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Hawaiian clothes and colonialism

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While reading sources for my PWR essay there was one quote that struck a deep chord within me. While too long to quote here, the gist of what author Lisa Hall was saying was that the moment a people are colonized, they lose control of their identity. The word “American” no longer applies to the indigenous people of the United States. Instead, we must refer to them as “Native Americans,” as new and foreign peoples adopt the “American” identity. The same is true for Hawaiians.

“Hawaiian” has transformed from its original indigenous connotation. Appropriated, commodified, packaged and printed on postcards, “Hawaiian” has become a kitschified term that is distant from the real issues and hearts of the indigenous people that the term “Hawaiian” used to represent. This reality has become most apparent in fashion. Growing up wearing mu’umu’u or aloha t-shirts was, and still is, a common affair. When the soft material of the green button-down slips against my skin, it’s a comfort to me, a familiar bit of home to get me through the day. Yet, when other people see the bold print of kalo leaves across my shirt, they assume I’m embracing the stylistic comeback of floral prints.

I was always confused when asked the question “What are you dressed up for?” every time I wore mu’umu’u. For me, mu’umu’u is the light dress my tutu (tutu means grandmother, but in my family this referred to my great grandma) would wear with her grey hair slightly rumpled when she came out to greet us in the hot cement street of Honolulu. I imagine her getting dressed for her job at the airport: buckling herself into her bra, pulling up her shiny stockings, slipping into her heels and swiping some red lipstick on. Her work clothes were Western clothes, formal clothes. That’s not to say there’s not formal Hawaiian wear, but as Westernized standards of dress became the “norm,” traditional Hawaiian clothing became “abnormal,” “exotic” and “trendy”. Our clothes have become a mainstream trend, and along with them our culture has also become an object of popular fascination.

People believe that in buying our clothes they buy our culture; they feel that the clothes connect them to the stereotype of the “tropical” Hawaiian identity. I’m not arguing against the purchase of a nice aloha t-shirt, nor am I saying that people should not admire Hawaiian culture. What I find fault with is the blatant ignorance that is tied to the admiration. It seems that the only face of Hawaiian culture people see is the hapa hula girl winking on the cover of a travel brochure, that dance that is actually Tahitian, or the pizza with no historical or cultural basis. Ignored are the high rates of incarceration and poverty in the Native Hawaiian community, the infringement of land rights and the abuses of our islands and our people.

Native Hawaiians are not a party theme; we are a people struggling for the survival of our society. I’m not asking for everyone to get a PhD in Hawaiian studies, to write an essay on Hawaiian struggles or abandon their responsibilities to go protest the Thirty Meter Telescope on the slopes of Mauna Kea (though it’d be pretty sweet if you did do any of those things). All I’m asking for is individual awareness, for people to recognize that colonialism in the United States is not dead. Colonialism is part of my daily experience. Even when I’m surrounded by people dressed in aloha attire, there is still a great sadness in my heart. It is the loneliness that comes with thinking that the people wearing these clothes do not understand the meaning of them. It is the fear that they do not care to know.

It is only through awareness that we can undo the damage colonialism has brought to our islands. It is only through conscious recognition of Hawaiian stereotypes that we can halt the erasure of the true faces of Hawaii, that we stop the reduction of our civilization to neon flowers on a ready-made t-shirt.

Contact Sophia Kim-O’Sullivan at huali99 ‘at’ stanford.edu

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Sophia is a freshman who goes by many names and calls many places home. When she's not in the middle of her continual identity crisis Sophia likes to host karaoke nights at her dorm, study with friends, and watch Steven Universe. Sophia's quirkiest trait is her tendency to fall asleep in random places: the ground, her friend's bed, or at church. A devout Christian, committed socialist, indigenous activist, wannabe historian, and lover of politics Sophia's favorite activity are her late night discussions with friends.