Hawaiian Themed Parties (don’t do it)

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.

In Summary:

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.


5 responses to “Hawaiian Themed Parties (don’t do it)

  1. Pingback: summer at PPFA

  2. Pingback: More than a “Night of Harmless Fun”: Hawaiian-Themed Parties and Cultural Appropriation as Genocide | Moontime Warrior

  3. Thank you for your article. I am an American and studying in Europe in an international program. We throw a lot of cultural exchange parties. My problem is that after the Thanksgiving party last fall any “American” themed party will essentially be a collection of things from everyone else’s country that we just don’t do quite as well (we have people from every part of Europe, Mexico, Singapore, Turkey, and Indonesia).

    I thought Hawaii might be a good choice, uh…mostly because I have some bread mix from a bakery on the big island, near hilo. Also, it is one of the few parts of our country where the original culture is still reflected in the modern culture, so that makes modern Hawaiian culture uniquely American. The people in my program already have pretty stereotyped ideas about Hawaii. People in Europe don’t have to deal with racial or cultural diversity ad much and many European cultures are very homogenous. As advanced as Europe is in environmental and social protections, they can have trouble with diversity issues and people don’t tend to talk about them as much.

    My family goes to the big island every 6 years or so. We avoid tourist places and spend time with a local family we meant on one of our first trips, who is ethnically Hawaiian. I think I can do a “Modern Hawaii Feast” in a way that is educational and still fun.

    I am calling it a Modern Hawaii Feast and not a luau or Hawaiian party, to emphasize the fact that I am sharing my experience as a frequent tourist in Hawaii and not actual traditional Hawaiian culture. I am not allowing costumes and I am using note about costumes, in the invitation to talk about the history of cultural appropriation in the US.

    The girls really wanted leis, so I’m going to have people make “ribbon ti leaf leis”, and avoid tacky fake flower leis. Traditional foods are hard to get (I looked for poi and failed), so my plan to is to do luau foods and emphasize the fact that they are not traditionally Hawaiian, but they belong to different cultures that are part of the history of the state of Hawaii. People wanted to learn Hula and I learned (the very non-traditional) Hukilau in a Kona farmer’s market. I’m tempted to teach it to talk about hula as a form of storytelling. Do you think this would be ok? Do you have any additional suggestions?

    • Natalee Kehaulani

      Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I fully support any opportunity for you (or anyone) to speak of Hawai’i and Hawaiian culture in a manner that is accurate and educational. Most of the world, and certainly most of the US, considers Hawai’i to be no more than the 50th state (despite the illegality of this statehood) and no less than an exotic playground to which all are inherently owed admission. I wish you good luck with your event, and I do hope that it creates meaningful dialogue and reflection. I personally would not choose Hawai’i as part of an “American themed” event, because I (along with the UN and many independent nations) recognize the Kingdom of Hawai’i as a sovereign nation that is illegally OCCUPIED by the US. Maybe an “American” themed party might, perhaps, include things like baseball & apple pie? I realize it does not get more cliche than that, however I too am at a loss for what else you might include as symbolic of the US, other than a penchant for cultural appropriation, imperialism, and capitalism. Also, as an additional concern, the term “American” should include Central and South American countries, as well as the US. I know that many Asian and European countries/ citizens use “America” and “US” interchangeably, but Central and South Americans tend to, rightfully so, demand that the US not discursively construct itself in this manner as the only “America” that counts. (Apologies for the reductive explanation: late night typing on deep topics is not the best idea for me.)

      I hope this is helpful feedback. Good luck with your event.

      • Thank you! I am a bit confused about the idea that Hawaii isn’t “American” (my friends from Mexico and Guatemala say I can use this as an adjective, when “the states” and US won’t work, because that’s what they do). I agree that it is wrongfully and illegally occupied, but isn’t this somewhat true of the entire country? Doesn’t that make Hawai’i more, not less American?

        Here is what I understand: Native Hawaiians do not have tribal sovereignty and this is a problem. There is a lot to improve when it comes to tribal sovereignty. For example, the Souix should really have control over federally protected lands in the black hills. However, when it comes to Hawaiian sovereignty over the entire state, I am concerned that it would be prioritize one type of historical injustice over another. In my research, I came across the Alaska resolution and the fact that the ACLU was against it, because they felt that racially based nationhood set a dangerous legal president. I think they have a point there, although I understand that most people in Hawai’i supported the resolution.

        I actually arrived at Hawai’i by process of illumination. I’m from California and the local culture I am most familiar with is Mexican. However, there are three Mexicans in my program, so I’m not about to try that. Next I considered Sweden, because most of my ancestors are Swedish, but I’ve only spent a week in Sweden and don’t actually know how to make anything authentically Swedish. I thought Southern was a good choice and I lived in Atlanta last year. However, I’ve already introduced my friends to sweet tea and grilled peaches and most of the rest of Southern cuisine is off limits to me, because of a corn allergy. So that is how I got to Hawaiian Cuisine. What I have experience with and know how to do is actually a fusion Hawaiian, European, and Asian and I said this on my invitations. It was going to be just that, but when I mentioned Hawai’i, my friends wanted to do the whole Luau thing. I could either say “No” and just drop the whole thing, but I thought engaging with the idea might be better. So I said we can’t do a Luau, but we can do a “Modern Hawai’i Feast”, as long as there are no costumes. Right now, I’m in a conversation about vodka soaked watermelons, so we’ll see how it actually works out >.<

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