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?”
Dad: “Yes.”
Child: “Is anyone in our family lazy?”
Dad: “No.”
Child: “So what Hawaiians are you talking about?”
Dad: Silence

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.


  1. MJ, this is a great post and very interesting insight into the attitude and perceptions have/had of themselves. Thanks for sharing.

  2. We have the same “fights” at home. my folks will say things that I just can’t believe. hopefully, we won’t pass the same prejudices on

  3. Hui,
    I understand what you’re saying, but I think you’re wrong. Even though they’re likable, Grandpa and your father are still racist. By perpetuating that Hawaiians are stupid and lazy. Just cause we love them doesn’t mean that this is acceptable.

  4. Aloha e Joe,
    Are Grandpa and my father really perpetuating stereotypes? Yes, their words – and even their beliefs – are not of this time, but their actions are the best refutations of preconceived notions. I’m not making excuses for how they see the world, I’m just trying to understand it.
    Me ke aloha

  5. I agree. While our kupuna can say racist things, their actions are more important. The question is, what about all those non-achieving Hawaiians out there. The ones who still aren’t getting an education, who don’t aspire to anything beyond simple survival. Our ‘ohana have always valued education and hard work, that isn’t the case for most Hawaiians. They are still living in subjugation. This time self-made.

  6. Come on Kehau. “isn’t the case for most Hawaiians”? You’re perpetuating the same stereotype. What makes you think “most” Hawaiians don’t value education and hardwork!

  7. Kalau is right. Unfortunately, the stats still show that Native Hawaiians are underrepresented in higher education and over represented in negative social indicators – prison, welfare, etc.

  8. At KS I heard the same kinds of arguments from Kehau. It’s us good Hawaiians against you bad Hawaiians. Auwe for making it us against them instead of how we all move forward togehter

  9. Nicole, you gotta admit there are Hawaiians who are doing it and Hawaiians who aren’t. It’s not good or bad Hawaiians. It’s Hawaiians who step up or don’t. And if we don’t step up AND help others up, people are going to keep believing the same old crap

  10. The point isn’t good Hawaiians vs. bad Hawaiians. It’s how do we elevate those who haven’t had the same advantages that we’ve had. You can’t pretend that everyone has been priviledged to go to KS, have families that nurture them, etc.

  11. I’m not a Hawaiian, but I know what you mean. A lot of people I went to school with called themselves kanaks and took pride in the stereotypes – drinking on the beach, beefing. But, that can’t be the definition of being Hawaiian

  12. You’ve brought up a good point. It isn’t how others see us anymore. but how we see ourselves. If we can’t get over the prejudices how can we move forward as a people.

  13. Aloha ‘Aina, looks like you hit a raw nerve. I would’ve thought that we were beyond questioning ourselves. Guess not. Do other native peoples have this problem, buying into the labels that have been placed on them? Or more importantly, how do/did they get past them?

  14. Thanks Aloha Aina for the post. Found you through Twitter. Very thought provoking.

  15. Native Americans wrestle with the same issues. Our image of ourselves has been tainted by how outsiders see us. But that isn’t who we are. We are looking to our great past an dusing it to lead the way to our future. Asquali thank you for hearing me.

  16. Aloha no e 3rdMesa me ka welina o ke aloha.
    Greetings and great affection to you 3rdMesa.
    Mahalo for visiting and commenting on our site. We are honored. Itʻs wonderful to hear from other native peoples and learn from your experiences.

  17. I still hear people of our generation saying this kind of sh•t all the time. So it’s not just kupuna. We’re still our own worst enemy. When will we stop being crabs in a bucket.

  18. […] Ulu Wale – Random Musings Thoughts from Native Hawaiians « How Do You See Yourself? Presenting the past to preserve our future February 13, 2009 Our last post, “How Do You […]

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