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.

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One thought on “Distorted optics: political visibility in Hawaiʻi

  1. This doesn’t surprise me at all as Malia Zimmerman’s paper – Hawaii Reporter has been nothing but a repository for mostly foreigners who are upset at the fact that they cannot get a hold of some of the money that is available for a few select people. I really didn’t expect much from that paper to begin with and this ad only proves what I always knew, but now at least other people can see what I’ve been seeing.

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