More than a night of harmless fun: Hawaiian cultural appropriation

ERICA LEE & MELISSA GAN

Graphic: Stephanie Mah

Graphic: Stephanie Mah

Appropriating another culture for an event, costume or poster is an example of a larger issue in our society dealing with upholding respect towards cultural activities and outfits.

“You’re too sensitive,” “political correctness gone mad,” “it wasn’t racist until you made it racist” — these are some of the comments received when it was suggested that a group of non-Hawaiian students throwing a Hawaiian-themed party might be problematic.

To paraphrase the wonderfully blunt Lesley Kinzel in her article “Casual Racism is not my Spirit Animal,” the phrase “politically correct” has lost all meaning except for reflecting nostalgia on the part of the speaker for a time when they could be as racist as they wanted without worrying about having their inappropriate behavior called out.

The Arts and Science Students Union’s event, “Hawaiian night,” was advertised via Facebook and through posters around the university. The first posters depicted a dark-haired surfing pinup girl from a Hawaiian airline advertisement in a yellow bikini.

After complaints, the event was quickly changed to a more ambiguous “Tropical night” and the pin-up girl replaced by a palm tree. The décor and activities however remained the same — including holding a limbo contest, which has its origins in Trinidad.

Cultural appropriation is the use of often oversimplified, packaged versions of the culture of oppressed groups. The ASSU mentioned that the event was supposed to be a “celebration of Hawaiian culture,” an argument often used to support Native American sports team logos or ethnic costumes.

In most cases, these activities are not celebrations — let alone accurate representations of cultures. The planners seldom consider the people of said cultures in their planning process and only claim this intention after the fact —when they have been called out.

Let’s be clear: at no point did those against the event attack individuals. Making a mistake does not immediately make you a bad person for life. However, good people can act inappropriately and in racist ways without even realizing it.

North Americans are bombarded with stereotypical, superficial images of Hawaii and other cultures and so this representation is normalized. But if after you are educated on the issue and you make the choice to continue hurtful actions or avoid responsibility for them, you risk earning that undesirable reputation.

Apologies for discriminatory actions often include some variation of the phrase “but our intentions were good!” While this is generally true, ignorance does not absolve responsibility and relying on this claim makes any apology seem much less sincere. Nor is “I’m sorry you were insulted” an acceptable apology.

As an elected body of student representatives that serve diverse constituents it is the ASSU’s duty to ensure their actions are carried out in a responsible fashion — which means they need to seriously consider any concerns that are raised regarding events. It also means that they need to be careful that the voices of students and faculty are not marginalized and that complaints are dealt with in a respectful and professional manner.

Over the past weeks, students and even faculty have received hateful personal attacks as a result of speaking out against the Hawaiian night theme. One of the most offensive comments received was the assertion that simply calling out a white person on cultural appropriation was a more hurtful experience than suffering racial discrimination.

When Indigenous people and people of color speak out against everyday incidents of racism we are attacked — labeled as aggressive bullies by those who would prefer that we stay silent if we disagree.

A perfect example of this is Professor Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoole Osorio’s interview regarding Hawaiian night in the National Post. He is quoted as saying that the  event was “no big deal.” Professor Osorio has since noted in commentary about the article in the National Post that he had discussed thoroughly how tourism has appropriated images and cultural practices from Native Hawaiians — but that part of his interview, unsurprisingly, was left out of the final article.

In her influential piece “Lovely Hula Hands: Corporate Tourism and the Prostitution of Hawaiian Culture,” scholar Kānaka Maoli explains why haole — a Hawaiian term used to refer to those of Euro Canadian descent — exotification of Hawaiian culture and people is a problem. Haunani-Kay Trask points to the crime rates, high housing costs, homelessness and widespread trafficking of Native Hawaiian women and girls as problems of a tourism-based economy.

“Hawaii — the word, the vision, the sound in the mind — is the fragrance and feel of soft kindness. Above all, Hawaii is ‘she,’ the Western image of the Native ‘female’ in her magical allure. And if luck prevails, some of ‘her’ will rub off on you, the visitor,” Maoli said. “Tourists flock to my native land for escape, but they are escaping into a state of mind while participating in the destruction of a host people in a native place.”

Similarly, Natalee Kehaulani discusses the dehumanization of Native Hawaiians as a result of colonialism and the commodification of Hawaiian culture in her blog  on Maoliworld.

“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 is 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,” Kehaulani said.

For Indigenous peoples of the world, the reality is that our cultural traditions, ceremonies and languages have been deemed inferior, irrelevant or even illegal by colonial governments.

Indigenous people risked serious persecution to preserve traditions such as hula or powwow — persecution here denoting violent beatings and the removal of children from homes, not just monetary fines.

Mere years later, superficial renditions of these sacred traditions are used by people with no idea of the ceremonial significance for what they consider a “night of harmless fun.”

Our lands, bodies and our cultures as Indigenous people are not ripe for conquest; they do not belong to you, and we will not quietly accept harassment for simply asking for respect.


Critical views welcome for constructive change


DYLAN POLLON

There’s nothing wrong with students taking a critical view of their representative unions, but it’s another issue entirely for professors to publicly lambast an organization with comments more inflammatory than they are informative.

Earlier this month, the Arts & Science Students’ Union decided to host a “Hawaiian night,” with the intent to bring warmth to our cold climate — though this spurred major controversy.

On the event’s Facebook page there was considerable opposition to what was seen as an offensive depiction of Indigenous Hawaiian culture and women in the event poster.

Proactively, the ASSU updated the event materials to remove these aspects. The event name was changed to “Tropical night”  and the posters that had been placed on campus were also removed.

As a professional organization representing all undergraduate students in the College of Arts & Science, respecting cultural diversity and the opinions and concerns of our constituency is paramount.

As such, the ASSU is open to critical discussion.  However, I take issue with the remarks made by Adam Gaudry, an assistant professor in the department of Native Studies. After posting several comments on the event page in support of Erica Lee, Mr. Gaudry took to his personal Facebook account to publicly denounce the event:

Gaudry said that “the Arts and Science Student Union has organized a ‘Hawaiian night’ which, like all ‘Native’ themed parties sexualizes and appropriates meaningful cultures for a largely non-Native audience.”

When the event changed, he altered his tone a bit with the following statement: “UPDATE: the event is now ‘Tropical night’ with some of the most problematic imagery removed. It’s good to know that student leaders are receptive to constructive critique. It would be better if it became a cabin fever event though.”

In closing his remarks, Gaudry claimed that these parties “contribute to a culture that belittles, historicizes, and eroticizes Indigenous peoples (and in particular Indigenous women) for white consumption, and allows non-Indigenous peoples to see this as ‘honouring’ Indigenous culture. This is particularly disappointing given that it is a student event, put on by U of S student leaders.”

After the event name and poster were changed to accommodate the concerns that were raised, Mr. Gaudry’s commentary was later deleted from Facebook — but were his comments on white consumption necessary in the first place? Mr. Gaudry has the right to an opinion and I respect that. However, Mr. Gaudry is a professional at a public institution.

As an educator, he is an authority figure. As such, I take issue with his choice of words. I find them to be more inflammatory than constructive. For Mr. Gaudry to publicly weigh in on an issue of student politics in such a way is inappropriate and disappointing. The ‘likes’ on this post indicate that Robert Innes (the Graduate Chair of the Department of Native Studies) condones Mr. Gaudry’s remarks.

This type of criticism troubles me greatly, especially when it is directed at a hard-working and culturally diverse organization, the members of which devote their time to making a better place of the university and broader community.

The ASSU has demonstrated its sensitivity and respect for the concerns, opinions, and cultural diversity of its constituency, and this has been covered by various local as well as national news media.

I want to thank the members of the ASSU for their good spirit and level-headedness through this time of public scrutiny. This organization depends on your good intent and hard work.

  • lol

    Poe’s Law in action.

  • E.D.

    It is a shame to see fellow students who do not recognize the value in politically engaged faculty and students, willing to be critical and public with their views. Indeed, a university, when a public institution increasingly becomes encroached on and controlled by private corporate interest, it becomes even more important to facilitate political debate and dialogue, especially that which is critical. Speaking truth to power, if you will. The University of Saskatchewan would benefit from more engaged students such as Gan and Lee, and engaged faculty such as Gaudry and Innes.

    • Just no

      this is just detraction from any sort of real issue at hand; the illusion of progress.

    • Plato

      Said no one, ever.

  • Graham

    These articles are ridiculous. First off, none of you are Hawaiian, so don’t talk for another culture in the first place. Secondly, “though this spurred major controversy”, actually only ten people find this offensive, everyone else thinks you guys are retarded. Its oversensitive people like yourselves that need to calm the fuck down. I guarantee you the majority of REAL Hawaiian’s don’t care.

    • Moo

      You guarantee it? How bout using some language that doesn’t marginalized the mentally challenged?

  • Dovah Se Tiid

    So, depicting a woman in bikini is offensive for women, wearing a hawaiian skirt is offensive to hawaiians… What’s next? Wearing a scarf will become offensive for middle-easterns and saying “Hola!” offensive for spanish-speakers? Wearing a black shirt or jeans will become offensive for afro-americans?
    Maybe, even saying a name of certain nation or a group of people (russians, indians, chinese) will become offensive to them? And when all aforementioned will be banned, one more thing remains: thoughts. When are you going to support prosecutions for thoughtcrimes, then?
    So could you please explain to me again, how playing limbo offends any nation or people?

    • Kaden

      These are nonsensical conclusions and you’re committing a logical fallacy.

    • Dovah Se Tiid

      Prove your point. And explain, if you can, how depicting a woman in bikini is offensive for women, and how playing limbo offends any nation or people. Can you? Or you just don’t like what I wrote? That’s absolutely your problem then, you know.

    • Kade

      It’s called a slippery slope fallacy, which means you’re using unsupported claims that are ultimately exaggerated hypotheses in order to back up your argument.

      And they already addressed the limbo. Limbo is not an original aspect of Hawaiian culture. It points to a level of ignorance on part of the planners and indicative of the larger problem of culturally themed events (holding a party that defines a culture based on tourist-y and stereotypical ideas). The woman in the bikini is the same idea. So yeah, I can explain.

    • Dovah Se Tiid

      I see that. But. The party organization then was “Tropical night”, wasn’t it? So Jamaican limbo wsn’t too bad in that setting. And also, even if was lame and incorrect towards the _real_ hawaiian culture, why was it racist and offensive?

    • lulu

      soooo people in Hawaii are not allowed to play limbo? have you been to Hawaii you can play it in lots of places they like to play it to. So what if it didn’t originate there it can still be a Hawaiian event. Its like saying i don’t have a donkey so on my birthday i cant play pin the tail on the donkey, its over bored and not the issue.

    • Wake Up Call

      They are not slippery slope fallacies. They are valid logical equivalents. The only unsupported claim here is that people indigenous to one geographic region somehow have the right to be spokespersons for those in others. Get over yourself.

    • Plato

      It is a slippery slope don’t be a dunce.

    • Wake Up Call

      Care to explain how? Dovah used examples that are logically equivalent to the objections against the “Hawaiian” theme by Erica, Adam and others.

      An example would be a “Canadian Night” where the poster involves hockey pucks and snowflakes, and then Russian people getting mad because, in their opinion, such a notion is offensive to Canadians. Consistent with what has happened in this case, in my example the Russians try to justify the right to protest the event because they have, let’s say, cold climate in common with us. That is a LOGICALLY EQUIVALENT comparison to indigenous Canadians claiming to have the right to be offended on part of indigenous Hawaiians on the basic principle of being indigenous.

      I’m starting to notice a theme among the objectors to this event where definitions are manipulated and the terms “logic” “fallacy” are employed only when it suits their argument. Every idiot who has taken Philosophy 140 (and probably got a low 60 by what I can tell) throws around these terms without understanding what they mean.

      Erica and Adam, as recognized Idle No More activists, have tarnished their personal reputations as well as thrown the entire movement under the bus in being so petty and ridiculous about this whole thing. Where is the fight for more relevant, pressing and tangible issues by these supposed social justice warriors? There are so many areas where their attention is actually needed. Extreme overrepresentation of aboriginals in the corrections system, deplorable housing conditions and a culture of alcoholism and social assistance/welfare careers on reserves, social program usage rates, primary and secondary education statistics in the gutter, band politics and corruption, treaty and land claims, etc, etc. I could go on and on. Get real. Way to undermine ACTUAL issues.

    • Wake Up Call

      I forgot to add that rather than being slippery slope fallacies, the examples used above are more properly characterized as “absurd counterexamples”, a tactic employed by logicians and debaters to use the same line of logic as an opponent to show the ridiculous conclusions that can be drawn by following that logic in another analogous case.

    • Guest

      The comparison is NOT logically equivalent because there is no history of euro-Canadians being colonized, nor of their culture being comodified and misrepresented. Most canadians aren’t offended by euro-Canadian stereotypes because they have no potential to harm us or to erase our true culture. That’s our prerogative. But Indigenous cultures clearly have been and continue to be harmed by cultural appropriation and assimilation. To some, this may not seem like an “actual issue”, but to those whose culture and language is threatened, it probably hits pretty close to home.

      To imply that these activists don’t really care about the most important issues regarding their communities is pretty disingenuous, and frankly insulting. Student activists can’t fix massive societal problems overnight, no matter how much they’d like to. They can, however, use what power they have on campus to tackle issues that are important to them and relevant to other students, which is exactly what they did.

    • Wake Up Call

      “Those whose language and culture is threatened”

      There you go again, grouping these people in with Hawaiians once more as if they are the exact same. Look at an effing map, and then in the mirror, and then really question yourself. Please.

      The fact that people bashing this event continue to say for themselves what the ASSU did/was going to do with regard to Hawaiian culture speaks to the level of
      comprehension they have about it, which is pretty much none. Having
      looked into it, naming the event “Hawaiian” was never intended to
      happen and was a mistake by members of the ASSU who made the poster.
      It was supposed to be “tropical” all along. That simple word, “Hawaiian”, on the poster was the full extent of the ASSU’s supposed “use” of Hawaiian cultures/symbols/etc. and it continues to be misleadingly labeled as “cultural appropriation”. Having attended the event, there was absolutely NOTHING to do with Hawaiian culture in the decorations, music or in the beach picture slideshow. If they wanted to appropriate culture, they would have named it “Kanaka Maoli Night” and have had other stereotypical symbols there in line with what Erica and Adam were suggesting. So can you maybe tell me how then this was harmful to anybody’s culture, except our own on university campuses, where people attempting to host a fundraiser are belittled, humiliated and attacked for being “racist” by people who are themselves asphyxiating Hawaiian culture by their actions? What about Gaudry’s “white consumption” comment? Does being non-Caucasian mean that you can’t be racist?

      What kind of society would we live in if every instance like this resulted in petty
      protest? We live in a globalized world. To place artificial monopolies on culture is naïve and short-sighted. So we now can’t even mention another culture’s
      existence anymore?

      As for what you think I implied, think whatever you like. Deny all you like that being petty about this has shed negative light on Idle No More as well as Gaudry and Lee (and to a certain extent Gan) personally. I have read every news article on this issue and believe me, they are suffering a beat-down in public opinion by reading in excess of 1000 comments on said articles. So to say that they are “relevant to other students”, who does that even mean? Hawaiians? Hah. Doubtful. Maybe to the extent that Gaudry, Lee and Gan are three individuals which barely exceeds the requirement to pluralize “students”. Nobody said they could fix these more serious problems overnight, but what is one supposed to conclude when we see these people spending their time on an issue a minuscule as this? As the supposed entrepreneurs of Idle No More, they could have taken the time to think about what the larger effects would be in terms of public reaction. So, yes, it implies that they have all of these issues solved, and yes,it is insulting and you should be insulted because that is freaking ridiculous.

    • Guest

      Addendum: forgot to mention why it makes sense for one Indigenous group to speak up on behalf of another. If people believe it’s okay to appropriate Hawaiian culture, then that normalizes the behaviour, and it becomes acceptable to appropriate all Indigenous cultures (or any culture, for that matter). Obviously these activists don’t want that to happen, since their own cultures (Indigenous and minority) are often misrepresented. Not exactly a big mystery. It was wise, however, that they chose to contact some Hawaiian people and include their opinions.

    • Wake Up Call

      They chose to contact the graduate student of another professor at the University of Hawaii because the latter did not agree with their viewpoint. They then proceeded to throw him under the bus for not agreeing with their concerns and for being a man. Wise, indeed my friend.

  • Ty

    This is a great example of political correctness run amok. It is very unfortunate that a minute number of zealots could be allowed to hold such influence over the event in question. There was nothing on the original poster to which any reasonable person could possibly take offence. I would suggest that Erica Lee the Idle No More activist who appears to have started this controversy choose her battles more wisely in the future, lest they be seen as nothing but a cabal of perennial malcontents.

  • Seriously?

    Someone hired you as an opinion writer? That’ silly.

  • lulu

    ok so can i be offended buy that one group ripped off all of my favorite videos games fro their cultural appreciation night? i mean how the U of S is letting them get away with the coppy right is amazing already but its the same thing just not the same lv of context <<<<< before you have a fit re read that line<<<<<<<<, EVERYONE uses images that don't really mean what they are supposed to (the pagan trinity symbol on all the yoga wear anyone? you know that they don't know what they are wearing)

  • LOL

    LOL

  • Guest

    Interesting that those who criticize Gan and Lee for being “too sensitive” are the ones who proclaim to be the most offended by this whole affair. The issue was dealt with by the ASSU in a way that seems to have satisfied both parties, so who exactly needs to “calm down”, here? To those offended by the “PC police”, I ask how exactly you were harmed by the students who asked that the name and imagery of the event be changed. Is your need to “celebrate” (i.e. comodify) another culture without thinking critically so important that it outweighs another person’s need to speak up when they perceive injustice? Your outrage, of course, seems entirely justified and rational to you, even as you dismiss Gan and Lee for being too self-righteous. The fact that these students are not Hawaiian is entirely irrelevant. Misrepresentation of indigenous cultures is a huge issue in Canada, just as it is in Hawaii. Of course the faculty of Native Studies is going to have something to say.

    Personally, I was not “offended” by the Hawaiian Night event at first. But after having read the arguments from those who found it problematic, including the commentary from native Hawaiian scholars, I was convinced that changing the event was the right thing to do. To me, this is a perfect example of the kind of critical discourse that should be welcome on a university campus. Of course, not everyone is going to agree with Gan and Lee, and that’s fine too. But to insult these students and tell them to be quiet, to focus on “more important things”, is to engage in the very kind of thought policing that the anti-PC crowd find so offensive.

    I thank Gan and Lee for bringing this issue to attention, and I thank the ASSU for dealing with it in a sensitive way.

  • HAHA

    HAHA

  • Academentia

    Ahhhhh. An article lamenting the evils of cultural misappropriation highlighted by a picture that appropriates culture. I fear for the future of critical thought if this level of intellectual development is any indicator. : /

  • Thistler

    The consuming of Otherness by the dominate powerbroker is the ultimate expression of colonial/settler-state power. The overt vulgarity of this kind of cultural devouring says – we, the dominant, defeated you, the vanquished. We outlawed your customs and clothing, ceremonies and rituals, took your land and resources, and finally–systematically–destroyed your people; yet we, the dominant, can wear your, the vanquished, material culture as we please – adorning them upon our bodies as fun-loving fashion statements and party accessories without regard for history or social meaning. It is, at it’s core, cultural cannibalism. Conversely, when an ethnic Other – in this case Indigenous, Hawaiian, or Asian person – enacts “Europeaness,” the power dynamic is NOT reversed; ethnic embodiment of the dominant majority is considered an act of mimicry that is performed to fit in, gain access to resources, elevate social standing, or mock rigid social hierarchies in which they are powerless, or internalize racism. :)

  • Gordean Kakalia

    This is a company advertising soap and calling a hula girl filthy. My culture, Hawaiian, takes hula very seriously. It is a learned art form that takes years to learn. Nothing filthy about it and secondly it implies that hula girls from Hawaii are filthy. When people come to visit our islands they have a set of ideas about its people which is totally wrong. Example of this is we do not live in grass houses, we are intelligent people, we are not lazy and so forth. Media as it has in the past and now is very influential about anyone’s native culture and sends out negative imagery about its people. I do appreciate the company retracting filthy but it does not correct the underlying meaning behind hula girl. We are not a fantasy we are a school of learning, we are not an exploitation for others we are a bonafide culture that should have the same respect as anyone else on this planet.

  • chucky

    do less