I write these words from the floor of a warm corner of the men’s restroom at the Mauna Kea visitor center. The temperature outside is too cold for my laptop battery to take a charge and the restroom houses the only active plug, so I huddle in this corner to combat the words used by those who seek to destroy what I love.
I’ve been on Mauna Kea for the last 24 nights standing in solidarity with Kanaka Maoli as they protect their sacred mountain from the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project that would dynamite an eight acre patch two stories deep at the pristine summit of Mauna Kea.
When I was asked to come to Mauna Kea, I was asked to write in a way that connects the complex forces informing a destructive project like the TMT to the systems currently murdering the beautiful islands of Hawai’i. More specifically, I was asked to write to America about the genocidal context the TMT springs from.
The occupation on Mauna Kea exists for two reasons. First, the Mauna Kea protectors will stop the TMT construction equipment when they finally seek to force their way to the summit again. As I write this, it has been 79 days since the TMT construction was stopped on the Mauna Kea access road the first time. Second, the Mauna Kea protectors serve as public education ambassadors. Each day hundreds of tourists come to Mauna Kea and each day dozens stop by our tent to ask us what we’re doing.
These conversations, reactions to some of my previous essays, and discussions with other protectors lead me to believe that a vocabulary lesson for haoles is due. As haoles who want to support Hawaiian sovereignty, we must learn to use the appropriate words.
The terms I define in this essay – haole, racism, white supremacy, and genocide, racism – are experienced in a very real way by oppressed peoples around the world. It is not my place to explain these terms to people experiencing genocide in the most vivid ways, so I write to those privileged enough to be free from these realities. The first step to acting in true solidarity is accepting the truth and to accept the truth we must communicate with the most honest words.
Haole is the Hawaiian word for “white person.” The first time I used the term in my piece “Protecting Mauna Kea: History for Haoles,” I received a wide variety of comments and messages.
Some of the comments were from native Hawaiians thanking me for being a haole willing to describe the true Hawaiian history to other haoles. Some of the comments were from people offended by my use of the term. Some of the comments were from people telling me I was wrong, that haole has no racial connotation and means simply “without breath.” Finally, and most disturbingly, some haoles accused me of spreading division within the movement by using the term and demanded that the term never be used again.
Usually, disputes over definitions can be resolved simply turning to a dictionary. So, I’ll start there. Here is the definition of “haole” from the “Hawaiian Dictionary” compiled by the famous native Hawaiian language scholar Mary Kawena Pukui: “White person, American, Englishman, Caucasian; American, English; formerly, any foreigner; foreign, introduced, of foreign origin, as plants, pigs, chickens; entirely white, of pigs. To act like a white person, to ape the white people, or assume airs of superiority (often said disparagingly, especially of half-whites). Americanized, Europeanized; to have become like a white person or have adopted the ways of a white man.”
Now, I understand that haole can become a derogatory term if words like “fucking” or “stupid” precede it, but Pukui’s definition makes it clear that the most common use of the word haole is to describe a white person. And, I was careful in my essay to use haole only to refer to white people. So, why did some haoles object to being called haoles? Why did some white people get angry for being called white people?
One thing I’ve noticed in my attempts to work in solidarity with people of color is that many white people hate being reminded of their whiteness. When I was a public defender bemoaning statistical realities like the fact that there are more black men in prison today than were enslaved in 1850 to a roomful of white judges, prosecutors, and cops, I was shouted down and told we live today in a colorblind society. When I was at the Unist’ot’en Camp pipeline blockade in so-called British Columbia and our Unist’ot’en hosts explained the need for separate indigenous and settler camps due to the reality that many indigenous peoples felt more safe expressing their opinions away from settlers, there was always a white person who tried to set up in the indigenous camp with the logic that we’re all one human family.
So, the question becomes: Why do white people hate being reminded of their whiteness?
The answer, I think, is white people know they benefit both from a brutal history and an on-going reality of genocide and imperialism.White people have visited unspeakable violence on ourselves and on peoples and lands around the world. This is uncomfortable for some white people. But, the truth is the truth however uncomfortable.
I am writing about Hawai’i so I turn to the brilliant Hawaiian thinker Haunani-Kay Trask. Trask also used the term haole to describe white people and Trask was also forced to defend herself from angry white people. She explains the uncomfortable history confronting haoles, “In Hawai’i, it is the haole who stole our land, took our government, destroyed our nationhood, and suppressed our culture. It is white people who created laws to divide Hawaiians by blood quantum; it is white people who brought capitalism to Hawai’i. In other words, it is white people who, for their own benefit, have exploited and oppressed Hawaiians.”
When Hawaiians use the term “haole” – a word that means simply “white person” – they use an original word from their original language. Haoles have taken too much from Hawai’i already. When white people demand that Hawaiians give up their original words those white people seek participation in an inexcusable dominance that extends to something as sacred as original language.
What about claims that I (and by extension anyone else who uses the term) spread division in the movement when I write “haole”? What about claims that the term haole is an expression of reverse racism?
These claims are based on an ignorance of social reality. In a world free of racism and white supremacy, differences in skin color would not matter. Humans, indeed, would be one big family. This is not the world we live in, though.
At this point, I must define racism. Again, I’ll turn to Trask who defines racism as, “A historically created system of power in which one racial/ethnic group dominates another racial/ethnic group for the benefit of the dominating group.” In a racist system, “economic and cultural domination as well as political power are included in the systemic dominance of the exploiting group.” Finally, “a monopoly of the means of violence is also held by those in the dominating group.” Racism in Hawai’i has taken the form of white supremacy where white people form the the dominating group.
Notice that Trask’s definition opposes the typical, liberal notion that racism is an emotional state existing in the minds of individuals. By this definition, then, it should be clear that haole as a Hawaiian word cannot be racist because Hawaiians are presently incapable of holding the requisite power in Hawaii to engage in racism. As long as Hawaiians remain a dominated racial group, they cannot be racist. They can discriminate against haoles, perhaps, or express prejudice, but they cannot practice racism.
To say that I am, in fact, enforcing racism by pointing out that racism exists is to buy into the erroneous idea that racism is just a belief held in the mind and as such can be overcome merely by holding love for all people. White supremacy and racism, though, are enforced by physical power and violence. To truly undermine racism requires physically dismantling the means by which racism is perpetuated. If we cannot point out that haoles are white people directly benefitting from a specific arrangement of power, then we will never effectively dismantle white supremacy – and what’s left of Hawai’i will be annihilated.
Another word many haoles roll their eyes at is “genocide.” The truth is Hawai’i has suffered from over two hundred years of on-going genocide and the TMT project, regardless of its stated goals, is another attempted act in a long list of genocide.
Too many limit their view of genocide to ditches full of corpses or black and white photographs of gas chambers. These are certainly images of genocide, but Article II of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (the international authority) contemplates a much broader definition.
Article II says genocide is “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such: killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Raphael Lemkin invented the term “genocide” and informed much of the 1948 Convention’s rationale with his masterpiece written in 1943 titled “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.” He wrote, “Genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation.” Genocide can also be “a coordinated plan of actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.”
Viewed through this lens, we can see the countless, obvious acts of genocide that comprise recent Hawaiian history. First, there was Captain Cook landing on Hawai’i’s shores with sailors he knew full-well carried communicable and terminal diseases for native Hawaiians. The numbers are devastating. The population of Hawaii was estimated at well-over 1 million when Cook landed in the late 1770s. By 1898, at the time of the Ku’e Petitions, only 40,000 Kanaka Maoli existed in the whole world. This loss of human life in such a relatively short time reflects the “immediate destruction of a nation” Lemkin describes.
The illegal overthrow in 1893 involved all-white conspirators forcing Queen Liliuokalani to abdicate her throne as regent of the Kingdom of Hawai’i under threats of violence. The Kingdom of Hawai’i was formed to protect Hawai’i from European powers. So, the overthrow deliberately inflicted conditions calculated to bring about the physical destruction of the Hawaiian people. The objective of the overthrow was the disintegration of Hawaiian political and social institutions.
The banning of Hawaiian language in schools by the illegal Republic of Hawaii in 1896 was a move that was unquestionably designed to alienate Hawaiian children from their native culture, language, and religion.
And now we stand on Mauna Kea to stop genocide again. Make no mistake, the TMT project is classically genocidal aiming to desecrate the most sacred mountain in the traditional Hawaiian spirituality. Mauna Kea is the genesis site for Kanaka Maoli and is referred to as the piko, the navel of the world, connecting Sky Father to Earth Mother. The people are genealogically (read: literally) related to the Mountain making Mauna Kea an essential place of worship.
It is easy for many to see that blowing up places of worship like a synagogue or a mosque would be genocidal for causing serious mental harm to Jews or Muslims. It is easier still to see the way steamrolling places essential to world religions like Bethlehem or Mt. Sinai would be genocidal as well. Dynamiting Mauna Kea undermines Kanaka Maoli culture, spirituality, and society destroying a place of worship that is perhaps, the most symbolically significant place to the traditional Hawaiian spirituality.
Of course, the crime of genocide requires two elements – intent and action. A shrewd reader might object to accusations of genocide the same way the TMT organizers do arguing that the TMT project does not intend to harm Hawaiians, but instead is an effort to foster human understanding of astronomy. According to Gregory H. Stanton, President of Genocide Watch, “Intentional means purposeful. Intent can be proven directly from statements or orders. But more often, it must be inferred from a systematic pattern of coordinated acts.”
What happens when we view the TMT project through the totality of the haole presence in Hawai’i? Can we infer a systematic pattern of coordinated acts that would rise to the requisite level of intention needed to prove genocide?
As I demonstrated earlier, we see that the last two hundred years in Hawai’i – marked by the arrival of haoles – are dominated by genocide. Captain Cook came to the Pacific specifically to open the region to British colonization. Missionaries followed Cook to destroy Hawaiian spirituality and replace it with Christianity. Americans overthrew the Kingdom of Hawai’i to push the genocidal legacy of Manifest Destiny ever farther west. The Hawaiian language was suppressed in Hawaiian schools to program children in the Hawaiian version of “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
Now, the TMT project attempts to blow up the piko of the world, the heart of the Hawaiian people, in act of desecration Cook, the Missionaries, and the haole plantation owners could only dream of. This is racism. This is genocide. The TMT must be stopped.