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  • Writer's pictureKate Viernes

Reflections as a POC Therapist on Race & Racism in Hawaii

Updated: Jul 14, 2019

There’s a New York Times article circulating the internet right now entitled, “Want to Be Less Racist? Move to Hawaii.” A lot of people have a lot of opinions about it. I thought I’d reflect on mine.

To make a long story short, the article highlights the strengths of Hawaii’s history of becoming the benevolent home to various cultures and its prominent multiracial population (nearly one-in-four people in Hawaii identify as more than one race, far larger a percentage than elsewhere in the U.S.) to make the argument that people can become “less racist”—i.e., unlearn fixed and essentialist ideas about race—by spending significant time there.

The NYT article has quickly become the most-shared piece I’ve seen about Hawaii for a while, which matters to me. I was born in Hawaii, and I lived there until I moved to California for college.

To many, the article reaffirms what people think they know about the islands.

To me, when I read the article’s title, and immediately went, “huh?”

The Hawaii I know and love for all its good weather, good food, good music, and good people, is not without racism. Not by a long shot.

As a 2.5-generation Filipina American who grew up in Hawaii, I have spent a significant amount of time thinking about how race and racism operate there. In fact, my own encounters with racism in Hawaii led me to spend three years in graduate school studying the concepts and language I needed to be able to fully describe it. I went on to research the subtle yet poignant instances of interpersonal racism, known as racial microaggressions, that Filipinx American students experience in Hawaii’s K-12 schools.

Needless to say, I was pretty confused about what this article was really trying to say.

I did try to keep an open mind while reading it fully. For instance, I was intrigued in the cognitive implications drawn by Dr. Kristin Pauker, a social-psychologist referenced several times throughout the article. Dr. Pauker has argued that the very existence of a large multiracial population in Hawaii socializes its residents to be more fluid in how they understand race, less rigid and more flexible in their thinking in general, and thus less likely to hold racist ideas than people living in other parts of the country.

Given this, it’s a practical jump for the author to suggest that moving to Hawaii should generally make someone less racist. And it’s not a bad thing to want to end racism. Right?

Except, the article’s suggestion on how to end racism really does nothing to end it at all, as marginalized groups in Hawaii continue to face various forms of racism no matter the article’s claims. Native Hawaiians are still being colonized on the land that used to be theirs, where they are incarcerated more than any other ethnic group and are losing more of their sacred land every day—such as to the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere that will be built on Hawaii Island’s Mauna Kea summit. Micronesians, the most newcomer immigrant group, are still struggling socioeconomically, educationally, and as targets of various racist efforts. Filipinos, who have been in Hawaii for generations, are still putting up with racial microaggressions.

These are the racist experiences in Hawaii that the NYT article unfortunately chooses to leave out. To me, the omission just feels… wrong.

To my relief, I was soon linked to the work of Dr. Akiemi Glenn, who is interviewed in the NYT piece but only mentioned briefly (her total views do not seem to serve its overarching hypothesis). Dr. Glenn and others in Hawaii have been critical of the claims made by Dr. Pauker and the NYT article’s author. Dr. Glenn reminds us that because we live in a white-dominated society, and because Hawaii of all places knows what it’s like to be subjugated to white colonialism and militarization (and the colonialism of Asian-ethnic settlers), racism definitely exists in Hawaii in spite of its diverse population.

Furthermore, Dr. Glenn asks what should be obvious questions: why are we using race in Hawaii to focus on helping outsiders become less racist? Shouldn’t we instead be asking those most impacted by racism in Hawaii to describe their experiences and what racial justice in their home state would look like for them?

. . . .

While I can speak at great length about racism in Hawaii from an intellectual perspective, emotionally, it remains a difficult subject for me. Only when I have opportunities to access and explore these feelings, to be seen and understood as an individual whose life has been impacted by an all-encompassing system of oppression, am I able to heal. I believe that such opportunities for healing at the individual level are a part of reaching racial justice on a larger scale. They are the type of space and process I hope to create for those I am able to reach in my work.


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