What does it mean to be Hawaiian?

The release of 2010 census figures serves as a reminder of how complicated it can be to answer what would be a simple question in any other state: what does it mean to be Hawaiian and what does it mean to you you’re traveling to Hawaii.

If you are born in Texas, for example, you are certainly Texan. I use that as an example because Texas has a h3 state identity and was an independent republic before joining the United States, so there are some parallels with Hawaii. This is Texan by birth. Some people become Texan by living in the state for awhile. I say “some,“ because others seem to remain “Yankees” forever. “Yankee” is the Texas equivalent of “Haole” in Hawaii – it means you ain’t from around these parts. Often, the people who live in Texas but don’t consider themselves Texan are there involuntarily: for jobs, in the military, as seasonal residents, or with a spouse who is Texan. This is Texan by self-identification, which must include geography but also includes an attitude about being part of the community.

There is certainly a racial part as well. Texas has uneasy race relations between and among whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians. Some racial or ethnic groups may wish to exclude others from being true Texans but it’s a hard argument to make. The founding documents for the Republic included inpiduals from Mexico and the eastern United States, and black residents go back that far as well. However, the interesting thing to me is that WITHIN each ethnic group, there are clearly Texans and non-Texans. Latinos in New Mexico or Colorado are different from their Texas relatives. I grew up in Kansas with Texas cousins and there was no doubt who was who at the family reunions. So, while people of many ethnic groups are Texan, there is no Texas race.

In contrast, “Hawaiian” is identified as a race and is counted in the census. The 2010 figures show 80,337 Hawaiians, 5.9% of the state population. To some, this is what it means to be Hawaiian; you must be a member of this race. Others would include the next census category, that of Hawaiian plus one other race. There are about 4,000 of these identified in the census for a total of 84,480 who are Hawaiian alone or in combination with one other race. Most would also consider these to be “Hawaiian.” The complicated part comes in the third census category: Hawaiian alone or in any combination: 289,970. There is also a broader category of Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander; this is the line often shown on summaries and amounts to ten percent of Hawaii residents but just .02 of the U.S. population.

Some in Hawaii take this more expansive approach to identification – you’re Hawaiian if you have any lineage of the race. That is not the approach taken in government or private programs that restrict some benefits to Hawaiians, but is often a more casual or social recognition. A different definition of Hawaiian was proposed unsuccessfully in a recent Supreme Court case: you are Hawaiian if you can trace your lineage to someone who was a citizen of the Kingdom of Hawaii. That is an interesting approach because the Kingdom of Hawaii included citizens of many races. The political identification was more like the Republic of Texas in that citizenship was living in the area plus wanting to be part of the community. In 1800, I could be white and Hawaiian while that is not possible today. Being “Hawaiian” has come to require some racial component. It has also removed the geographic component. A child born in Texas of parents who are racially Hawaiian is Hawaiian while a white child born in Hawaii is not. The census shows a total of 156,146 Native Hawaiians living in the United States, which means almost as many Hawaiians live outside Hawaii as live here.

So, there are many answers to what it means to be Hawaiian and all are bound up in the complicated history of these islands. No visitor can hope to decipher which is the correct answer, and does not need to. Two things are clear: (1) being born or living in Hawaii alone is not enough to be Hawaiian and (2) being polite and sensitive to the host culture will get you a long way in Hawaii or Texas (or anywhere else).

I want to thank the agents of Hawaii Aloha Travel for their insightful comments on an earlier blog post: The people of Hawaii.