In 1991 Spike Lee released ‘Jungle Fever’, a movie about an interracial couple. When it came out, it was making the news, but I only remember it because my brother looked at me and said, “What’s the big deal?”

I shrugged, “I have no idea.” Fast forward to 2019, he sent me a New York Times article titled, Want to be Less Racist? Move to Hawaii.

Now, I know Hawaii’s diverse, so I figured the piece had something to do with that. Larry warned me that the write-up was long, but that the photos were worth seeing. Curious, I headed over to NYT and read the entire thing.

Hawaii had the highest percentage of mixed-race people by a long shot in the country.

I remember returning to Hawaii after my college years in small-town Durango, Colorado. There were a couple of observations I made during my travels. First, the airline passengers got whiter the further east I traveled. Second, as I was sitting on the bus, I appreciated for the first time the incredible amount of diversity I was among. I recall thinking, “There’s probably more diversity in this bus than the entire state of Colorado.”

Probably an exaggeration. Probably.

The article follows Dr. Pauker’s studies on race in Hawaii. While there is a lot I could remark on, I’ve decided to focus on two points because they validated how I’ve been talking/thinking about race for years – and now I have science-based observations to back me up. Woo-hoo!

An intriguing finding from Dr. Pauker’s lab is that kids in Hawaii are terrible at defining other people’s race compared with kids on the mainland. That’s not because they don’t see the features usually associated with race. It’s because, when shown photos, they complicate their answers. Whereas a kid on the mainland might simply say “Asian,” in Hawaii, kids tend to say something like, “Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Norwegian.” Instead of labeling a face “white” and leaving it at that, they might offer “Scottish, Irish, German and Italian.” They are like fine wine connoisseurs while everyone else drinks cheap beer. From an early age, they see race as something complex and full of nuance, not something simple or black and white.

When I moved away from home and folks asked me, “What are you?” I wasn’t offended. Everyone in Hawaii freely talks about race.

But I was offended when they yelled fake Chinese at me from the safety of their moving vehicles. I was offended when they walked up to me and said, “Konnichi wa”. And I was offended when they called me beef and broccoli and other Chinese dishes as I returned to my apartment.

But I was confused when I asked them the same question, and they responded, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know!? What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“Oh, I’m probably Irish and Scottish. I’m probably a mix, a mutt, not like you.”

My confusion deepened because I would have already answered, “Chinese, Thai, and a little bit of Russian.”

Many people thought that I was Hawaiian because I was born and raised in Hawaii. Then I quickly figured out an analogy, “I’m not Native Hawaiian, just because you were born in America does not make you’re Native American.” Decades later though, my brother would get DNA testing and we’d discover we’re 6-8% Polynesian, too.

When I worked in predominately white places, like Portland Oregon, I’d “discover” my mixed-race colleagues.

“What are you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You look mixed, hapa. What’s your ethnicity?”

“Oh, I’ve got some Cherokee on my father’s side.”


“I’m half Peruvian.”

“Really? Cool. Do you speak Spanish?”


“My mom’s from Indonesia.”

“Yeah, that’s it. I can see it.”

Hawaii is not a politically correct society where everyone is “woke.” On the contrary, ethnic jokes are so common it can be jarring for people who aren’t from Hawaii. (Here’s one from the well-known Hawaiian-born comedian Frank De Lima, who himself has Portuguese ancestry: “Why did the Portagee water half of his lawn? He heard there was a 50 percent chance of rain.”)

This is 100% accurate. I grew up listening to racist jokes and told some good ones as well. In the above example, you might notice it’s the Portuguese that’s on the receiving end of these jokes. But I believe the key distinction here is EVERYBODY gets trashed.

In kindergarten, I apparently came home in tears because someone called me chop suey. I say apparently because my mom had to remind me of the incident. In Hawaii, white people are called haole and it is up for debate whether this term is descriptive or derogatory.

My stepdad was beaten by Filipinos on his first day of a new job for being white. A fellow grad student opened up about being bullied throughout her childhood because of her whiteness. Her tears silenced the room, but then sparked a conversation about race and diversity in Hawaii.

My high school friend, who is half black and Japanese, told us about how she was getting picked on one day, but she avoided the fight by reciting her Shakespeare lines (we were putting on Romeo and Juliet) with great volume and enthusiasm; thereby disturbing and confusing her tormentors.

I didn’t realize how lucky I was to grow up in Hawaii until I left. Funnily, it was the reactions of other people that created this impression in me. And now as racial tensions consume the Western world, I’m reminded that Hawaii has given me another gift, an outsider’s perspective in an escalating climate of us versus them.

If we could begin to grasp the limits of the planet we live on, if we could understand that the earth itself is an island and that we are all dependent on one another for survival, perhaps we would see each other differently, too — and have less use for the very idea of race.

25 replies on “My reaction to “Want to be Less Racist? Move to Hawaii”

  1. Oof, Colorado has always made my skin crawl with its segregation. They do have people who aren’t white, but they are literally all living separately from the white people, and since I know white people there, I see only white people there. Only. It makes me so queasy.


    1. Segregation in cities is an interesting phenomenon. When I first moved to PDX, I was surprised to hear that the blacks lived in the north, that is North Portland. I had never lived in a segregated city (at least that I was aware of).

      I’m also reminded of NYC and when immigrants lived in their separate areas or neighborhoods. There’s something about the comfort of sticking with our own kind.


  2. Both of my parents were born and raised in Hawai’i, but decided to raise our family on the mainland. Since all our extended family still lived in Hawai’i we would often visit in the summer. I remember hearing “Mr. Sun Cho Lee” for the first time on the radio and was so surprised that they’d let a song like that play haha

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hawaii really is a unique place. It was curious to read that folks have been looking at Hawaii as a kind of measuring tool for future diversity on the Mainland. It doesn’t really transcend though, in my opinion, Hawaii has a history that other places won’t have.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree. I think something Hawai’i really has going for it is that (most) people know they are/come from immigrants. They acknowledge the difference between Hawaiian/Kanaka maoli and someone from Hawai’i. People have a lot of pride regarding their own ethnicity, as well as being from Hawai’i. Being proud to be from Hawai’i is very different than being proud to be “American”.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, it’s funny that you say that because my partner once asked me, “Why do you tell everyone you are from Hawaii rather than from America?” I found the question so odd that it took me a moment to realize that I was doing that. For example, he’s from California, but never says unless we get into specifics. I think I’ve become conditioned by the reactions that I get, so that’s why I say it. I’m also hoping it explains why I look the way that I do and speak English. Hahahahahhaa.


  3. I still have to read this article but this is such an interesting topic! Sadly I’ve never been to Hawaii and it is now pretty much the furthest place in the world from where I live. But I really hope to get there someday — it seems like a such a fascinating place.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed living with a great mix of people when we lived in the Philippines. Because my husband worked for Asian Development Bank, our friends were from all over, mostly Asian and European countries. Lots of mixed marriages with mixed blood children, but mostly not such a complicated heritage as lots of Hawaiians. When you live in an international community like that, people aren’t shy about discussing race and nationality. It just seems natural.

    My husband’s siblings like to consider themselves full-blooded Chinese. My husband liked to include the complications: a Mongolian grandmother and a great grandmother who was Chinese/Spanish/Filipino. We always found that interesting; they found it insulting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s really wonderful that you got to be part of an international community on top of the experience of living abroad. These kinds of experiences change us whether we’re aware of it or not.

      It’s funny that your husband’s siblings wanted to be considered full-blooded. I wonder if that is common among Mainland Chinese? Ironically in Thailand folks are proud to be Thai-Chinese, but they loathe Chinese tourists.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They’re quite a bit younger. They spent their formative years in Chiang Kai Shek’s Taiwan. He was there too, but he was old enough to think for himself and rebel. He was punished once by being made to kneel on an abacus in the sunny school yard.


  5. I really love this perspective Lani! I think there are so many wonderful things about being able to have a sense of humor or thicken our skin with comments that don’t need to be taken so seriously. I have seen discrimination go both ways because of stereotypes, and I think we definitely need to realize that it is not something that goes away with more labels and signaling out groups as being the problem without thinking about how that is discrimination too. I love the end quote!! Your friend, Anne

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, if I’m brutally honest, one of the things I don’t like about our current political climate is that it’s humorless. It feels like we can’t make jokes anymore unless it’s about the President. There’s too much talk about offending this group or that person, and for those of us raised on standup comedy, that’s pretty stifling. Now, that’s not to say all jokes are about people, but human nature is to make fun of our behavior – and to look at our actions with a critical eye. Often the way we act is absurd and our notions too. Yeah, the end quote, pretty much wraps it up. Thanks Anne!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s shared experiences that allows one joke like the way you described.
    Being in Hawaii people-wise felt vaguely like being in Vancouver. A lot of Asian descent faces with some mixing. Most likely Vancouver has more “pure” Asian ancestry folks and the mixing hasn’t reached the same as Hawaii, since there continues to be an immigration wave (which will grow because of Hong Kong political problems right now).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was surprised by the amount of Asians in Vancouver. Later I learned that it was from many Hong Kong Chinese. I’m sure it is a lot more diverse since I last visited many years ago.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Agh the paywall stopped me from reading the NYT article right away but I definitely want to check it out. Do you find you still often talk about race while you’ve been living in Asia? Korea is so homogenous, (and since I fit in appearance-wise) I’ve gotten used to not really thinking about it… for better or worse.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I hate sites that do that. I noticed Forbes did one of those ‘please take down your ad-blocker so you can read our articles’ and then reverted back because surprise! everyone just left their site. Medium also does that, which I hate, so after my ‘3’ I don’t read anything else from them. It’s funny because another site, who I won’t mention, was asking for donations and I was contemplating b/c their content was great, but then they got all political, and I started to have ambivalent feelings about that direction, in the end, I was glad I didn’t donate. It’s an entertainment site, I go there to escape political drama. I’m also fairly certain others feel the same way. Tangent! Anyway, I did pull out the bits, it’s a very long article…as far as your question, I talk about my nationality regularly because I’m mistaken for being something else. I blend in like you, but ppl’s reactions to me remind me that I’m different. Otherwise, like you, I’d just do my thing.

      Liked by 1 person

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