It’s summer time, and inevitably some uninformed soul will invite me to an “Aloha” or “Hawaiian” themed party. They will ask my advice, ask to borrow music, and often times even ask to borrow clothes (because I am apparently known for keeping native garb or similarly fashioned costumes at the ready). Let me save you some embarrassment by warning you in advance of my response to your ignorant cultural appropriation. Aside from a simple, “no, thank you,” or an uncomfortable laugh at the invitation, I will give you at least the following SMALL lesson in history, etymology, and just plain common sense. You’re welcome.
On the words aloha and ‘ohana:
First off, there is a difference when Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians), or even other locals (non-haole) who have Hawaiian roots (geographically if not ethnically), invoke Hawaiian terminology. It’s part of their everyday language, as they have likely grown up speaking the local pidgin dialect. It “makes sense” when I hear them use Hawaiian words because they are speaking words of their own upbringing. They are not throwing around exotic words to sound interesting. However, because of the power of language, and the long history of the banning of the Hawaiian language and its connection to colonization, racism, power, etc., and the ongoing appropriation of all things Hawaiian for sale as tourist souvenirs, and because I’ve had many more conversations with indigenous scholars in the past year, I now understand and agree with them that it is inappropriate for those with no Hawaiian roots to invoke the Hawaiian language when there are other equally appropriate words available in English. This is especially true for the words aloha and ‘ohana because of the commercialization and bastardization of the term (most recently thanks to Disney’s Lilo & Stitch).
An example of seemingly innocuous use of another language:
I’m sharing this example as a means to make clear what I mean when I talk about the power of language: A friend of mine who is half white and half Japanese asked me the other day how I felt about her using the word hapa to describe herself. My first reaction was, “well, hapa means half, usually meaning half Asian and half Hawaiian, and everyone I know who is mixed in Hawai’i calls themselves hapa … why would I care?” Then we talked more about it, and she pointed me toward some writing of native scholars, and after 36 years of using hapa in this way, I changed my understanding/use of the word. The scholars I read gave the very clear example of how words have specific connotations, histories, and meanings, and why we have to be careful when appropriating them without thinking. For example, the word mulatto has a nearly identical meaning to hapa, yet it has a very specific cultural connotation. Like hapa, mulatto basically means “mixed”, but its roots are in slavery and oppression, initially referring to children who were the results of the raping of black women by white men. So, even though semantically mulatto and hapa mean the same thing, I’m sure there’s no one within a hundred miles who would not be offended if I started referring to myself as mulatto. With this analogy in mind, I can see very clearly why Hawaiians are and should be upset at the widespread use of the word hapa by people with absolutely no ties to Hawaii. So, when I think of the way the word ‘ohana is used outside of Hawaii, I think of this example as a good way to explain why we need to always be careful of how we use other people’s languages and how that is tied to power (generally power against the people whose language we are using).
Personally, I so often hear comments regarding the Hawaiian culture, or misuse of the Hawaiian language that are inappropriate in this manner – for example, someone (the leader of warm ups in a class I was taking) once suggesting that the hip rotations we were doing were “just like the hula”, which is a deeply sacred ritual but is seen as some random sexy hip-shaking dance. In my mind, I was like, “YO. Are you crazy? What do you know of hula? Just because we are rotating our hips you compare this to a sacred dance? Damn.” Next time we do hip rotations I might yell out that it is “just like a Zulu warrior dance” and see how well that goes over. Every time I hear ignorant Americans speak in this way it feels like just one small thing, however painful, but I let it go because I think it’s in my head or just about me. Now, this is my fault, because it’s not about me and I’m not overreacting — it’s 100% about the person using the language/culture in an inappropriate way, and I should know better than to let people get away with this verbal violence without calling them out. That time of silent acceptance has now passed.
Culturally themed parties in general:
Any time we use someone else’s culture as a theme, we are treading on very thin ice, and we are reducing an entire group of people and all of their history to a single essential image. In short, we are allowing a large number of non-Hawaiians to decide what Hawaiian “is” – what it looks like, how it performs, etc. To invite a group of non-Hawaiians to a Hawaiian themed party without their having any connection to or even basic knowledge of Hawai’i leaves the interpretation of my culture open to any and every stereotype out there. Not only would I have to witness this bastardization of my culture, but every person in the room would be reassured that these stereotypes are true, funny, okay, sources of entertainment, etc. To put this in a different light: imagine an African themed party. Or a Filipino themed event. Would you dare host such an event? Think of the anxiety, discomfort, and other emotions that would arise in those of African/Filipino ancestry (and hopefully would arise in any of us). We would never think of inviting our community to support us at a black themed event, or an Indian themed event… it shouldn’t invoke any less emotion in us to suggest a Hawaiian themed party.
Now, I understand that most Americans don’t think of Hawaiians as a “real” group of people – this has happened deliberately and structurally through centuries of colonial mentality. This why it is even more important that you NOT further the idea that “Hawaiian” is a theme, a décor, a commodity available to anyone. To do so would be damaging on so many levels.
If you are not Kanaka Maoli, you do not, no matter how much you insist, “have the aloha spirit.” You do not love your ‘ohana. You are not hapa. Hawaiian language and culture is NOT yours for appropriation, bastardization, or purchase, no matter what your American privilege has taught you. There are no exceptions to this rule.