I think each and every human being on earth has had a joke made at our expense, especially during childhood. Maybe some kid pulled out the chair from under you in second grade, and you fell flat on your tailbone in embarrassment. Maybe that kid you had a crush on in the fifth grade took a look at your teeth and declared you to be buck toothed. (yes, these examples are loosely based on my own experiences.) Maybe your kids have experienced the same. That's the meanness of kids, and we work hard as parents to teach our kids to take the high road and never want to be the parent of the bully.
Have you ever had someone take a look at you, and not see just you, but an entire group of people.... not just that group, but a caricature of that group, or a generalization based on their personal idea of that group? Again, I'm sure most of us have. As a Christian, I have had many people deride conservative Christians, and look point blank at me and say, "but not you." But that's not the generalization that struck deepest.
I was born in American Samoa, the tow-headed daughter of Indiana born and raised caucasian parents. We moved to Hawaii when I was still a baby, so it has always been my other home, even though I've now lived in the mainland just as long as I lived there. I was so blonde that tourists from Japan asked to take my picture and my parents saved a copy of National Geographic with a nordic girl on the cover who looked just like me. I'm as white as it gets.
I was raised in a nurturing family on the West Side of O'ahu. My dad was an elementary school teacher on the Waianae coast and my mom worked in Honolulu as a legal secretary. I was also very dorky. I had bunny rabbit teeth and most of the kids at school called me teacher's pet because I liked to get my work done, and sometimes the teacher used it as an example. I was also very shy. Kids regularly called me buck tooth, and haole, and many wanted to know when I was going back to the mainland. I ended up gravitating toward mainland kids, because they were nice to me, but they always moved away. And there I was.
I had the honor of having a part in the annual May day pageant showing the prince and princesses of each the Hawaiian Islands. I was cast as a missionary. I only began to wonder recently if people looked at me in a negative light as walked up beaming with one of the few other white kids in the school. Hawaii was united in 1795 under a Hawaiian king--Kamehameha, shortly after the first Europeans happened upon the islands. In the meanwhile, the Hawaiian population was decimated by foreign diseases they had no immunity to. American missionaries came to share the Christian faith with the people of Hawaii. Tragically, their children turned from their mission of service and became involved in an overthrow of the monarchy in 1893. Native Hawaiians were relegated to areas that were less profitable and foreigners took the other land for plantations and business areas. In 1959, after much fear of invasion by various countries, Hawaii became the 50th state of the Union.
So when one looks back objectively, one can see that of course there would be mistrust of white people. Even today, the wealthiest areas of the islands tend to be dominated by non-native people. But you cannot explain this to a shy young child, that a tumultuous and tragic 200 year history with people of European descent may be the reason she feels ostracized. In fact, the very kids who made the flippant remarks to me based upon my skin most likely did not think much about why they had a disdain for people who looked like me. It was likely something they overheard that may have been based in very real and painful experiences endured by their family members and friends. "Haole" is a Hawaiian word that merely refers to the fact that someone is different than you and may come from another land. Over time, it became a negative, a way to bottle up the anger at injustices endured, and was perpetuated. I don't think it was ok that people use the word in this way, but I do completely understand it.
The difference between the word "haole" and the kinds of language tossed around by people in the mainland in reference to African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, people who are gay, etc, is that it refers to a person in the position of power. Although our country was founded on premises of freedom, the undercurrent of imperialism and domination over other cultures and peoples has in recent years again risen to the surface and must be acknowledged, whether we personally perpetuate it or not. Indeed, if we do not acknowledge it, we take part in its continuing.
I'm reminded of a 1997 song by the Indigo Girls:
"Let's go road block trippin in the
middle of the night up in Gainesville town
There'll be blue lights flashing down the long dirt road when they ask me to step out
They say we be looking for illegal immigrants can we check your car
I say you know it's funny I think we were on the same boat back in 1694
I said oo la la
shame on you"
The original european settlers who came to the americas were looking for freedom and a fresh start. Many came as indentured servants who worked their way to freedom. Eventually, the human penchant for greed overtook many people in power and the millions of Native Americans who were already here were treated as less than human in order that the kind of treatment they endured could be justified. The same occurred when slaves were brought from Africa. The same happened as manifest destiny was carried out and the USA pushed its way across the continent and into surrounding oceans. The USA was populated with immigrants, some of whom in turn proceeded to suppress for others the very freedoms they were seeking. Even though the USA no longer continues to expand, we can see in our trade policy, that corporations do not have qualms about taking advantage of impoverished peoples in order to make products for the least cost possible to consumers. In the same way, undocumented workers and other migrants do the labor jobs that we do not want to do in the farm and service industries, and they are often treated as an annoyance.
How did this happen? How can you look at a young mother and tell her that she must give up her son for sale? How do you tell another young mother that she must leave her home walk with her children 1,200 miles on foot to territory you have allocated for her? How can we ask people to work 18 hours in a factory to build something that is made to break the first day we use it? How can we be so concerned about healthy living and then ask farm workers to be subject to toxic levels of pesticides?
It happens when we remove ourselves from the consequences of our actions by allowing politicians and corporations to do the dirty work. It happens when in passing, a comment is made about "those immigrants who just want to live on welfare" and no one taking a moment to check that argument. It happens when people say they are offended by the gay agenda or black lives matter movement. It happens when we look at a mass exodus of human beings from repressive government and do not take them into the safety of our land. It happens when we look at a woman seeking a position of leadership and see her as weak or out of place, and instead choose a man, and it likewise happens when in popular culture we portray men as bumbling and hormone driven.
So if that's how it happens, how does it end? It ends when we become involved in local politics, from the school district, to the city, the state and beyond. It happens when we do not understand a group of people and take the time to research the history of that group, and why they may feel so angry, fearful or misunderstood. It happens when we choose to end the cycle of history by remembering things that happened in times before our great grandparents and vow to fight against them happening again. It happens when we vote with our dollars, by being aware of what kind of working conditions they support. It happens when we remember that our children go to school with immigrants and we have family members and friends who are part of the LGBTQ community and when we demand kind and understanding treatment of those people around us. It happens when women and men partner in leadership, honoring one another in their strengths, and complementing one another in their weaknesses.
It happens when we really see our African American friends, who are likely descended from people who only 150 years ago were traded as property, and fight our hardest so that not one of their grandchildren is ordered to "go back to Africa." It happens when we set aside fears and allow refugees to live among us, and when we smile into the eyes of a person wearing middle eastern dress. It happens when we stand with the first peoples of the lands our country represents and say that we see them, that we hear them and we support them when they say they want to look after the land we live in. It happens when we live what Genesis 2:15 says: "The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
For those who are Christians, the command is clear, but the ideas extends to people of all religious or non-religious persuasions:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 And Jesus replied to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself [that is, unselfishly seek the best or higher good for others].’ 40 The whole Law and the [writings of the] Prophets depend on these two commandments.”
Every year, our local schools do an anonymous "healthy youth survey." It attempts to understand how our youth make the the choice between healthy and unhealthy living. One of the most profound things I learned by looking through the statistics was that children are more likely to engage in destructive behaviors if they believe society condones them, and most especially if they believe their parents approve of them. So this is how we change society: by how we ourselves live and interact with one another. Our children are watching. There's a reason for that Bible verse that says "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it." Our kids aren't going to be little clones of us, but their lives will in many ways reflect the many every day interactions they witness.
On the eve of the election, I was talking with a friend, and she was wrestling with how we live in the fallout of this toxic election cycle. She mentioned that simple little reminder that many of us churchy types learned as kids: What would Jesus do? Jesus related to people in stories and questions. He was stern and clear in His words, and rarely became physically angry, except in the case of the money changers in the temple. He helped everyone he could and lived by example. He ate with those others considered deplorable. He touched those others considered to be dirty. He pointed out hypocrisy but lived in humility.
As I have been wrestling over the past week with how I personally as a mom, a wife and a citizen should respond to the current political situation, I am reminded, as many others are too, that I must begin in my own home. In my home, my children should be above reproach in the way they speak of others. They should treat their family and extended family with honor. I should treat them in turn with respect and take time to listen to their fears, frustrations and concerns, and I should also take the time to explain why certain levels of respect and honor are due to others. In the ways I speak of my neighbors and even those I am frustrated with, I should be careful to avoid assumption and generalization, and instead I should extend grace, forgiveness and love. I should live by example in my community and circle of friends, and I should step out of those areas to understand others better.
Mostly, I want to, as a haole, use my position of power I did not earn as a force for good. I want to work toward a world in which white is not synonymous with all kinds of pejoratives but instead with love and kindness. I want to work toward a world where no child is asked to go home or called a racial slur. I am thankful for the painful experiences I had in the early elementary school years, because they helped me to see the pain that exists when people are treated as less than equal.
I am thankful for all the love and Aloha I felt in Hawaii as I headed into my upper elementary and middle school years. As I grew older, it was very rare to encounter racial generalization and mainly all I experienced was love. It is this kind of love that I want to extend in my life, and it is this kind of love that I hopes spreads contagiously through my home, our town, our country and the world. Let's live in love.