Editor’s note: The headline of this article has been changed in the hopes that more people will take time to read past it and perhaps come to understand the purpose of the article better. The content remains the same.
It’s too bad Donald Trump didn’t grow up in the islands. Well, maybe not for folks who live here… but if he had, maybe some of his enormous hubris (which is rivaled only by his “yuge” hair) would have been deflated. In Hawaiʻi, if you act haole (outside of haole-only enclaves—and there are unfortunately plenty of those), you get challenged. This regrettably doesn’t always work to change the behavior, but for those of us who pay attention, there are important life lessons in being called out as haole.
I recount the following story in my 2010 book, Haoles in Hawaiʻi. I had the honor of taking classes as a graduate student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa with haole professor Phyllis Turnbull. Phyllis and her equally brilliant late husband, Murray Turnbull, moved to Oʻahu before Hawaiʻi was a state—they knew a little something about Hawaiʻi politics. A mainland haole student in one class continually complained about being called “haole.” She said it was racist and that people should stop using the word. Phyllis finally had enough. A woman of few, carefully chosen words, she said quietly, but directly, “You have three choices. You can be a haole, a dumb haole, or a dumb f—-ing haole. It’s up to you.” This is because “haole” names settler colonial whiteness in Hawaiʻi, and that is about history, positionality and performativity.
Pundits have been pontificating on “The Donald” for some time now pointing out the way he is stirring the pot of white (particularly male) vitriol, wondering how he “gets away with it.” He has been called the “god of rage” or a “volcano of white rage.” We have had endless debates over his racism, misogyny, bigotry and xenophobia. Those of us from the islands have no difficulty identifying Trump for what he is: the ultimate dumb f—-ing haole.
Let’s run it down. Trump talks too loud, never listens, takes up too much space, and is showy and obnoxious. He is totally oblivious of others (as evidenced by how he talks about communities in cartoonish, patronizing ways, “I love the undereducated,” and to African Americans, “What do you have to lose? Try something new, like Trump”). He is a textbook narcissist—everything is about him, his entitlement knows no end, he has zero empathy, he has a grandiose sense of his own importance, he believes he is incredibly smart, talented, strong—he is “a Winner.” He, and only he, can save America. He knows everything, has all the answers. Not only does he know nothing about communities of color, immigrant communities and indigenous peoples—he feeds white supremacist hysteria and victimhood. He and his followers are going to Make America White Again.
His campaign motto rings especially hollow in the islands, except for those with ardent haole attitudes about how Hawaiʻi is lucky to be part of the United States, which means residents should speak English and act more “American.” Not only has Hawaiʻi never had a white majority, it also has a very contested relationship with the U.S., given the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi and the subsequent illegal annexation and statehood. For many, Hawaiʻi is a “living nation” and that nation is not, and never was, “America.”
It’s worth contrasting our current President’s attitudes and behavior with this presidential contender. While the rest of “the country” obsessed about Obama’s Blackness during the 2008 campaign, folks in Hawai‘i were focused on his localness. Obama’s local markers include attire: slippers, aloha shirts or T-shirts (always untucked), dark wrap-around shades. There is also food: plate lunch, shave ice, dim sum, even spam musubi. Most importantly, Obama acts local. In the islands, as elsewhere during that campaign (and after), he was low-key rather than showy or aggressive (what pundits have called his “cool,” attributing it exclusively to Black culture) and often made fun of himself (humility and self-effacing humor are keys to local performance). He memorialized his mother by casting flowers from a lei into the ocean where her ashes were spread, and he came home to be with his tūtū before she died (we know respect for elders and ancestors is emphasized in many of the cultures that make up local identities). And of course, there is the naming of his first daughter, Malia.
The clincher to Obama’s local cred occurred, not surprisingly, in the water. To the delight of many, during his campaign he charged the waves at Sandy’s, a notorious body-surfing break on Oʻahu’s eastern shore, as he had done in his high school days, and showed good local-boy form in the water, even sans fins (since he became President, he has been prohibited from such “risky” water activity, which could partially explain his turn toward snorkeling, including getting in the water recently at the newly expanded Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument). An AP photo of Obama confidently gliding down a nice-sized wave made the front page of Hawai‘i papers and circulated nationally.
Lois-Ann Yamanaka wrote an op-ed about Obama in the New York Times that ran during the 2009 inauguration week. She said she never defined Obama as local until she saw the Sandy Beach photo. “He had that local-boy reach of the arm as he glided down a huge summer swell, the grace of his relaxed face, proud, turned into the tidal force of current, the way only a local boy can take a real wave and make it his very own ride, sleek and easy. A natural local boy.”
In this telling of the story, Yamanaka claims Obama as local and therefore belonging to Hawai‘i. The danger in this narrative is that it often obscures colonization so that local belonging is equivalent to, or even eclipses, Kanaka Maoli belonging. This is furthered by the evocation of Obama as “keiki o ka ‘āina” (child of the land), a narrative that was strong during the 2008 campaign and was reactivated in the battle to place the Obama Presidential Library in Hawai‘i. This type of narrative, where non-natives are indigenized, is one way non-natives replace natives and thereby claim belonging. I write about this in my new book, Staking Claim: Settler Colonialism and Racialization in Hawai‘i.
So, would Hawai‘i have turned Trump into a local haole had he grown up here? Can we imagine Trump exhibiting the same localness as Obama, even charging Sandy’s? As much as I would like to think that cultural challenges to haole are that strong, I fear Trump’s incredible arrogance would make him impervious. Plus, to take on Sandy’s you have to have respect for the ocean. I doubt “The Donald” ever met an aspect of the natural world he didn’t want to own and control—again, a very haole attitude. And given Trump’s obsession with borders and walls to “protect” America, it’s even harder to imagine him getting that Hawai‘i is the Kanaka Maoli homeland and nation. Maybe then, what Hawai‘i has to offer this presidential campaign is an understanding of Trump as the ultimate haole, as “dumb f—ing haole,” as that which one never wants to be.
Judy Rohrer grew up in Hawai‘i and earned her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Rohrer’s latest book, Staking Claim: Settler Colonialism and Racialization in Hawai‘i, was just released through The University of Arizona Press. Her first book, Haoles in Hawai‘i, was published in 2010 with the University of Hawai‘i Press.