Aloha Denied

It's the young man’s refusal to give the expected aloha, to willfully disregard the speech of John Doe, which requires real power.

In a video that has gone viral on You Tube, Reddit, and via social media and local news, a young Hawaiian man confronts “John Doe,” his wife and visiting friends at Maui’s Kalama Beach Park. John and Jane Doe have lived on Maui for the last year and according to their account, they have, “never had any problems with locals and have always been treated with aloha.”

What does it mean when tourists and settlers to Hawai’i speak confidently to the media about the aloha to which they have been treated or denied? As recent arrivals, how do they know what aloha is? I would like to suggest that it is this conditioned expectation to a generous helping of aloha, as well as John Doe’s confidence in the perspicacity of his opinion as a white male—in this case on the ethical treatment of dogs—that precipitated the confrontation. 

In response to the emotionally-charged video people rushed forward to affirm that this young man’s behavior was not, “Hawaiian;” that he did not represent “the race.” Concerned that negative media portrayals of Hawaiians reflected badly on Hawai’i, others urged their fellow Hawaiians to be on their best behavior, “lest others dismiss us,” or “think we are stupid.” Among a string of charges, the young man may face the charge of having committed a “hate crime.” But what in the young man’s speech makes what he said a hate crime or a racist rant?

If racism is generated towards those who have little or no power by those who wield much, can the words spoken by a young homeless Hawaiian man constitute a “hate crime” because Hawaiians are obligated to give aloha, the gift that keeps on giving? Can John Doe and his family be the objects of racism because in Hawai’i white people see themselves as an all-too visible minority? Can a tirade uttered in Hawai’i be considered a hate crime similar to the recent case in Florida, where a white man killed a black teenager because the white man claimed that he felt threatened by loud music and a gun that he thought he saw? The two cases do have one thing in common—the assumption by both white males that their speech and lives matter, while the lives and speech of people of color do not.

Why it is that Hawaiians continue to focus on how this young man’s behavior is not Hawaiian? Rather than be guided by our sense of self as model minorities who act pono and give aloha, we should ask how these expectations serve to mobilize particular types or subjectivities that keep us oppressed. 

From Captain Cook and Mark Twain to James Michener and “John Doe,” Hawaii is an idea of paradise more than it is a place.

The romanticism of a colonized island-paradise with its eternal promise of aloha alongside expressions of revulsion toward Native people who refuse to give aloha informs John Doe’s video. For hundreds of years, tourists travelled, and settlers moved to our islands because they wanted to live in “paradise.” From Captain Cook and Mark Twain to James Michener and “John Doe,” Hawaii is an idea of paradise more than it is a place. But if Europeans dreamed of paradise populated by aloha-giving innocents, they also feared the savage who lurked on its fringes. Such a fantasy may work well for “John Doe,” but what does it do for those of us who pay the cost of producing all that aloha?

I wonder if anyone really listened to the young man? Was his speech conditioned by the expectation that the words of white men, though not Native men, should always be heard? Did his words mean anything, or were viewers repelled by the anger that gave the young man’s words their dissonance and weight?

Listen closely. With a denunciation of the picnickers with, “mind your own business,” you might also hear the ghost of the Hawaiian phrase, “don’t be maha‘oi,” which means, “don’t stick your forehead (nose) where it doesn’t belong.” Implied then, is his refusal, “I do not have to listen to you.” 

As Hawaiians, we should ask ourselves what image of self the young man produced in his tirade. What does it mean when a homeless Hawaiian man roars, “you stole our land,” but on his lips it becomes not a rallying cry of the modern-Hawaiian movement for self-government, but a racist rant?  A common response in social media by white people is that Hawaiians need to learn to leave the past behind; to learn to love ourselves. I am trying to think of a moment when I’ve ever felt privileged enough to say to a white person who committed an offense, “Love thyself, white person. Despite the violence perpetrated by your ancestors, uplift your race and forget.” If this statement seem odd to you, then why should Hawaiians consider it reasonable when directed toward us?

There are many of us who wish to forget the past or do not wish to dredge it up. Others understand, as William Faulkner did that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As a novelist of the American South, Faulkner peppered his novels with racist language, but not because Faulkner was a racist. Faulkner used the racist language of Southern whites in order to enable his readers to understand how whites thought and spoke about blacks. Racism not only structured the American South, and by extension, the U.S., it continues to inform the present. Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis were not lynched in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. They were killed in the twenty-first century because the past of American racism is still with us; it certainly isn’t dead.

All the sympathy in the world will not lighten the burden of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s overthrow when it is solely borne by its victims.

There are those who, though not native to Hawai’i, will get misty-eyed when thinking about the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. They may feel sympathy when thinking about countless American Indian removals and the innumerable homelands that were stolen throughout the Americas. But when the long-term legacies of dispossession become glaringly evident in the forms of mental illness, substance abuse, unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, higher mortality rates, and homelessness, those once sympathetic now choose to avert their eyes. They disassociate themselves from a shared history of colonization with, “not in my backyard” and “these people are punks— drunken, brawling homeless drug addicts who refuse to improve themselves.” All the sympathy in the world will not lighten the burden of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s overthrow when it is solely borne by its victims. Sympathizers may liberally shed tears, but this will not provide the necessary infrastructure to redress past wrongs. Rather, descendants of victims are expected to assume responsibility for the consequences of their own dispossession.

The imprecision of the media calling this a racist, not a politically-motivated rant then, obscures a terrible irony. In the days following the altercation, the media has consistently missed the young man’s point—the denial of Hawaiian sovereignty; our claim to “home.” In expressing anger rooted in knowledge of history, and the economic and political consequences of that history, the young man did no harm. He did not blow up a federal building. Nor did he fire a semi-automatic at children, movie goers, fellow classmates, or the picnickers at Kalama Beach Park.

Instead, ridiculing John Doe’s politically-correct finger-wagging, the young man, homeless in his homeland, literally stood his ground. Not with lethal force. Not with an assault rifle. Not with his fists. He did so with words, demanding that John and Jane Doe be aware of their own dislocating presence, and the part that they play in a much larger historical intrusion into Hawai’i.  Unfortunately, as, “just dog lovers,” John and Jane Doe failed to take just as seriously, Hawai’i, its people and its history.

As Hawaiians, we should be mindful that it is the young man’s refusal to give the expected aloha, to willfully disregard the speech of John Doe, which requires real power. This is his aloha to us. Enough is enough. It is time that Hawaiians put out a sign that says, “no more love; aloha denied.” 


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