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Hawaiians Exiting the Homogenous Zone

Census: With 21% of its 1.2 million residents tracing their heritage to two or more racial or ethnic groups, the state is the U.S.' most diverse. Nationwide the figure is 2.4%.

April 02, 2001|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WAIMEA BAY, Hawaii — The U.S. Census has just discovered what lifeguard Dave Yester has known for years: Hawaii is the most ethnically and racially mixed state in the United States and becoming more so.

"Visitors become friends, friends become lovers and everybody becomes Hawaiian," said Yester, overlooking a diverse group of sun worshipers on this famed surfing beach on Oahu's North Shore. "It's the Hawaiian way."

Just-released figures from the 2000 census show that 21% of Hawaii's 1.2 million residents trace their heritage to two or more racial or ethnic groups. Nationwide the figure is a mere 2.4%.

Hawaii may be the intermarriage capital "not just of the United States but of the planet," said Dowell Myers, a USC urban planning professor and census expert.

While Californians look to an uncertain future in which no single racial or ethnic group is dominant, Hawaiians have embraced such a reality and forged a multiracial, multiethnic society in which traditional taboos about marrying outside one's group are eroding.

"What the census shows is that Hawaiians are a lot closer to becoming what [novelist James] Michener called 'the golden people' than we've realized," said Dick Baker, a senior fellow at the East-West Center, an educational and research institute at the University of Hawaii.

The trend toward mixed heritage is likely to continue. Census figures show that ethnic and racial diversity is highest among the young. Half of all marriage licenses being issued are to mixed couples.

On a recent balmy Sunday, as thousands of Hawaii residents flocked to Ala Moana Park, next to the Waikiki tourist zone, three wedding parties were in progress in the park, all for interracial couples.

"This is Hawaii: Things like race don't matter so much, except maybe to grandparents," said Norma Fong, a dental hygienist whose fiance, Charles Earle, is a surfer and aspiring pop singer. "On the mainland, we'd be different; in Hawaii we'll just blend in."

The Melding Works 'Fairly Harmoniously'

Among Hawaii residents claiming only one race, the census showed 41.6% Asian, 24.3% white, 9.4% native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, 1.8% African American, 0.3% American Indian or Alaska native, and 1.3% other races. The most common combination of ancestry is white and Asian.

Numbers aside, no one is claiming that Hawaii is free of friction between racial and ethnic groups. There is gang activity at high schools, often split along racial or ethnic lines. And there are clashing cultural priorities at city councils and the state Legislature.

Still, there is a sense among many observers that the melding of races and ethnic groups is being achieved without major problems.

"What is unusual is not just the numbers of biracial and tri-racial persons, but that it all works fairly harmoniously," Myers said.

One area lacking harmony, however, is the recent movement among native Hawaiians to demand a degree of political sovereignty, much like that given to Native American tribes on the mainland. One demand has been for Hawaiians to be given control of a portion of Oahu.

Hawaii was a kingdom until 1893, when a coup backed by the U.S. government overthrew Queen Liliuokalani and installed pineapple baron Sanford Dole as president. The deposed queen's name now adorns a shopping mall.

The census showed a jump in the number of Hawaii residents identifying themselves as being at least part Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.

Upward of 300,000 residents identified themselves in that manner last year, an increase of 70% over 1990. In previous years, many of those people counted themselves as white or Asian.

Hawaiian activists carrying the fight for self-rule through litigation and legislation were buoyed by the census figures.

"We were the dominant culture in Hawaii for a thousand years before we were 'discovered,' " said Kenneth Makaukane, a producer of Hawaiian music who identifies himself as three-quarters Hawaiian, one-quarter Chinese. "A lot of people think it's time we reclaim our Hawaiian birthright."

A Source of Pride for 'Real' Hawaiians

On the popular surfing beach of Hookipa on the island of Maui, surfers were wearing T-shirts bearing the self-determination slogan "Got koko" (Got blood) and the movement's motto, "The lawful Hawaiian government. Your country needs you!"

"More people are reading about the real Hawaii and want to be part of it. That's why the numbers are increasing," said Tawney Koomoa, who works at a Gap store and identifies herself as Hawaiian, Chinese, English and Portuguese.

USC's Myers said he is not surprised that the census picked up an increase in people identifying with Hawaiian or Pacific Islander heritage.

"There is a tremendous romanticism about everything Hawaiian," Myers said. "In Hawaii, nearly everybody is from somewhere else, and claiming Hawaiian heritage is a way of belonging."

Baker, a former diplomat, said the census confirms that a "Hawaiian renaissance" is underway.

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