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Essay

#Colonialism

How #luckywelivehawaii & #lethawaiihappen are helping to entrench colonialism in Hawaiʻi.

in Indigenous issues

Above: A screen capture from a YouTube video entitled “HAWAII (Oahu/Honolulu) - Adventure in Paradise


Hall of Fame baseball executive Branch Rickey—probably most famous for signing Jackie Robinson during his time working as the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers—memorably said: “luck is the residue of design.” Beyond blindly assuming the existence of some unseen force of good fortune floating around, touching a lucky few, Rickey’s words make obvious that luck is a product of actual, existing forces. In the context of sport, these real forces are readily apparent: relentless physical work, countless hours of preparation, healthy and nutritious dieting and the privilege of access to the spaces, equipment and coaching necessary for one to reach one’s athletic goals. These crucial factors constitute what lazily might be called luck.   

The belief in, or discourse that surrounds, luck obfuscates the actual forces that engender the outcomes commonly labeled as good fortune. And in few instances is this as obvious as the marketing schemes concocted by the firms, institutions, corporations, politicians and elites who profit from tourism and cultural appropriation in Hawaiʻi. The constant bombardment of our social media feeds with the marketing quips “#luckywelivehawaii” or “#lethawaiihappen” are the manifestations of our settler ignorance on social media. These tags not only serve to satiate our desperate grasp for social recognition but, more importantly, they cover up the ongoing reality of colonialism and the illegal occupation of Hawaiʻi, masking oppression in the seeming benevolence of luck and the romanticization of Hawaiian people, culture and ʻāina.

The culture and discourse that has developed around #luckywelivehawaii—a simple media search will yield thousands of results—lacks the critical dissection of luck that Rickey’s words represent. Why is it that we settlers who call Hawaiʻi home, or those with the elite privilege of traveling to Hawaiʻi, are lucky?

For example, I am not lucky I live in Hawaiʻi. In the 1960s, my maternal grandfather made the conscious decision to settle here—a decision just like those made by almost all colonial settlers in Hawaiʻi, whether they came here to work on plantations, satisfy their hedonistic desires, conquer— rather than promote—nature, do research or work for charitable causes. We settlers came to Hawaiʻi by design. Our ancestors, who were also subjects of global forces like colonialism, imperialism and capitalism, came here seeking socioeconomic gain: what we now know as the (perpetually elusive) “American Dream.”

Our settler ancestors made these long trips and sought difficult or new work, most often, out of love for their families. But too often this love was limited. Too often the love that motivates all people stops at the bounds of the nuclear family or at the edges of the social groups with which one identifies. It is the people who are indigenous to the land of a settler state like Hawaiʻi that bear the brunt of this exclusion and feel its effects most severely once settlers assume positions of social, economic and political power. Our presumed luck comes at the expense of Native Hawaiians’ rights to self-determined sovereignty, health, economic well-being and ʻāina. 

In addition to masking this oppression, our presumed luck can be marketed and, of course, turn a profit. The Lucky We Live Hawaii brand claims to be an “expression of our love for the islands, surf, art and fashion,” but simultaneously depends on the very colonial ideologies and institutions, like capitalism, that contribute to, and rely on, the oppression of Native Hawaiians, the overconsumption of resources and the neglect of ʻāina. 

When thinking about luck and #luckywelivehawaii in these terms, the utter ignorance and absurdity of #lethawaiihappen becomes obvious. As a student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, I encounter this hashtag constantly, including on the University’s own social media accounts. It is deeply disturbing and ironic that a colonial institution like a University—one that houses the wonderful Hawaiian Studies program, and others that seek decolonization and other forms of justice—would use such a facile marketing shtick. At the same time it is not surprising. 

Neither is it surprising that the manufacturer of #lethawaiihappen is the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority, its Hawaiʻi Visitors and Conventions Bureau, and a marketing corporation: the Anthology Marketing Group. While it may be a stretch to expect these institutions to think critically about their complicity in the colonial oppression of Native Hawaiians (since they are capitalist institutions focused on profit), their production of this hashtag highlights the nuances and subtleties of colonialism in our current time. Colonialism is not just bayonets, the ugly roar of fighter planes, the tall masts of warships, corporations dictating water rights, illegal land seizure, greedy businesses and political huis and thirty-meter telescopes on sacred places. It is also language—language as small, informal and innocuous as a social media hashtag.

These hashtags, and other subtleties of colonialism and imperialism, such as misrepresentations and appropriations of Hawaiian culture in cartoons or dashboard ornaments, together, constitute a massive amount of material culture that can alter the consciousness of all people who encounter it. This sort of culture promotes and reproduces the indigenous-washing of Hawaiʻi that is essential to ensuring the economic, social, political, ethnic and material supremacy of the settler ruling class, and the political and military dominion of the United States government over Hawaiian lands.

By no means do I intend to vilify those of us who use these hashtags, or Anthology Marketing Group’s Lei-Ann Field, who conceived of the #lethawaiihappen campaign. Rather, it is the ideologies, such as colonialism, imperialism and capitalism, to which we are subjected, that are to blame. But only once we settlers understand that it is our own cultural baggage that is blocking the path toward a decolonized Hawaiʻi—once we recognize that what brought us here was not luck, but real, tangible forces that, to this day, impede Native Hawaiian self-determination, sovereignty and cultural practices—only then can we work to erase these forces instead of erasing indigeneity.

Instead of unconsciously or casually using these hashtags with our sunset, beachscape and other photos, we should use these hashtags in a critical manner. By this I mean Native Hawaiians and settlers alike pairing #lethawaiihappen with the posting of a photo, video or article that questions colonialism, militarism and occupation in Hawaiʻi. Settlers could pair their #luckywelivehawaii tag with images or stories of their ancestors settling in Hawaiʻi or working on plantations—the actual reasons we live in Hawaiʻi.   

If we settlers can remain constantly critical and vigilant, looking to reverse the ways in which we ourselves contribute to the colonial oppression of our Native Hawaiian brothers, sisters, uncles, aunties, lovers and friends, maybe we settlers might actually let Hawaiʻi happen, instead of blindly standing in the way.

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