How Do You See Yourself?January 16, 2009
Recently, having lunch with friends, I was struck by how much Native Hawaiian self-image has changed over the years.
There was nothing particularly unusual about this lunch – a typical get-together of the cronies gathering for a highly anticipated talk story session. However, on this occasion we were lucky to be joined by one of our hui’s Grandpa Joe.
A distinguished gentleman in his eighties, Grandpa Joe is one of those wonderful people you want at all of your parties. A raconteur at heart, his lifetime of experiences and wry wit combined to have us all rolling with laughter. Drawing us in as confidants, he would lean forward conspiratorially. His shock of white hair edging ever nearer and his eyes dancing, he wove amazing tales of the “old days.”
During the course of the lunch, the conversation turned toward us. “What do you do?” he asked. A physicist, a lawyer, a writer, a professor and a flack (yes, I’m the underachiever of the bunch) were the answers.
“Wow, a group of smart Hawaiians,” he said completely devoid of irony.
“Grandpa!” his namesake mo‘opuna squawked. But, Grandpa Joe was nonplused. He had no idea why his grandson was upset.
Grandpa Joe wasn’t being racist though; he was simply reiterating what he’d heard for a lifetime. Graduating from Kamehameha Schools nearly 70 years ago, his was a world in which native opportunities were few. What we now consider commonplace – a group of college educated Native Hawaiian professionals from ordinary backgrounds – was unheard of in his day.
But more interesting to me, he did not see the very incongruity of his thinking. Here was a man – a Hawaiian man – who without the benefit of higher education used his intellect and will to forge a highly successful international career. There is absolutely no question that Grandpa Joe is an extremely “smart Hawaiian.” Yet, he was unable to place his own life example above the stereotypes embedded within him decades before. He continues to carry the century old bias that Hawaiians are somehow inadequate.
A generation later, my father followed along the same path of self-deprecation. A recurring conversation in our house went something like this.
Dad: “Hawaiians are lazy.”
Child: “Dad, aren’t we Hawaiians?”
Child: “Is anyone in our family lazy?”
Child: “So what Hawaiians are you talking about?”
Coming from a household of incurable workaholics, I never understood how my father could make such an outrageous statement. However, in speaking with Grandpa Joe, I began to better understand my own history. My father, like Grandpa, could not reconcile the gulf between his own experiences and the prejudices of long ago.
Yet – even though they could not see it within themselves – both of these smart, hardworking men are part of changing how Native Hawaiians are perceived. Amazing examples like theirs are the lens through which my friends and I view ourselves and our people.
Now, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that others of our generation, as well as the next, deliver on the potential we so clearly see.