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Maui, a Paradise of Racial Tolerance?

04/24/2014 07:21 pm 19:21:54 | Updated Jun 24, 2014

My husband and I were always proud to have an "international marriage," as it was called in Japan. I was an American expat living in Tokyo and my husband was Japanese. Our marriage spanned two nations and two cultures, and for us it seemed ideal. Not long after we were married, we saw a TV documentary in which mixed-race children around the globe were interviewed about their experiences. In each case, the children complained bitterly about the lack of a single identity, about not knowing where they belonged, and about the racism they experienced from the races of both parents. There was only one exception, the young man who lived in Hawaii. Being from two cultures and two races was, for him, the best thing in the world. He talked happily of having the best of both cultures, of speaking two languages, of celebrating all the festivals, of having the most fun and best of all, of eating a variety of delicious food. I turned to my husband and said, "If we have children, we're moving to Hawaii." He agreed.

When my daughter was born, we talked of moving often but it didn't happen until we began the search for an elementary school. We spoke with many parents and children and while most were content with schools in Japan, there were several students who experienced serious bullying because of their mixed race heritage. Some were taken out of school to be home-schooled. Some were put into expensive, private international schools but the emotional scaring remained.

A few months later we moved to Maui. We told my daughter how lucky she was to have two cultures and two passports and how wonderful it was to be able to live on Maui and visit Japan. She embraced it all and like most of her new friends, she was proud to be Hapa, the Hawaiian word for half. As a family, we appreciated that all children in Hawaii are cherished and being Hapa was the most normal thing of all.

Most people think of Maui as a paradise because of its beautiful beaches and terrific weather. But for us, Maui was an island of wonderfully kind people living in a paradise of zero racism. Once we settled in, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Not only was our diverse family accepted, we blended right in with everyone else.

Soon my daughter was inviting her new friends over to play in our condo pool. Her friends were from every possible combination of different backgrounds: Asian, Caucasian, Hawaiian, Tongan, African-American and Hispanic. Once in awhile my African-American neighbor would stop by and watch them play. "Your daughter and her friends are Martin Luther King's dream come to life," she once told me. And it was a beautiful sight to see, not just because of the children's diversity, but because they had no idea that race mattered to anyone. They didn't know what racism was, and didn't learn about it until they were much older and studied it in school. Even then, it was a distant, historical subject, an oddity that happened only on the mainland. In short, they just couldn't believe that people acted that way toward each other. Their worst fears were that something like that might happen to one of their friends, if they visited the mainland.

Unfortunately life in the islands has not always been a paradise of tolerance. In 1893, after years of turmoil instigated by small groups of mostly American businessmen, missionaries and sugar plantation owners, Hawaii's monarch, Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown. This coup took place with the help of the U. S. military. The reason they gave was that it was necessary to protect American interests and the American citizens who lived in Hawaii. An act of aggression on this scale would cause an international outcry today, but in 1893 it went unchecked. The problems for Hawaii didn't end there. There was racism on the part of the white overseers and bit by bit, the Hawaiians lost their ancestral lands.

A local man once told me that his family originally owned several miles of beach front property. But their land was taken away until they owned enough land for just one house and they struggled to pay their property tax. "This land was ours for hundreds of years before the US government took over. Why do we have to pay property taxes now? I'll pay income tax, sales tax, any kind of tax they want, but I don't think Hawaiians should pay property tax." In a culture where the aina, the land is everything, he spoke without any anger or racism but only from a place of deep sadness.

When Hawaii was annexed by the United States in 1898, Princess Kaiulani, the heir to the Hawaiian throne, said that when she saw the Hawaiian flag being taken down, "it was bitterer than death." Hawaii finally became a state in 1959 but culturally, it is and will always be its own proud Hawaii.

In light of its history, why then is Hawaii this present-day oasis of racial equality? I give credit to the Hawaiian people who believe in 'doing what is Pono,' which translates to 'doing what is right.' In short, they chose the higher road and I have the greatest respect for the people of Hawaii. If Maui is a paradise, it is first and foremost because of its people, and I will always be eternally grateful for what Maui gave to my daughter, a much cherished childhood of racial acceptance, a childhood in paradise.