More than a “Night of Harmless Fun”: Hawaiian-Themed Parties and Cultural Appropriation as Genocide

In January, a student union at my university decided to throw a “Hawaiian night” theme party. When a few students, including myself, raised the concern that it was culturally appropriative (not to mention stereotypical and inaccurate), the backlash was fierce. In response, I (with input from friends) wrote this piece for The Sheaf, the University of Saskatchewan student newspaper. What appears here is the updated version of the article for a critical set.

ASSU Hawaiian Night

More than a “Night of Harmless Fun”: Hawaiian-Themed Parties and Cultural Appropriation as Genocide

“Oversensitive”; “political correctness gone mad”; “it wasn’t racist until you made it racist”, “just let us have our fun”; these are some of the comments we received when we suggested that throwing a “Hawaiian Night” party might be a problem.

To paraphrase the wonderfully blunt Lesley Kinzel in her article “Casual Racism is not my Spirit Animal,” the phrase “politically correct” has lost all meaning except for reflecting nostalgia on the part of the speaker for a time when they could be as racist as they wanted without worrying about having their inappropriate behavior called out.

The event was advertised via Facebook (beware the hateful comments, as always) and posters around the university. The poster depicted a white, dark-haired surfing pinup girl in a yellow bikini. The image was taken from a vintage Hawaiian airlines ad. “Aloha”, says the text placed below her.

After complaints, the event was quickly changed to a more ambiguous “Tropical Night”, but the activities remained the same: hula, limbo, with encouragement to wear floral shirts, grass skirts and leis.

My partner made a comment after seeing the event page: “Seems like ‘Tacky White Tourist’ would be a more fitting theme.”

A justification used by the students union was that the event was supposed to be a “celebration” of Hawaiian culture, an argument often used to support the use of Native American sports team logos (ex. Redsk*ns). As I mentioned earlier, the event included a limbo contest (which is Trinidadian and not Hawaiian in origin), demonstrating quite clearly the lack of concern with which this event to “honor Hawaiians” was thrown together. Planners of such events seldom consider the actual living people of said cultures in their planning process and only claim this intention after the fact —when they have been called out.

Cultural appropriation is the use of often oversimplified, packaged versions of the culture of oppressed groups. It’s not just about “using” something from another culture, though, it’s about power dynamics – the ability to determine the identity (and thus perpetuate the dehumanization and essentialization) of oppressed, marginalized, racialized groups.

An excerpt from Kanaka Maoli blogger Natalee Kehaulani’s amazing post “Hawaiian Themed Parties (don’t do it)“:

Any time we use someone else’s culture as a theme, we are treading on very thin ice, and we are reducing an entire group of people and all of their history to a single essential image.  In short, we are allowing a large number of non-Hawaiians to decide what Hawaiian “is” – what it looks like, how it performs, etc….

Now, I understand that most Americans don’t think of Hawaiians as a “real” group of people – this has happened deliberately and structurally through centuries of colonial mentality.  This why it is even more important that you NOT further the idea that “Hawaiian” is a theme, a décor, a commodity available to anyone.  To do so would be damaging on so many levels.

So, we met with the students union, alongside members of the Department of Native Studies and a Skyped-in Hawaiian scholar, who discussed the real world implications of colonization and tourist culture in Hawai’i.

Rather than apologizing or admitting that it was maybe a silly choice, some of the students in charge of organizing the party went on the defensive: claiming that those who had raised concerns about the party (primarily young Women of Color) were discriminating against the organizers (primarily white women and men) by calling them “racist”. This comment was made online (verbatim) by the president, a white woman:

“I gotta be honest, this was something that caused me a lot of anxiety and stress over one single day. and the fact that people tried to suggest the ASSU or myself as racist is—I am gonna say—more hurtful than our tourist-y depiction of Hawaii. So now that we have changed it and publicly apologized I hope we can move passed this. I attempted to take the most intelligent and diplomatic route I possibly could. thanks.”

White privilege is believing that “one single day” of stress from being called out on your racism is worse than a life of being subjected to racism.

Let’s be clear: at no point did those protesting the event theme attack the individuals who created it. Sure, people often act in racist ways without ***consciously*** understanding the effects or causes of their actions. I say “consciously” because we learn from a young age to unconsciously perpetuate white supremacy and patriarchy. We are bombarded with stereotypical, superficial images of Hawai’i and other cultures, and we do not learn to question it. However, if even after you are educated on the issue, the choice is made to continue with hurtful actions or avoid responsibility for past hurtful actions, it is not my job (or the job of anyone marginalized by your actions) to try and teach you or feel sorry for your lack of understanding. Folks who continuously participate in the oppression of others are not free from responsibility because they aren’t explicitly guided through their every day lives on how to treat us with basic respect.

So often, apologies from organizations regarding discrimination include some variation of the phrase “but our intentions were good”. While it’s fine to say this, ignorance does not absolve you of responsibility, and it makes any apology seem much less sincere. Nor is “I’m sorry you were insulted” an acceptable apology. Particularly as elected student representatives that serve diverse constituents, it is your duty to ensure that no voices marginalized or silenced, and to deal with complaints in a respectful and professional manner.

Over the past weeks, students and even faculty have received hateful, personal attacks as a result of speaking out against the “Hawaiian Night” theme. The simple and obvious explanation is that when Indigenous people and People of Color speak out against problems in our society that affect us directly, we are attacked. We are attacked by those who would prefer that we stay silent and not challenge their entitlement and privilege.

Now, we yield to the voices of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) – voices that are rarely included, consulted, or even considered during the planning of “Hawaiian” parties. In her influential piece “Lovely Hula Hands: Corporate Tourism and the Prostitution of Hawaiian Culture“, Kanaka Maoli scholar Haunani Kay-Trask explains why Western exotification of Hawaiian culture (and particularly, Native Hawaiian women) is a problem:

“Hawai’i-the word, the vision, the sound in the mind-is the fragrance and feel of soft kindness. Above all, Hawai’i is “she,” the Western image of the Native “female” in her magical allure. And if luck prevails, some of “her” will rub off on you, the visitor. […]Tourists flock to my Native land for escape, but they are escaping into a state of mind while participating in the destruction of a host people in a Native place.”

Why should this all matter to you, or even to me as an First Nations person all the way in Canada? After all, it’s just a theme party – “a night of harmless fun” as commenters claimed.

Unfortunately, the reality is that for Indigenous peoples of the world (whether in Saskatchewan or Hawai’i) our cultural traditions, ceremonies, and languages have been deemed inferior, primitive and illegal by colonial governments. Indigenous folk risked serious persecution to preserve traditions such as hula or pow wow (“persecution” here denoting violent beatings, sexual violence, and death, not just monetary fines) and mere decades later, superficial and insultingly inaccurate imitations of these traditions are used by people with no idea of the ceremonial significance for what they consider a “night of harmless fun”.

As Indigenous people our lands, bodies, and our traditions are not ripe for conquest; they are not terra nullius; they do not belong to you, and we will not quietly accept violence from those whose privilege has taught them to believe a night of “fun” is more important than our survival and wellbeing.

Good Philosophers Don’t Have Anxiety Attacks: on mental health, race, and belonging in the classroom

“When Canadian society says we’re sick that’s like a psychopathic killer complaining to someone he’s tried to strangle repeatedly that she should do something about the marks on her neck and see a psychiatrist about her recurrent nightmares and low self-esteem.” – Richard Bull

Last term, I confided in a professor that I was struggling with anxiety attacks and depression. She seemed understanding.

A few weeks after the class ended, I learned that she had brought the issue up at an informal departmental gathering, telling grad students and professors that anxiety is often an “excuse” used by students who want an easy ride.

I’ve been treated for depression since I was 13 (I’m 23 now), but I had never dealt with panic attacks before last term. Before I had a panic attack, I didn’t understand how they worked. I assumed that a panic attack was something attributable to not having enough discipline over one’s emotions, or something that only occurred during particularly traumatic events.

Seemingly out of nowhere, I had trouble going in to her classroom. I would stand outside the door, pacing back and forth – working up the courage to enter that I knew would never come – sometimes for nearly an hour. Inevitably, I would get upset with myself for not being able to do something as stupidly simple as opening a door and walking into a classroom. “Just do it”, I told myself aloud, but my body would not move. How comical and strange for any onlookers, or for the students on the other side of the door who had no idea of the struggle taking place right outside the classroom. My inability to overcome this predicament using the “rational” part of my brain (a mortal sin for a philosopher) left me frazzled, and though I tried to stop it, I would always start crying.  It was obvious then, as soon as my inner turmoil had manifested on my body in the form of smudged eyeliner and puffy eyes, I absolutely could not enter the classroom. At this point I would give up, go home, and be entirely useless for the rest of the day.

I would never feel comfortable entering a classroom, or meeting, where I can’t afford to show any extra vulnerability if it was visible that I had recently been crying. It is important to me to feel “put together” at school. I take pride in my appearance; it helps me feel confident and capable when I think I look confident and capable. Tanisha C. Ford has an in-depth discussion on the politics of style for women academics of color here. It is apparent that as Women of Color in universities, even as students, we are held to rigorous standards where we are expected to constantly prove that we are worthy of being academics. Presentation, performance, and adornment are certainly a part of this.

I’ve earned a reputation of competence around my school as a senior level undergraduate, but my earlier years were different. As a young Woman of Color (and a visibly Native woman, to boot), not much was expected of me. At my school, 50% of Aboriginal undergraduates drop out in their first year. As the Native woman in a classroom full of white students, studying a white, male dominated discipline, I am aware that my presence is constantly scrutinized. I become the representative for all Native people, and anything I do wrong is attributable to my genetics. If I enter a classroom late, if I answer a question incorrectly, if I misspeak, if I don’t speak, if I speak too much, if I get a bad grade, it’s not just a personal failure but a failed responsibility to break stereotypes and represent all Native people everywhere in a positive way.

…No pressure, kids.

Working with high school and first-year undergrad Native students, I know this pressure is a common source of stress. I, like many others, am the first in my family to graduate high school, and go to university. I am proud of this achievement, but it makes me fear any type of perceived failure to the point where it is often paralyzing. This fear was a major source of my discomfort in the classroom. Well, that, accompanied with a healthy dose of racism.

One of the risks about being in a philosophy class is that you have to be ready to talk about personal, political issues – particularly in an ethics course. Generally, I am not someone who is afraid of standing my ground in these discussions. However, I lost count of the times I felt alienated during discussion in this particular class. I got tired of being the only one challenging casual racism in the pseudo-anthropological musings of my peers on issues of cultural relativism, ex. “Well you know, for the tribal people of X, cannibalism and Female Genital Mutilation are morally acceptable practices. Do you still agree that morals are culturally relative?” that became a near daily occurrence.

At the end of the class, our final essay assignment was based on the following thought experiment by Bernard Williams, from “A Critique of Utilitarianism”:

Jim and the Indians

Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are a row of twenty Indians, most terrified, a few defiant, in front of them several armed men in uniform. A heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and, after a good deal of questioning of Jim which establishes that he got there by accident while on a botanical expedition, explains that the Indians are a random group of the inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protestors of the advantages of not protesting. However, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion, the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, then there is no special occasion, and Pedro here will do what he was about to do when Jim arrived, and kill them all. Jim, with some desperate recollection of schoolboy fiction, wonders whether if he got hold of a gun, he could hold the captain, Pedro and the rest of the soldiers to threat, but it is quite clear from the set-up that nothing of the sort is going to work: any attempt at that sort of thing will mean that all the Indians will be killed, and himself. The men against the wall, and the other villagers understand the situation, and are obviously begging him to accept. What should he do?

After the professor read this aloud, I sat there with every muscle in my body tensed, wishing for the class to be over so I could leave. The worst part, of course, was that no one objected or even questioned the use of this thought experiment – not even me. I didn’t have the patience to explain why it’s messed up to teach an unnecessarily racialized, stereotypical story that deprives Indigenous people of autonomy, in a classroom where you have one Native student, in a discipline that struggles with inclusion of People of Color and women at all levels.

I had become convinced that I was not welcome and that I did not belong in this classroom, maybe not even in philosophy, and “Jim and the Indians” solidified that thought in my mind. I was rendered voiceless. This is a feeling I wish I could share with the professor who told my peers and colleagues that my anxiety was a made-up excuse; who believed that I just wanted it easy.

The rate of suicide in Canada’s First Nations youth is ranked among the highest in the world. Regardless of intelligence, effort, or rationality, I found myself incapable of finding a place to belong in this classroom, as many school-aged Indigenous youth and youth of color do, and furthermore, I was shamed for my depression and anxiety. I still struggle with anxiety, and though hopeful, I recognize that it is something I will likely have to work on for the remainder of my life. I know I will be in situations in the future where I am faced with more “Jim and the Indians”-style content, and I hope I will not be afraid to challenge it.

I choose to share my experience because as Native youth, we need to be open and supportive of each other regarding our struggles for wellbeing. We need to take initiative to recognize and correct unsafe educational environments, and constantly remember that we belong at the university, regardless of the violence that tells us otherwise.