I use a word in my column that until recently has never caused pause for me until recently. It’s a word we all know. I have known it my entire life. It’s been used to describe me. I’ve used it to describe myself and used it to describe others. But perhaps I shouldn’t.
I use the word “haole” interchangeably with Caucasian and white. No, I don’t apply the word to non-Hawaiians like Asians or even Portuguese. It was just the word we use to describe white people in Hawaii. But then not too long ago, someone pointed out to me that the word brought back painful memories of his school days, when local kids would use the term with disdain. I started talking to others about the use of the word, and many whites consider it racist or prejudicial.
Let’s start with its meaning; its literal meaning. One story is that the word means “without breath or life.” Many believe this word became associated with foreigners—particularly white foreigners—who were ignorant of the traditional greeting among Hawaiians, in which people got close enough to share each other’s breath. Those who didn’t do that were considered “without breath” or life (ha meaning breath or life and ole meaning without).
This origin has its critics. University of Hawaii linguist Albert Schutz pointed out that this origin story is too dismissive of the languages use of long vowels and glottal stops. The word haole has neither the ‘okina or the kahako, while the shorter words ha (with a long “a”) and ’ole does. For Schutz, there is no evidence that this is the true etymology of the word.
The term was around before statehood. Nineteenth-century scholar, David Malo, uses it in his writings to refer to not people, but things that were of foreign origin. Chants use the word to describe people from far off places like Tahiti or the Marquesas.
At some point, the word went from describing something foreign to describing an ethnic group: Caucasians. When that happened is unclear, but it might have happened fairly early on. Hawaiian dictionaries point out that Native Hawaiians used the term to apply to Americans and Europeans during the period of the kingdom.
Now I personally have nothing wrong with the word—even when it’s used as a pejorative. Kanaka maoli, a newer term used to describe Native Hawaiians, have a long and justified list of grievances against the whites who came to the islands.
Caucasians may have brought over things like mirrors, nails, and other trinkets that were alluring at the time, but they also brought disease, capitalism, and a way of thinking and life that resulted in complete destruction to their way of life and culture. They were the harbingers of great change for the islands and its inhabitants. And not every change was a good thing.
Being mad at what happened is understandable. After all, the whites came to these islands and took everything. They introduced diseases, converted inhabitants to a new religion, made up private property, and then brought about the overthrow of an independent kingdom.
The sentiment isn’t reserved for just Hawaiians. During the plantation era, sugar and pineapple companies brought in whites to run their plantations and it didn’t matter how much experience they had in the islands. They oversaw workers and managers of other races. Even in our post-plantation era, Caucasians still are in management and leadership positions—and it’s worse when folks are imported from the mainland.
At that point, the word haole meant more than just white, which is why Portuguese folks aren’t considered haole. Locals use the term to describe a certain insensitivity to the island way of life. For example, if a person comes into a workplace and constantly talks about how things are done in far off and arguably more efficient places like California or the mainland, you might be branded a haole.
Which brings its usage on school campuses, the beach, and just about anywhere else in the islands. Is it an insult? Sure. It can be. The noun is oftentimes preceded by colorful adjectives like “dumb,” “stupid,” or of course, the gerund form of the f-word. It is oftentimes used to describe a white person who is out of step with local culture, but sometimes it is used well within local culture.
For many newcomers, who grew up and became accustomed to living within a white majority on the mainland, this is a jarring and shocking experience. But that doesn’t mean it’s justified to make fun of someone’s race.
And that brings me back to my column. At first I felt that the word haole was perfectly fine. Those who were insulted by the term or hurt by it are just being too sensitive and need to realize the long history of imperialism here. But at the same time, it is unfair to judge folks and their attitudes toward the islands and its people by virtue of the color of their skin. So maybe I am the one who should be more sensitive.