people in Hawai’i have developed a mutant white racial identity from which there is much to learn about race, white privilege, and cultural hegemony in America.

Unlike whites in the continental U.S., haoles in Hawai’i are made acutely aware of their racial and cultural identity, and are often made vulnerable because of it, experiencing bullying in public schools, and disdainful looks and even active hostility in many neighborhoods. Even as parts of the islands have developed into whiteopias where white people’s racial identities can go relatively unchallenged, most white people in Hawai’i must grapple with life in a place where whiteness is not centered and by no means the normative standard.

The unique character of this experience is, in my broad reading of literature about Hawai’i, nowhere better captured, distilled and presented than here in this book by Haole University of Hawai’i professor Judy Rohrer. If you’re interested in white identity politics, I think you’ll find this book useful. It speaks directly to some of the challenges that may lie ahead as the browning of U.S. racial demographics causes white anxiety to rise, and the culture to shift in a more and more “Hawaiian” direction.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

3 replies on “Book Review: Haoles in Hawaii”

This topic is fascinating to hear about. I have not read the book, and this is just the second time I’ve heard about this issue. I am a mainlander who has never been to Hawaii. I wonder how prejudice towards haoles in Hawaii compares to prejudice against African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and other non-white groups in the mainland. Is it as bad, maybe worse? or not?

I actually think that the bias among many though not all non-whites in Hawai’i towards whites is very different than the kind of racial prejudice experienced by people of color at the hands of the white majority on the U.S. mainland. The question of whether it is better or “worse” is really not relevant because the attitudes are rooted in very different histories and political and economic realities.

The reality is that whites are what some have termed a “market dominant” racial minority in Hawai’i. They control the Hawai’i economy and own the vast majority of privately held land, dwarfing the real estate and business holdings of foreign investors like the Dutch, Germans, and Japanese.

Hawai’i was also originally a colony of the U.S., illegally annexed by force by a minority of white planters and U.S. business investors who then installed a white Republican oligarchy that completely controlled Hawai’i politics for generations by barring access to the franchise for Hawai’i’s Asian and Pacific Islander majority and controlling the courts and criminal justice systems in much the way whites did in the U.S. South before the fall of Jim Crow. I believe this is what we call apartheid.

White Americans imposed a foreign religion on Hawaiians, a foreign government, a foreign culture, and foreign diseases that caused what Hawaiians recall as the period of the great dying, when Hawaiians went from a thriving population of nearly a million by some estimates, to less than 50,000 people in a generation or two. Hawaiians suffered the humiliation of being labeled lazy, criminal, and intellectually inferior to whites, and still are grossly over-represented among the prison population of Hawai’i, as well as among the poor and homeless, all within an economy that, as I noted earlier, is controlled ultimately by white people.

Among the few avenues for employment is in tourism, much of which relegates Native Hawaiians to the status of “entertainment,” forced to present caricatures of Hawaiian culture for the consumption of whites, mainly for minimum wages while white owned tourist developments make a fortune.

The long and short of it is this – white prejudice toward people of color on the mainland is rooted in a belief in white racial and cultural superiority and an ignorance of cultural and ethnic differences that are products of an educational system and media environment that ignores or distorts the images of people of color because it treats whiteness as the normative and superior standard. In Hawai’i, on the other hand, that same normative standard of white superiority still functions at a subtle level (folk speak English with an American accent to be successful, and having lighter skin is an advantage, for instance). So what whites face is resentment rooted in historical and contemporary realities that have produced tensions that newly arrived whites, accustomed to being the normative standard, react to badly in too many cases. They don’t know how to behave like a minority in a ethnically pluralistic society. This same tension is at the root of much of the anti-immigrant sentiment on our southern U.S. border.

Thank you for your explanation. This is fascinating. I have wondered about how race relations play out when a group that has more power and status, which sounds like might be true of white people in Hawaii, are in a minority instead of a majority. Please feel free to correct me if it is not accurate to apply that description to Hawaii. I’m sure there is a lot more to it than that and I am not trying to reduce the experience of Hawaiians to a simple formula, but I am merely curious about if and how the relative proportions of people might change things, even though I’m sure many other factors affect race relations. I’m sure it is also going to be different for each place, and I like what you said about examining the histories and political and economic realities.

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