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Two New Books

In a state where no single ethnicity holds a majority, two new books seek to unravel some of the complexities surrounding complexion in Hawaii.


The first in a series of books on race and ethnicity in Hawaii planned by the University of Hawaii Press, Judy Rohrer’s Haoles in Hawaii engages in a scholarly, if not entirely objective, dissection of the uniquely Hawaiian concept of haole. Rohrer recounts two centuries’ worth of the term’s incarnations both as a noun (colonizers, missionaries, usurpers, capitalists, oligarchs, oppressors, conspirators), and an adjective (acting haole—or someone who’s “haolified”—suggests “acting superior,” “with hubris,” or “a certain set of attitudes and behaviors that are distinctly not local”).

Rohrer, a self-proclaimed “haole girl,” raised and educated in Hawaii, emphasizes the need to recognize the history that accompanies the term. “To understand haole, you really have to understand the colonization of Hawaii, because haole was forged in that history,” she explains. “[A] well-developed caution comes from 200 years of disease, dispossession, cultural appropriation, the banning of language and hula—all of that gets carried into the present. Haole is the name for that, which comes from the Hawaiian experience.”

A celebration of multiculturalism this book is not; any suggestion that Hawaii is a modern-day model of racial harmony is summarily rejected and quickly framed against the backdrop of divestiture and current inequities facing Native Hawaiians.

“The legacies of colonization are much bigger than we tend to acknowledge,” asserts Rohrer, who points to tourism, militarism and recent legal attacks on Native Hawaiian programs and entitlements as manifestations of this ongoing legacy. “We think of colonization as something in the past, but the reality is that it’s very much a part of our lives today in Hawaii. I’m hoping this book will allow for a conversation about what we can do individually and collectively to try to build a more just Hawaii.”

Images of America: African Americans in Hawaii (Arcadia Publishing), by D. Molentia Guttman and Ernest Golden, takes a visual approach to documenting the presence of African Americans in Hawaii, through the use of photographs with lengthy captions.

“Since the 1770s, the Islands have been home to people of African descent, who have made tremendous contributions to Hawaii for over two centuries,” says Guttman, who, in 1997, founded the African American Diversity Cultural Center Hawaii (aadcch.org), a nonprofit museum archiving 200 years of African American history in Hawaii.

Guttman and Golden identify the earliest African Americans in Hawaii as maritime laborers, arriving on merchant and whaling ships from the Cape Verde Islands, the Caribbean and the United States’ Atlantic seaboard—many from the latter escaping slavery to build new lives in the Islands. Today, the authors estimate about 35,000, or approximately 3 percent, of Hawaii residents claim African ancestry.

“We wanted to uncover this history,” says Guttman. “It’s there, it’s just not talked about. My job is to make it available to the public, make it a more visible history.”


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Honolulu Magazine April 2020
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