Racism: it’s in no way subtle. But neither is it consistent. There are ironies that would be laughable if they weren’t so painful. Like a bad joke, it only hurts when I laugh. So our president, Mr. Barack Obama – whose mother hails from Kansas and whose father was the son of an African tribal chief (making our president by any mathematical calculation half white and half black, and royalty to boot) – had his fate sealed in American eyes, word, and deed. He is simply “Black;” no subtleties are permitted.
Obviously this has been the fate of almost every American descendent of African slaves and European slave owners in this nation. There is nothing new here. It is the nature of racism.
But therein lies the irony. Because for Native Hawaiians – in American eyes, word, and deed – any drop of Caucasian blood diminishes their claim to native status. In this way Americans decimate and obliterate the native birthright to land that was never ours to claim. So ‘Iokepa Hanalei ‘Īmaikalani, with a Native Hawaiian father and a mother from Idaho, has been challenged by Americans (never by natives) as somehow less than the Hawaiian ancestry he claims and lives fully. Kanaka maoli, the original people, are inclusive. A single drop of native blood and the desire to claim it make you kin.
And yet a day doesn’t pass on the Islands when a tourist or a Caucasian resident doesn’t ask ‘Iokepa, “How much Hawaiian are you?” They are echoing the “blood quantum” measure that malevolent American politicians instituted in Hawai’i in 1921 to disenfranchise a native people and demolish their nation’s claim to independence and freedom.
‘Iokepa, facing the tactless question and allowing for simple ignorance, answers, “I am Native Hawaiian 100% of the time.”
This point was driven home last week. We were served dinner by a waitress in Gainesville, Florida. Lovely, smart, and a good waitress to boot – she shared the face and especially the eyes of ‘Iokepa’s daughter. We blurted out our take on the similarities and she responded.
“I’m not surprised. My father is full-blooded Cherokee. I’m enrolled in the tribe.” She spoke enthusiastically of her weekends on the reservation: sharing her indigenous culture, observing their ancient rituals. But then she added sadly, “Of course, I can’t take part in the ritual because I’m only half.”
‘Iokepa responded, “If that’s enforced, it won’t be long before not a single American Indian can participate. Are we going to stop performing ceremonies because someone else says so?”
She nodded knowingly.
So our president is diminished. He is less than for being half black. Native Americans and Native Hawaiians are diminished. They are less than for being half white. And perhaps that is the very purpose of racism: merely an excuse to eliminate those who don’t resemble us. It is neither subtle nor consistent, but it has been pretty damned effective.