Telling the Truth About Racial Tension

by Mar 8, 2007

It took a mainlander in yesterday’s USAToday to raise some issues that no one here in Hawaii really wants to talk about:

A violent road-rage altercation between Native Hawaiians and a white couple near Pearl Harbor two weeks ago is provoking questions about whether Hawaii’s harmonious “aloha” spirit is real or just a greeting for tourists.

The Feb. 19 attack, in which a Hawaiian father and son were arrested and charged with beating a soldier and his wife unconscious, was unusual here for its brutality. It sparked a public debate over race relations that is filling blogs and newspaper websites with impassioned comments along stark ethnic lines. …

Racial troubles in the islands usually don’t get much public discussion. In a tourism-dependent state, talk about tensions is “like news about shark attacks,” says Jon Van Dyke, a University of Hawaii law professor. “People are afraid they might lose customers.”

Now, people are speaking out. Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Peter Carlisle says he’s getting public pressure to add a “hate crime” charge to the felony assault charge against Paakaula.

Personally, there’s no other place where I’d rather raise my multiethnic family than Hawaii. Compared to most parts of the world and even most parts of this “melting pot” country, our island culture is the epitome of racial harmony. Still, there are tensions lurking beneath the surface that no one really wants to seriously address.

The only intentional dialogue that occurs about interracial issues is when we’re laughing together at the ethnic jokes of Frank DeLima or “Eh, You Da Kine, Ah?” on OC16. But when the show’s over, many of us stop laughing and go back to muttering under our breath about the rude haole drivers, the mean Chinese neighbors, the passive-aggressive Japanese businessmen, and the belligerent mokes at the beach who really like beef.

I believe there’s no one better positioned to engage these issues than the churches in Hawaii. Sure, we’ve got our own racial issues to deal with, seeing how so many churches are made up of one primary ethnicity or another. But Jesus and the apostles give us plenty of great examples for dealing with ethnic differences head-on, rather than quietly sweeping them under the rug. From Jesus in Samaria, to Peter in Caesarea, to Paul in Galatia, the New Testament is full of people who intentionally addressed racial divides with God’s love.

We’re committed to making sure Harbor lives up to one of our core values on this subject: “Our church family will be a place where judgment is overcome by grace, conflict is overcome by forgiveness, interpersonal and intercultural differences are overcome by respect, and selfish control is overcome by generosity.”

Update: According to this article, the attack was not motivated by race:

While Paakaula’s 16-year-old son uttered a phrase referring to the couple’s race before the physical altercation, it was a generic reference to their behavior and not to their race, he said.

This explanation brings up the question of how we define racism. Is racism simply a negative response to a person’s skin color, or is it a response to the cultural values and behaviors we think most people of that skin color have? I’m no social scientist, but I would argue that it’s mostly the latter. I would also suspect that this kind of generalization was at play on both sides of the fight.