Sunday, April 23, 2017

Hawaii Is A Real Place

I was born in Hawaii, and lived there for the first decade of my life. My father was native Hawaiian, Chinese, and Portuguese and my mother is English. I grew up wrestling with difficult questions about race and identity, exacerbated by my own mixed blood and the feeling that I didn't belong anywhere, especially not after I left the island. As part of that, I feel a complicated mix of pride in Hawaii's history, anguish over the way it was illegally annexed and taken over by the United States government, and awareness that I was born a citizen of the United States and Hawaii is an important part of this nation now. My father served in the army during the Vietnam War, and that experience marked his entire life. In many ways, I'd say it was for the worse, but I also know I could never have buried him without the veterans benefits he had earned.

So this is complicated and important stuff.

I've had some weird racial experiences by virtue of coming from Hawaii. Once in the late 90s, near the Arizona border, I was pulled off a Greyhound bus by the INS, along with a group of Spanish-speaking people I'd been sitting with and talking to. (I think this may have been a case of racial-profiling-by-association, especially because when I'm tan I've often been mistaken for Latina). In the course of being searched and questioned, I presented my U.S. Passport. "Born in Hawaii?" the officer sneered. "When were you naturalized?"

To which I replied, "1959, when the territory was made a state." (I was born decades later than this.) I wish I'd said that to be clever or sarcastic, but I was speaking mostly out of utter confusion. I couldn't believe this person didn't know Hawaii was a state, and that I'd been a citizen all my life. But that was an important experience that taught me that not even my U.S. Passport could keep me safe from suspicion and ill treatment, from the sense that I somehow "don't belong here"—even though I've never lived in any other country.

I have sometimes been told, perhaps by people who are taking me for a Chinese immigrant, to "go home" or "go back to my own country." Again, I say, I have nowhere else to go. My home is in this country, and it has been for as long as I've been alive. And I find that brand of xenophobia particularly rich when it comes from the perspective of people who didn't respect the sovereignty of the Hawaiian nation. It makes me want to say, "No, you go home. Give the Hawaiian people back our kingdom. Give us self-determination. Give up the land you plundered."

I imagine, though I do not know for sure, that this bullshit happens to Native Americans from the continental United States, too. I bet they get told to "go home," and I bet they feel that particularly bitter burn in response as well. (And, for the record, that "go home" shit is an awful thing to say to anyone, it represents a piss-poor and cruel attitude, and anyone who says it should be ashamed of themselves, whether the target of the comment is an indigenous person or not. In no way do I mean to imply that it is "okay" to say this to actual immigrants. It is not. What I am highlighting here is that it is racist, cruel, and bitterly ironic to tell indigenous people to "go home.")

So there is some context that might help a person understand how I felt when I read this quote from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions:

"I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the President of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and Constitutional power."

I know I'm not the only one who's talked about how upsetting it is for a quote like this to come out of the U.S. Attorney General's mouth, but I feel it's important for me to say so as well, clearly and explicitly.

This quote brought me back to the incidents I've personally experienced, such as those I've described above. In a historical and political context, the statement is wrong and desperately unfair. (I'm focused here on the disparagement of Hawaii in particular, but I also want to note how wrong Jeff Sessions is about what's "clearly" the president's statutory and Constitutional power.)

For better or worse, Hawaii is an integral part of the union that makes up the United States. Pearl Harbor, anyone? My father, fighting in the Vietnam War wearing this nation's uniform. The heroism of former U.S. Senator Dan Inouye. The birthplace of former president Barack Obama. Patsy T. Mink, the first woman of color elected to Congress. Mazie Hirono, the first Asian-American woman in the U.S. Senate, and this nation's first elected Buddhist. I could go on and on.

What I felt when I first learned about the court ruling that prompted this statement was an intense sense of pride in my home. Hawaii is a diverse place, where people from many cultures must interact and work together, and it makes sense to me that a place like that would have an important message to send the nation as a whole about the harm that is done through bigotry and isolationism. Rather than disparaging the island in the Pacific where I was born, Jeff Sessions ought to be damn grateful that the United States gets to benefit from the perspective and wisdom that comes from that place.

And the sarcastic part of me says that if he thinks an island in the Pacific is so unimportant, he ought to ask himself why the United States government was so unwilling to give it back to its people after the illegal actions that overthrew its government in the first place...

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