In a recent Yahoo! Shine article, a young, white, California entrepreneur, Mindy Budgor, was deemed a “warrior princess” after ditching her posh, luxury-filled life to become the first female warrior of the African Maasai tribe. Armed with Underarmor, pearl earrings and Chanel dragon red nail polish — which made her feel “fierce”– this nice Jewish girl from Santa Barbara, who loved “manis and pedis and warm croissants,” was heralded for singlehandedly empowering the Massai women. She even wrote a memoir about her experience. As a 23-year-old black college student, similar to Ms. Budgor, I set out on my own “spiritual quest” that landed me on the Big Island of Hawaii — miles away from my New Jersey home. But my experience was far less empowering for everyone involved.
I first arrived to Hilo, Hawaii with a large, overstuffed backpack and a tent to help finish constructing a space that would eventually become a safe house for abused women and children. As I waited to be picked up at the airport, to my surprise, I did not see a single face of color, only tanned white, Hawaiian residents. I was confused. Where were the Hawaiians? I expected what I saw in all the movies — beautiful, red-skinned people adorned with colorful leis.
When my host greeted me, she too was a tanned, white woman. She said she had moved from New York City to the island to escape the discrimination she faced as a lesbian.
“Where are all of the native Hawaiians?” I finally asked.
“Well, there really aren’t that many of them,” she responded simply.
“Doesn’t it make you feel weird that there aren’t any Hawaiians in Hawaii?”
“That would be like feeling weird that there aren’t any native Indians on the mainland of the United States,” she replied.
I couldn’t argue with that point. I readily accepted the extermination of the Native American population by white settlers. What made this any different?
I didn’t expect the houses to look like they did either as we drove past huge, quiet, tree-sheltered homes. One that remains forever etched in my mind sat atop a small hill directly facing the ocean– It was a European-style castle. I could not understand the structure’s relevance to the green, tropical environment. And yet that image would come to represent modern-day Hawaii in my mind.
I spent my time there chopping away at overgrown bushes and trees to make way for a garden, usually while getting drenched by the daily downpour hat was a staple of life on the Hilo side of the island. The safe house was more than three-quarters finished thanks to the help of surrounding neighbors who nailed each piece of wood and laid every brick. To celebrate the project, we had a small get-together at a nearby community center. I thought for sure I’d see a native Hawaiian there. To open the festivities, everyone gathered in a huge drum circle and did an Hawaiian chant. There was still not a single Hawaiian face in the crowd.
“Do any Hawaiian people live in this area?” I asked a teenage girl whose parents moved from the mainland to escape the daily stress of city life. My host overheard the conversation and interrupted: “She has been really obsessed with the Hawaiians since she got here.”
“You should take her to the Place of Refuge,” the girl piped in. They both nodded their heads in agreement.
The next day, I was packed into a car along with two bags of kale chips, a couple ham sandwiches and surfboards in case we wanted to catch a wave on the way back home. I was finally going to learn the history of the Hawaii and maybe see a person of color.
The entrance to the historical site was a long hallway with two large murals painted on each side. Tourists from everywhere in colorful Hawaiian shirts, sandals and safari hats gathered to listen to an accompanying audio track that went along with the mural. The place wreaked of too much sunblock. I side shuffled past a groaning teenager complaining, “I wanna go to the beach already, it’s hot.”
“When white settlers came to Hawaii,” a male voice boomed from a speaker,”the Hawaiian people were devastated by war.” The earth-toned murals depicted brown huddled masses, some weeping, others at war, many dead. “They believed this space was protected by spirits. This small isle became their place of refuge.”
I stepped out of the hallway onto a marvelous beach. A turtle lounged on a rock next to the clear ocean filled with the kinds of colorful fish I had only previously seen in expensive fish tanks. A few children splashed by as their parents watched attentively from the shore. The water beckoned me. The lazy turtle moved a couple steps then plopped down, once again, on a closer rock.
“Hey! Hey, you!” a deep commanding voice screamed from behind me. “Get away from the turtle!” A tall, brown man bellowed as he approached at full speed like an angry rhino caught in a stampede. I side-stepped, but slipped off of a rock and landed flat on my back. A round face hovered over me.
“Didn’t mean for you to fall, but you can’t stand so close to the turtles. They are endangered,” he said with an extended hand. I grabbed it and he quickly pulled me to my feet. He had a black ponytail and small brown eyes.
“Hey, this might sound really stupid, but are you native Hawaiian?” I asked. He looked surprised then finally laughed out loud.
“Well, pretty much, yeah,” he responded with a chuckle.
“I didn’t think they existed anymore,” I said.
“Yeah, that is what Haoles like to think and say, but we are here,” he said. “Many of us are just pushed to the poorer parts of the island where no one really goes.”
“What’s a Haole?” I asked.
“You might not want to say that too loud,” he advised. “It’s what we call white people. It means a man without a soul.”
He handed me a pamphlet about the endangered turtles of Hawaii, then shook my hand and left.
I decided to continue the rest of my adventure in Kona, the other side of the island. I hitchhiked, stopping to see every beach, every rock even. On the way, small, poor, remote neighborhoods filled with the brown faces of Pacific Islanders cropped up sporadically. It took about three days before I finally arrived. By this time, I was dirty and my curly afro had become untamed. As I walked through the posh neighborhoods with my wild hair and traveller’s backpack, I could feel the stares piercing my soul. Joggers gave me the sideye. Young women with long, flowing ponytails, pushing expensive baby strollers gave me weak smiles. I walked quickly toward a nearby grocery store to buy a sandwich.
As I entered the supermarket, a middle-aged, blonde woman looked me over with pitying eyes.
“I thought I should give this to you,” she said extending her diamond-covered hand with a 20-spot clasped between her fingers. “Just in case you need money to get home.”
It was obvious that my presence was not wanted there. I didn’t take the money, but I took her advice and booked a ticket back home.
When I returned home my friends laughed along with me. They even felt sorry for me at times. But they never seemed to get angry about it.
“How the hell did I go to Hawaii and only meet one Hawaiian?” I’d ask. “And why are they so poor?”
“That’s just history,” they would say, shrugging.
That’s the power of white privilege; the carefree ability to narrate reality as you see fit, to establish the difference between an issue of the past and a problem in the present. You see, for people of color, racism and gentrification are not a relic of the past, but an untold reality of the present. It plagues the biggest cities, the most desirable environments and even the smallest islands. Yet, the narrative is inaccurate, incomplete and free of accountability in the here and now. So much for the people displaced by gentrification in Jersey City, Brooklyn, Chicago, Los Angeles, Harlem or on the islands of Jamaica, the Bahamas and Hawaii. It’s not a problem unless you acknowledge it. White privilege allows you to build castles on the lands of “others,” while pretending they no longer exist.
So when the news tells me that a privileged white girl traveled thousands of miles to empower the colored women in Africa, I know better than to accept that narrative as truth.