Afterthoughts: From These Parts

Hawaii’s diversity—and lack thereof.

Photo: Linny Morris

KITV4 News This Morning will get a new co-anchor, Kenny Choi, starting Sept. 7,” reported Erika Engle in a recent Star-Advertiser column. She went on to say that Choi’s background includes sports reporting. “He is a graduate of UCLA, and, while not from Hawaii, he looks like he might be.”

Wait, what? What does someone from Hawaii look like?

The implication of statements like this is “not former anchor Dan Meisenzahl!” It’s funny, because according to KITV’s website, Meisenzahl, who has been promoted to producer, was raised in Kaimuki, graduated from Kalani High School and attended the University of Hawaii.

But, he’s, you know… haole

I’m sure Engle didn’t mean any harm by it, but her comment highlights a certain mindset.

First, there’s the provincial assumption that the Mainland is entirely populated by WASPs; as if an Asian-American person couldn’t possibly hail from Alabama. In fact, the U.S. is pretty diverse: 12.8 percent black, 4.5 percent Asian, 15.4 percent Hispanic, 65.6 percent Caucasian, according to 2008 numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. Eleven percent of the population wasn’t even born in the U.S. I’ll bet the 2010 Census numbers will show an ever-increasing diversity.

Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong

Hawaii is often held up as a paragon of such diversity, and the numbers back that up: 3 percent black, 39 percent Asian, 9 percent Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, 9 percent Hispanic,  25 percent Caucasian and 18 percent of respondents checked off more than one category. (Yes, this adds up to more than 100 percent; I’m just reporting the numbers as they are listed.) This mix of racial and cultural backgrounds is a tremendous asset to our state.

What is unfortunate is that diversity in Hawaii has come to mean “anything except white people.”

I hesitated to write this column, because I don’t want to come across as Angry White Person with Shoulder-chip Accessory. I hate discussing race at all; I think sorting ourselves by skin color is one of the most destructive of human tendencies. Nor do I discount the damage that imperialism conducted by white people has wrought around the world. And, yes, I do wish the mainstream U.S. media would hurry up and hire some people who aren’t size 2 and white.

The thing is, I’m not raising this issue on my own behalf. I moved to Hawaii as an adult and would never expect to be considered local. I bring up this issue because time and time again, I hear local people who happen to be Caucasian say how painful it is to have roots going back generations in the Islands, yet still be viewed as somehow inauthentic. Or to be told that the mere presence of a Caucasian person on a magazine cover or on TV instantly renders them as “too Mainland,” or “too visitor industry.” (As if all our visitors are white, which is also not true.) I thought diversity meant including all kinds of people, not shutting entire groups out.

 “My kids were born here and will be raised here,” a friend said to me recently. “But they’ll never be considered local. Some other kid comes off the plane and he’s instantly accepted.”

Compare that to this: “My wife and children are Korean-American, but in Hawai‘i, the American is assumed,” actor Daniel Dae Kim told Hawaii Magazine in an interview. “You can grow up here without a chip on your shoulder because you’re never made to feel foreign.”

Unless you’re a haole born and raised here.  

For a place that’s so self-congratulatory on its own diversity, it might be nice to expand the definition of what “local” looks like.