Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Senator Hapa

I have done my best to forget my tour in Hawaii. Anyone who has lived on the economy NOT on the Windward side and had tried to put kids through local schools knows what I mean.
Hawaii is acutely conscious of — you could say hung up on — racial, ethnic and cultural differences.

People in this motley state, less a melting pot than a tossed salad, invented a host of slang terms for themselves. A pidgin English field guide would list buk-buks, pakes, buddaheads, katonks, mokes, titas, popolos, yobos, blalahs, haoles and portagees. These labels can be affectionate or angry, though they are usually used neutrally or with just mild rudeness, often in the kinds of ethnic jokes that passed out of polite favor on the mainland long ago.

Hawaii’s fixation on social taxonomy is also seen in the local habit of linking identity to diploma. The first question locals ask one another is where they went to high school. Implicit in the answer are a lot of assumptions about ethnicity and class, whether the school is Punahou (elite white and Asian), Iolani (elite Japanese), Farrington (working-class Filipino and Samoan) or whatever.

There is, in this crowded paradise, a slot for everybody.Or almost everybody.

For Mr. Obama, fitting in at Punahou could have been hard, given its reputation as a cliquish school dominated since missionary days by the rich white people who founded it. Mr. Obama, a scholarship student, wasn’t rich and didn’t look white.
In one sense, he wasn’t alone. Being black isn’t common in Hawaii, but being biracial is. There’s a Hawaiian word for it — hapa, or half — that traditionally refers to combinations of white with Hawaiian or Asian, though many use it for any racial blend. Being hapa is hardly cause for discrimination in mixed-up Hawaii, but it can be problematic. Dwelling on it can tie a person in knots. It can be disorienting to feel forced to choose between identities when you are both and neither. It can be infuriating to be stared at by people trying to puzzle out what you are.

Vexations like these, felt by growing numbers of multiracial Americans, have helped to spur a blossoming of hapa awareness on the mainland. People are trying out the idea of a hapa culture that is greater than the sum of its parts. There are hapa conferences, hapa college clubs and hapa Web sites. More and more people consider the pursuit of hapaness to be the answer to the paradox of bifurcation. Certainly, it is powerful evidence of the irrepressible yearning for identity. So is Mr. Obama’s story, his restless searching for a solace that Hawaii could not offer.

I asked him recently about that search. He described a long process of pulling together the parts of his life before finding a skin he could live in. The multitudes that he contains — Kenya, Kansas, Hawaii, Indonesia, Harvard, Illinois — could have been arranged in infinite ways. But he settled in long ago as an African-American in Chicago, a professor turned politician in one of the most segregated cities in America.

The first thing he asked me was what high school I had gone to.
From Lawrence Downs, this does help explain why Sen. Obama (D-IL) goes to the church he does.

I only lived there a few years and am still angry about the toxic racial attitude of that state - he must have that feeling in spades.

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