What Makes Hawaii Unique, Part 1 of 5

Author’s Note: This post is the first in what will be a five-part series that offers my thoughts — as a former 27-year resident of Hawai‘i — as to what makes the Aloha State different from our country’s other 49 states. I wrote it over a decade ago, while I was still living in the Islands, as the major portion of a briefing paper for my employer at the time, CommPac (Communications-Pacific, then the state’s leading public relations firm but now closed down following the recent death of Kitty Yannone, its owner and CEO). CommPac asked me to write it for presentation to a new client, a major national retailer that was about to open its first store in Hawai‘i.*

The purpose of the briefing paper — just one part of a multifaceted “enculturation” effort — was to provide our client with an understanding of what it would need to know in order to operate successfully in a cultural, social and political environment distinct in many ways from the rest of the country. We believed the client would need to prepare the managerial-level employees it would shortly transfer to Hawai‘i to run its operation for what they would encounter.

I wrote this paper — that is, the major portions of it that I am reproducing (lightly edited) in this series of posts — almost completely straight out of my head on the basis of what I’d learned and distilled as a malihini (a newcomer to Hawai‘i who had arrived in 1986, about 25 years before writing this) from my own experiences, observations, insights, discussions with long-time residents (kama‘āina), and a great deal of reading and research over my time in the Islands. What follows in this and subsequent parts of the series is far from a treatise. It should certainly not be viewed as authoritative. It is simply a collection of my own observations and conclusions. My Hawai‘i friends may well take exception to some of what I’ve written. However, what I wrote was carefully vetted and approved by colleagues blessed with — in my view — a considerably more acute cultural sensitivity than my own.

One final prefatory thought: I wrote this paper more than a decade ago. Much has no doubt changed in Hawai‘i since I put pen to paper. This will be particularly obvious in the sections below that deal with political personalities. Much has remained the same, however, and I believe that the observations, insights and conclusions that follow remain, on the whole, applicable to Hawai‘i today.


* At the time I wrote this paper (and last edited it before leaving Hawai‘i in 2013), CommPac considered it proprietary, and correctly so. It has since been shared with no one except CommPac’s client (and, perhaps, subsequent CommPac clients that were preparing to enter the Hawaii market for the first time). However, in light of CommPac’s having recently closed down (and because in what follows no CommPac client(s) with which it was shared are named), I feel no further obligation to refrain from publishing the major portion of the paper here, on my blog, for two reasons.

  • First, I consider it a rather interesting analysis of a well-known but perhaps not-so-well-understood place that receives millions of visitors every year.
  • Second, I think it’s a good example of the quality of my writing, the showcasing of which for potential Pen-for-Rent clients is the primary purpose of this blog. (I should add that what follows are only the portions of the somewhat larger paper that I personally wrote. Other sections of the paper, covering local culture, values and social/cultural influences, were written by colleagues who were far more familiar with these subjects than I, and they are not reproduced here.)

Hawai‘i, it has been said a thousand times, is different … a special case. Companies and individuals that hope to succeed in the market here need to understand the ways in which Hawai‘i is different if they are to earn the trust of the people and communities with which they work and to avoid the numerous pitfalls that new-to-Hawai‘i businesses and people often experience. This analysis describes what it is that makes Hawai‘i unique among our country’s states.

The following are the topics discussed in this overview:

  • The Role of Race and Ethnicity
  • A Brief History
  • Demographics: The Genesis of “Local Culture”
  • Politics, Business and Labor in Hawai‘i
  • Government and Politics: Regulation + Taxation = Key Business Concerns
  • Hawai‘i’s Commerce Shaped by Isolation

The Role of Race and Ethnicity
The first thing that makes Hawai‘i different is evident to a newcomer at almost first glance — demographics. There is no majority ethnic group, or as is often said, “everyone here is a minority.” While that is certainly true (demographic data will be presented in Part 3 of this series), it obscures the fact that if one were to group Hawai‘i’s various ethnicities into two overarching categories — haole (the white folks who comprise the majority on the U.S. mainland) and non-haole (Native Hawaiians plus the various Asian and Pacific Islander segments of Hawai‘i’s population, and most of those of mixed ancestry) — then the non-haole groups form a substantial majority, roughly 75%.

Traditional hula

What is the significance of this? First, that this large non-haole majority — “people of color,” to put it bluntly — understand, at some level, that while they feel perfectly at home and at ease in racially and ethnically diverse Hawai‘i, where no one gives them a second glance, they will often feel or be made to feel uncomfortable or awkward, to a greater or lesser degree, almost everywhere else in the country. This is an awareness that, although it is hardly at the forefront of consciousness most of the time, inevitably helps shape self-image and perceptions of “us” and “them.” It makes Hawai‘i “home” to “local” (i.e., mostly non-haole) people in an even stronger way than Iowa, for example, probably feels like home to most of those who were brought up there.

But it is not simply that most people in Hawai‘i are aware that outside their own comfortable islands they may sometimes get “looks” (or worse), but also that they have in their recent past a history of discrimination right here in these islands. This discrimination was felt in different ways by different groups, but it was part of the everyday personal experience, at some level, of almost everyone brought up here who was born before 1960. It thus finds its way into the consciousness of virtually every local person of almost any age. As recently as the 1960s there were neighborhoods where non-whites could not buy a home. Public schools were grouped into “English standard,” designed primarily for haole children, and those where the use of Pidgin was accepted for everyone else. Standards, not surprisingly, were lower in the latter schools. For the first half of the 20th century, Hawai‘i’s political and economic life was controlled by a haole minority — non-haoles were paid less, excluded from positions of influence, refused entrance to clubs. Asians (but not Native Hawaiians — more on this below) were discouraged from running for office on the ticket of the then-majority party, the Republicans. The list of indignities and injustices goes on and on.

While all that, thankfully, is history, it is recent history. And it is imprinted on the collective consciousness. Race then, is a major factor in what makes Hawai‘i different from every other state. This is what lies behind attitudes that can be perceived as a complex mix of superiority/inferiority feelings. On the one hand, local people take great pride in the richness of their ethnic heritage, the distinctive values of the “host” (i.e., Native Hawaiian) culture, their unique way of speaking (Pidgin), “local style,” and a host of other cultural traits and manifestations. They celebrate all things Hawai‘i — from University of Hawai‘i athletic successes (in the absence of professional teams in any sport, the UH teams fill the role of hometown favorites) to local cuisine and music. There is enormous interest in the revival of the Hawaiian language, and it reaches far beyond the Native Hawaiian segment of the population. There is interest also in Hawaiian chants, traditional hula (as opposed to the Waikīkī-Hollywood variety), and many other aspects of Native Hawaiian culture. People of all ethnic groups, including haole, commonly give their children Hawaiian names.

Yet on the other hand, all this pride is tinged, at times, with a certain defensiveness about things that fall below mainland standards — the public schools, for instance — or that some outsiders might look down on, such as the fact that some Pidgin speakers cannot express themselves well in standard English.

These racial/ethnic differences, the recent history of discrimination, and the pride tinged with embarrassment about local culture are at the heart of what makes Hawai‘i different from every other state.

And these are the reasons why, for many “local” people in Hawai‘i, mainland culture — even though it is shared at many levels — is somewhat alien, and the presumption about people from the mainland (and the companies they represent) is that they are likely to be pushy, arrogant, insensitive and ignorant of local culture until they prove otherwise by showing respect, humility, sensitivity and a willingness to learn and honor local ways and local values.

To understand how Hawai‘i’s distinctive local culture developed — and what is behind this complex of emotions, currents and suspicions — an understanding of the history that brought it all about is necessary. Following is a brief survey of how Hawai‘i has changed in the mere two-and-one-third centuries since it was discovered by the Western world. This is not a dry political history, but a look at the mixture of politics, economics, demographics and social change that has shaped modern Hawai‘i.

Please stay tuned for Parts 2 – 5.

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