We Still Can Do Better On Race

Are we immune to a “Trayvon Martin” effect here in Hawaii?

Any one of us who has been on the outside, who has felt the sting of discrimination, who has felt the rage of the helpless and the despair of the misunderstood understands to the core what happened to that 17-year-old boy.

And if we are honest we know it could happen here. We are not the paragons of acceptance we like to believe.

There may be less overt racism in Hawaii, but the undercurrents are there.

Quick, tell me what pops into your head when I say someone is Micronesian.

Do you think, “freeloader?” “Lazy?” “Welfare?” These are stereotypes and cruel, especially without context, but I can tell you from my own conversations that a lot of people think this way.

Now tell me what you think when I say Japanese? Vietnamese? What are your feelings about Caucasians? Samoans? Filipinos? Hawaiians? African Americans?

There are negative stereotypes attached to every ethnic group – the only difference is some groups have had more time to assimilate and to turn those long-held prejudices on their heads.

We no longer say, or joke, that “podagees” are stupid, or “pakes” are cheap, or Hawaiians are lazy.

That’s because times have changed and most of us know better now (or at least most know better than to say such things out loud).

Much of how we view other races depends on age, on education and how exposed we are to a wider world and a larger circle of friends.

But the undercurrents are there.

Once when I was covering a trial, I witnessed a woman snarl at an attorney, “You killed Christ!” The attorney was Jewish.

I have heard someone close to me use the “N” word.

I have known people who have and some who still do distrust haoles, especially “Mainland haoles.”

And is there anyone out there who doesn’t know someone who hates or is disgusted by gay, lesbian or transgender people?

Bigotry exists.

No doubt about that. But I have a lot of hope for us here in Hawaii. We have a jumpstart on the Mainland in matters of race.

Ed Matthews and I used to work together at KGMB, where he was a photographer. Ed is from New Orleans and is part black. He married a local woman and had a daughter here. He says his daughter, and Hawaii, taught him a lot about how to view race.

“One day when my daughter was around 8 years old, I was asking about one of her friends. My description of the friend couldn’t pinpoint exactly who I was talking about to my daughter. So, I ended up describing her by her ethnic background.

“To my amazement, my daughter scolded me and asked why did I have to describe her friend by her ethnicity? I was lost for words! My daughter then proceeded to tell me, why can’t she just be a friend and not someone from a different ethnic background. I was ashamed but also proud that my daughter’s views of other people were, well, just other people.

“This reinforced why I chose to have my daughter grow up in Hawaii. I find Hawaii to be more tolerant of other ethnic races than the Mainland. Why? It’s not uncommon to find Hawaii’s people mixed with two, three, four, five, six, seven or eight different ethnicities. Because of their mixed blood, people here grow up learning different cultures at a very early age.”

When President Obama startled the country with his remarkable words on Trayvon Martin and the role race plays in America, he talked about his own encounters with racism. Even he, the most powerful man in the world, has been profiled, feared and objectified based on his race.

But he concluded his speech with something every American can do. It’s time, he said, to examine our hearts. Don’t leave it to the politicians. That never works.

“On the other hand,” the President said “in families and churches and workplaces, there’s a possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character?”

Ask yourself. Are you wringing as much bias out of yourself as you can? Am I?

Am I judging people based solely on the content of their character?

It’s a conversation we can and should have right now – within our families and communities and in our own hearts – even here in our beloved Aloha state.