Distorted optics: political visibility in Hawaiʻi

This makes me furious (having your race visually equated with livestock tends to do that) but that’s not entirely the point. I’m pointing you all to this counter-ad campaign, denigrating Kau Inoa, by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaiʻi (remember them from this post?) not because I think it deserves a response, but to show how difficult the political terrain is in-state for Native Hawaiian programs of nearly any kind.

Kau Inoa to Cow Inoa. I am staggered by the sheer violence in that apparently funny re-appropriation: the denigration of Hawaiian language hits me very hard, beyond even the replacement of a Native Hawaiian person with an animal, beyond the very gendered tropes (also introducing standards about body weight and appearance) of calling someone a cow, and naming it Haunani (after OHAʻs female president). As my friend Stephanie reminded me yesterday, there is a saying in Hawaiian that emphasizes the power of language: I ka ‘ōlelo nō ke ola, I ka ‘ōlelo nō ka make. In words there is life and death. In the very words of Kau Inoa is bound an increasingly strong sense of Native Hawaiian self-determination and empowerment, personal and community-wide. To dismiss that so lightly is not only ignorant, but violent: it recalls the loss of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi felt by so many as it was banned from schools for decades, as Native Hawaiian children were beaten for their words.

What these “Cow Inoa” ads demonstrate is that being racist in Hawaiʻi is often now accepted as part of a common sense that says political correctness is passé in a multicultural society. Whenever a news segment on local stations reports on the Akaka bill or OHA, they include one Native Hawaiian respondent and one white representative from the Grassroot Institute. The message is that there are equal weights on these kind of “controversies” over Native Hawaiian issues, when in fact, the Grassroot Institute creates the controversy even while it insists on its objectivity and plain support of American democratic freedoms.

I have been thinking about how racism of this kind works, and about how the original Kau Inoa ads are supposed to work too. When the Cow Inoa ads run, the response is: your ads are blatantly racist, take them down. And rightly so. But there is more to address than just the flagrant racism of these ads. In that they are a direct counter-attack to the Kau Inoa ads, I think they are an important demonstration that increased visibility as a political strategy for Native Hawaiians has both risks and limits. When a minority group becomes more visible, they also become passé, definable and therefore easily dismissed. In the discourse between Kau Inoa and Cow Inoa, Native Hawaiians are defined along a binary that posits real people against animals. Even though we can show you a picture of a Native Hawaiian, even though it is a fairly commonly accepted fact, we are stuck in the act of proving (to white Hawaiʻi) that we exist, separate from white people, separate from cows. A Sisyphean task if there ever was one.

Of course I believe that visibility is a part of the political change that Native Hawaiians need: that is why I am here, why I am writing this. But I also am grasping at what kind of visibility we need; at why I am tired of proving we exist and yet it seems I must continue to prove it. There has to be political work beyond making Native Hawaiians more visible, and yet I do not exactly know what we can do if we remain invisible. We need to change the overall optics, and thatʻs much harder to know how to do.

remembering Queen Liliuʻokalani


115 years ago today, Queen Liliuʻokalani was arrested and imprisoned in ʻIolani Palace, forced by a cadre of American businessmen (and their armed reinforcements) to abdicate her throne and the previously internationally recognized sovereignty of Hawaiʻi.

I have been thinking about her today, reading her book a little. I remember in seventh or eighth grade, we were required to do reports on a historical figure of our choice. The assignment asked us to dress up like the person and address the class with our words of wisdom. I do not remember exactly how I thought of Hawaiʻi, or my Native Hawaiian ancestry at that point: I guess I mean I don’t think I really knew, as a kid in Kentucky, all that much about it. Except that I was proud and protective of it. I had been to Hawaiʻi a few times, and that was farther than most of my classmates had ever been.

So I chose Queen Liliʻuokalani as my person to emulate in seventh grade. We had always had in our house the peacock blue paperback that is her autobiography (to which UPenn amazingly has a link to a full text version online here). I wore my mom’s holokū dress, the white missionary-style so characteristic of 19th century Hawaiian royalty. She wore the holokū for her high school graduation, and I wore one too when I graduated from Punahou. I remember the dress, and how precious I thought it was, and how nervous I was speaking to the class. I do not remember the speechʻs content or how it was received, but I wish I did. I cannot imagine either the students or my teachers understanding what I was saying, or why I wanted to say it, very well at all.

I am looking at her autobiography (Hawaii’s Story) again now, the same one that has always been in my house. My tūtū Liliaʻs cursive script graces the front page, detailing when she received this book as a gift, 1977. Liliuʻokalani writes about this day in 1893:

The idea of abdicating never originated with me…. For myself, I would have chosen death rather than to have signed it; but it was represented to me that by my signing this paper all the persons who had been arrested, all my people now in trouble by reason of their love and loyalty towards me, would be immediately released. Think of my position,– sick, a lone woman in prison, scarcely knowing who was my friend, or listened to my words only to betray me, without legal advice or friendly counsel, and the stream of blood ready to flow unless it was stayed by my pen….

I have never expected the revolutionists of 1887 and 1893 to willingly restore the rights notoriously taken by force or intimidation; but this act, obtained under duress, should have no weight with the authorities of the United States, to whom I appealed. But it may be asked, why did I not make some protest at the time, or at least shortly thereafter…? I did.

It hurts me to read this, still, every time I do. It hurts too that ʻIolani Palace, overshadowed in downtown Honolulu by multiplying office towers and condos, is not understandable to most people who go by it, to all the tourists who snap their pictures in front of it. Over the break, I saw an old episode of Hawaii 5-0. They flashed a picture of ʻIolani Palace that made it seem as if it was the police headquarters. I know you have to choose what and how youʻre hurt by all the ugly things there are around us. But this will always hurt, this day, these appropriations, these forgettings. Remembering Queen Liliuʻokalani is like missing a family member. Quite literally because of my tūtū’s inscription. But it’s more than that too, because today she is remembered by so many Native Hawaiians. And after reading so much about ghosts in one of my classes this week, I am left wishing that she was not just beloved to us, but haunted the rest of America somehow.