A couple weeks ago I had a mild, 24-hour breakdown about the whole idea of "doing" history. What triggered it was, actually, camping outdoors at night, looking at the stars, and remembering how often I used to experience such wonderful things, and yet how rarely I have those experiences now that I am always spending my time reading and writing about other people's lives.
This breakdown made me question two possible "careers" and whether one was more valuable to me than the other: whether to research and tell stories about other people from the past (as I do now), or whether to create my own story like the ones that I read about? Should I try and live such a life that future historians would find interesting or inspiring, or should I simply resurrect the forgotten stories of those who came before me who have lived their own incredible lives? Or can historians have it both ways: to write about awesome lives from the past and also live their own awesome life?
My immediate answers to this question took the form of two commitments: the easier one, 1), to tell my own story (as in, to share with readers an autobiographical memoir that I wrote four years ago); and perhaps a historian of youth or of attitudes towards nature in the first decade of the twentieth-first century will find something useful here! The second and harder of my commitments is, 2), to make the process and product of "doing" history more self-reflexive. That is, I need to think more openly about why I "do" history, what it means for me to "do" it, and how my historical narratives relate to my life and how my life relates to what I say and think about the past.
So here goes...
The day after American Independence Day (July 4th), my girlfriend and I went to Coney Island, Brooklyn's most famous beach, boardwalk, and amusement park. I remember sitting on my towel, next to her, on the most crowded beach I had ever experienced, with men, women, and children of all shapes, sizes, and colors all around me. I experienced the same sensation in the water as I attempted to swim (but barely could because of the crowd of people in the water): I was surrounded by a crowd of humanity, each of us with unique facial structures, bodily statures, skin complexions. My historian's mind got to thinking about how novel this was! How all of our ancestors (just one, two, three, maybe ten generations back) had all lived somewhere else, somewhere where they were surrounded by more of our/their own kind. In my mind then, we were all ambassadors - as if every block of NYC was its own United Nations - representing different peoples and processes of the past.
And of course, taking my historian's hat off for a second, I realize that not everyone saw it that way. Probably few of us splashing around in the water, or sunbathing on the beach, felt like ambassadors of distant peoples and places or as representations of historical processes; no, I am sure that most of us felt like "Americans," felt at home, felt that there was no other us than that right here: this community.
As much as I admire such an ahistoric (not necessarily a bad thing) view that we are all "Americans" or all "New Yorkers" and that the histories of how we all got here do not matter, at the same time I worry that by forgetting how we all "got here" we get stuck in the over-simplicities of what "being here" really means to/for most of us. That is, I worry that "here," in New York City, or in America, that we oversimplify and marginalize ourselves: there are whites, and there are blacks, and there are Asians, and there are Hispanics, and that is it. (I use these four categories as an example, because they were the options I recently saw on a New York City survey questioning "race." Of course, there was also a category for "other," but do we really want to make "others" out of our neighbors? Do we really want people of mixed heritage to feel/be "othered"?)
In an ahistoric view of that moment at Coney Island, I was just "white." And our neighbors on the blankets next to us were "black." And those people who looked neither white nor black, but were shaded somewhere in between, were "Hispanic" (never mind that it is their language [whether or not we could hear it], not their "race," that would make them so). And remarkably, if you were either Arab, Persian, Indian, Tibetan, Yakut, Mongol, Chinese, Indonesian, or maybe even Pacific Islander, that day on the beach you were just "Asian."
As I swam, and as I bathed, and as my historical mind span around, I saw the great fallacy of these categories: these categories that force us to rudely squeeze ourselves and others into boxes that cannot properly or respectfully hold us. There is no dignity, but only rudeness, in the American conception of "race." Recognizing it as simply a social construction, which it is - a highly subjective one at that - it struck me that every single person sharing that sand and that water with me on that day saw the swarm of people around them through slightly-differently shaded glasses. Perhaps it was only me who battled against what I had been brought up to believe: that there was white, black, and others. What did the immigrant family from East Asia see when they swam past me and my neighbors? Did they see "Asians" as holding the same components as me, a white American, was taught to see? How about the African-American family laying next to us on the sand? Perhaps they saw greater differences among "blacks" than I did, but what if all white-skinned peoples, from Jews (like me) to Chinese or Koreans, were all "white" to them? How many boundaries were crossed in each person's mind that day, and how could we ever unravel what all those different boundaries looked like, and where the lines were drawn, amongst the thousands of us splashing in the water???
The Wonder Wheel, built 1929: my favorite ride at Coney Island.
What is the point of this exercise? I'm not sure. What I do know is that nearly 75% of my great-grandparents and almost all of their ancestors before them (as much as I can determine) once lived in Russia. But they were not "Russians." I can only imagine that in the eyes of the dominant "white" Russian class that my ancestors were not "white": they were Jews. They were an ethnic minority. When my great-grandparents came to New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s they were still not "white." Their Ellis Island immigration records (specifically, the manifests of the ships carrying them) categorized my family as "Hebrews." That is, their "race" was assigned as "Hebrew." Another category. When did my family become "white"? I guess when all New York City Jews became "white," and they by and large have...sometime in the mid-twentieth century perhaps? I don't know. But here I am: 27 years in the United States and no one has ever categorized my race as anything other than "white."
Whiteness in Polynesia
Perhaps there is nowhere left in the world (with the exception of parts of Europe) where I would be characterized as any other race than "white." I just assume that if I moved to Hawaiʻi, that I would be seen as and thought of there as a haole. That in Samoa I would be a palagi. That in Aotearoa I would be a Pākehā. That in Tonga I would be a pālangi. That in the Marquesas I would be an Aoe.
That each of these terms means something slightly different is not just because of pre-contact cultural and linguistic divergences between the Polynesian peoples of each island group, but also because of the different post-contact interactions and relationships between Polynesians and outsiders. Greg Dening tells us that these new racial terms sprung up out of contact experiences; that in the Marquesas, the Enata first tried to categorize outsiders using a pre-existing term (to call them atua: gods from the sky); only in time did the Enata recognize that white peoples were incongruent with their former conception of the world and that a new category, Aoe, had to be created for them.
In Hawaiʻi, the term haole originally meant "outsider/foreigner." But as the racial composition of the islands began to significantly change with the importation of East Asian contract labor in the second half of the nineteenth century, haole's definition became stricter: haole meant white. Chinese were called pākē; they were not haole. What about the Portuguese laborers who came to work the sugar plantations in the last few decades of the nineteenth century: were they haole? Or was haole both class and race? Could any plantation laborer truly be haole, or only the owners, luna (supervisors), and financiers? I don't know the answer, but we might found out more in a new book that just came out from University of Hawaiʻi Press called Haoles in Hawaiʻi.
This is me as a haole: we are in a Chinese restaurant in Honolulu; my skin is pretty white (much more so than the local sun-tanned haole!); and I am wearing the quintessential haole shirt: the "aloha shirt."
Since I do not normally look like this in NYC, I take this as proof that "whiteness" and all its cultural baggage is relative to where you are, who is watching you, and who you are trying to be.
Interestingly, many of these terms - haole, palagi, aoe, for example - can be used as adjectives as well as nouns. There were and are types of palagi houses, haole clothing, aoe plants and animals. White missionaries (as well as traders and merchants) tried for a long time to replace native objects, species, and behaviors with "white" ones. I am not sure if the goal was ever to assimilate native Polynesians to the point where there would no longer be any "us vs. them." Some whites actually believed (and hoped for) that the native Islander populations would simply die away. Of course, if that had happened, then there would be no need for haole, palagi, pākehā, aoe, because these terms would no longer exist. These terms symbolically identify the presence of intruders, of occupiers, in native country. They are terms given by indigenous peoples to identify all that is non-indigenous. The power, and promise, of these terms is that they keep alien peoples, things, and practices separate, and by doing so, native Islanders can likewise keep their own selves, things, and behaviors separate and thus extant. Indeed, without "race" - without all these classifications and categorizations - how could Polynesian peoples have ever preserved their unique cultural identity? Wow..."race" suddenly never looked so good! It is in fact essential to maintaining indigeneity.
While I have absolutely no problem being called haole, palagi, aoe, "intruder," "outsider," "foreigner," whatever - because that is exactly what I would be if I moved to any of these islands - it is the ambiguity of the flip-side which troubles me more. On the flip-side are the indigenous racial categorizations: in Hawaiʻi, the kānaka maoli; in Aotearoa, the māori; in the Marquesas Islands, the enata.
There was a time, in the mid to late nineteenth century, when Euro-Americans called all Polynesian peoples, especially Polynesian laborers, "kanakas." The term, from the Hawaiian kanaka (s.)/kānaka (pl.), originally meant, simply, "humans." It is, or at least once was, a very powerful term. Think about it: of all the categories comprising the Hawaiian worldview before contact with outsiders, the category of "human beings," of "people" was kanaka. As a Hawaiian laborer told Richard Henry Dana in California in the 1830s (as I wrote about in an earlier blog post about Hawaiian migration), there were just two types of people in the Hawaiian worldview: kānaka and haole: humans and strangers. In the Marquesas, as Greg Dening shows, the native people knew themselves as "human beings," or as "the Men," as he translates it: the enata. Aoe, outsiders, were not men; they were not human. These terms for indigeneity therefore do not just confirm the Islanders as natives of their volcanic frontiers in a vast ocean, but confirm the Islanders as the people of the world, of all that exists, as the original and extant "humans."
But in Hawaiʻi, the indigenous people at some point could no longer use the term kānaka to define themselves - perhaps because haole (outsiders) had come to associate the term "kanakas" too strongly with pan-Polynesian contract and slave laborers. It must have been a sad thing for the term that once encompassed the essence of what it meant to be "human" to now be a near-racial epithet used to differentiate Polynesians from other colonial/imperial subjects. So, at some point, the indigenous term for "Hawaiian" changed to kānaka maoli. Maoli means "native/indigenous." So, kānaka maoli means "the native people." I assume it is related to the word māori, the descriptive name of the natives of Aotearoa.
I wonder what the world would be like if every linguistic group referred to their own kind as "native" or as "human." The people of England would never have referred to themselves as the "English," but rather as "the Men," "the natives," or simply as "humans." When Captain James Cook landed in the Hawaiian Islands in 1778-79, he would have said to the Hawaiians that "we are humans and you people are not." Wait...he (and those who came with and after him) did pretty much say that!...
But the trouble with "race," whether on the beach at Coney Island or at the beach in Waikīkī, concerns those people of mixed heritage and complexion. The Hawaiians called half-native, half-white children hapa haole. It is an interesting term, in that - like whether a cup is half-empty or half-full - it focuses on the addition of "white" blood rather than on the persistence (or loss) of native blood. Hapa haole suggests that the cup is half-empty: that the offspring is polluted - literally, "half-white" - rather than "half-Hawaiian." Hapa haole suggests a loss of Hawaiian-ness. But being hapa does not necessarily have to been seen as a state of pollution or dilution; many hapa haole were and still are successful and influential leaders within the Hawaiian community.
But with multiracial peoples, what full-blooded Hawaiians saw as hapa haole might have been (and often were seen) by full-blooded Euro-Americans as kanaka. That is, half-white Hawaiians were often still just "Hawaiians" in pure haole eyes; just as the many shades of "black" in American history have always for such a long time been seen as all black. Euro-American obsessions with "white purity" are a history upon themselves, and cannot be adequately discussed here. Ideas of purity, pollution, and blood are prominent in the European and Euro-American conceptions of "race," and unfortunately I think that these conceptions have had a major influence on Polynesian peoples as well.
My final example concerns the concept of "blood quantum." In Hawaiʻi, various governmental organizations and laws require authentication of Hawaiian ancestry for access to certain benefits or provisions. The U.S. Congress, when Hawaiʻi was a territory of the U.S. (1898-1959), passed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act (1920) to give native peoples access to the former lands of the Hawaiian Kingdom. But the law requires an authentication of ancestry which states that one must have at least 50% Hawaiian blood quantum to qualify as a "Native Hawaiian." In essence, the law defined what it meant to be racially "Native Hawaiian." On the other hand, on the U.S. Census, people can self-identify as they please, and so anyone of any amount Hawaiian blood quantum can list "Native Hawaiian" as one of their races on the U.S. census (see my earlier blog post about the census).
As the sun goes down at Ala Moana Beach in Honolulu, the bobbing heads of people swimming in the water are silhouetted; they are race-neutralized. They are all kānaka: humans, in the broadest sense, in a lost sense of the word.
I must remember that our similarities are just as beautiful as our differences.
As many Hawaiian peoples of all backgrounds and complexions move forward with dreams of Hawaiian nationhood and national sovereignty, issues of "race" - issues of who is Hawaiian and who is not - may become more important than ever. It is incredibly important for Polynesian peoples, wherever they are in the diaspora, to feel comfortable and permitted to self-identify with any of their own racial heritages, to call themselves what they will, to be free to see the world through their own system of boxes, or to simply tear all those boxes apart.
While languages go extinct with each passing day, and as histories once known die with their last storytellers, what a wonderful world this would be if we could comfortably accept there being so many more races, rather than moving towards some utopian "post-racial" world that some Americans mistakenly call for. Since "race" is simply our subjective distinctions of phenotypes, why not look harder rather than to turn away, to see the beautiful quilt of our diversity, to celebrate that, rather than to try to lump people together. I am proud to be haole, palagi, pākehā, aoe, Jew, "white," American. Each term has a history with some ugliness and some beauty. The terms are history, and losing them is to lose the ways in which people once knew and tried to make sense of our world.
That's why I enjoyed Coney Island, and why I enjoy "doing" history. I saw history in all of their faces: bathing, swimming, laughing, smiling. Yes I am glad we are all New Yorkers, but oh, how glad I am that we are all so many other things to each other, too!