Michael Meeropol: How Growing Up In Hawaii Can Inoculate Young People Against Racist Tendencies

Jul 8, 2019

On June 30, 2019, the Sunday Review section of the New York Times ran a front page article entitled “Want to be Less Racist?  Move to Hawaii.”   [Authored by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, the article runs from Page 1 to pages 6 and 7]

The article begins by telling the story of Dr. Kristin Pauker, a research psychologist currently teaching at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.   Having grown up in Hawaii, she was surprised to find that when she went away to college at Dartmouth in 1998, she was constantly asked questions about her background.   “What are you?”  (As in, are you Native Hawaiian, Asian, etc.?)   According to the article, “ …[Dr. Pauker] sensed that the students were really asking what box to put her in.  And that categorization would determine how they treated her.   “It opened my eyes to the fact that not everyone sees race the same way.”  She told Velasquez-Manoff.

The hook for the article and the key to the title follows:  “Back in Hawaii, being mixed was so common as to be nearly unremarkable.  Many of [Pauker’s] friends were some mixture of East Asian ethnicities, white, Filipino, Hawaiian and more, and for the most part, everyone hung out with everyone else.   The Dartmouth student body, on the other hand, seemed self-segregated.   The non-white students primarily stuck with their own race – blacks sat with blacks, Asians with Asians, Native Americans with Native Americans.   …. For the first time [Pauker] wasn’t sure where she belonged, and she found herself wondering:   Does it have to be like this?” [Page 1.]

Early in her professional career, she conducted research which attempted to discover when children develop what psychologists call “essentialist” thinking.   As a non-psychologist (I never even took a Freshman course in Psychology) I had to try to understand what that word (“essentialist”) means in plain old English.   Velasquez-Manoff helps here.  He writes that “essentialist thinking” is thinking that causes people to reduce other human beings to “unchangeable essence” which stamps people different from your “in-group” with status on planes of inferiority and superiority.   Some of these can be seen as relatively benign (the Irish are wonderful singers, Jews have great senses of humor, Asians are good at math) but most of them are seriously dangerous – blacks are aggressive and violent, Irish are drunks, Jews are money grubbers.

Dr. Pauker’s first round of research involved a sample of 4 to 11 year old whites from various Boston suburbs.   She found that even those children growing up in households with liberal attitudes towards our multiracial society developed fairly straightforward prejudices about groups other than their own.   “These kids came from public schools in liberal areas.  They probably weren’t deliberately taught these stereotypes. But they absorbed them from the American ether nonetheless.” [Page 6]    It is this evidence and especially the conclusion that these stereotypes are as prevalent as the air we breathe growing up white in America that leads some critics to claim that white Americans are all, in one way or another, INFECTED with racism.   As with any invasive bacterium, it is essential that the host take steps to fight against that infection in order to conquer it.   Too many of our fellow citizens recoil from the idea that white Americans are so “infected” – and they often respond in horror, anger and resentment.   But just as it’s not a reflection on someone’s character when they are infected with a physical disease – whether it be the common cold or cancer – to grow up white in America subjects all of us to the racist “ether” that leads to the results Dr. Pauker found in her upper middle class white suburbanites around Boston.

But remember.   Dr. Pauker was trying to answer the question “Does it have to be like this?” with the emphasis on the word “have.”   Her next round of research was to investigate whether Hawaiian kids grew up with the same “essentialist” thinking.  The good news was that “…. in Hawaii, the children, including those who were white, tended not to express the same essentialist ideas about race.  They were not race-blind.  They recognized skin color, hair texture and other features commonly associated with race.  But they did not attribute to race the inherent qualities – aggression or book smarts – that their mainland counterparts did.”[Page 6]

Dr. Pauker’s reason comes in two parts.  First, whites are a massive majority in suburban Boston – the “default” – the “normal.”  In Hawaii whites are a minority.   Second, almost one quarter of Hawaii’s population is mixed race (Dr. Pauker herself is half Japanese, half Irish-Italian).  “Mixed race people … serve as a kind of jamming mechanism for people’s race radar, Dr. Pauker thinks.  Because if you can’t tell what people are by looking at them --- if their very existence blurs the imagined boundaries between supposedly separate groups – then race becomes a less useful way to think about people.” [Page 6]

The article has so much more than what I’ve described (I have summarized the first third of the article so far).   One very important section of the article attempts to explain WHY Hawaiians tend not to make judgements based solely on the color of another person’s skin.  To understand how Hawaiians began to inoculate themselves from the racism that pervaded mainland America in the 19th and 20th centuries, Velasquez-Manoff notes that it was the organizing drive of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (long attacked by the right-wing as a communist dominated union, by the way) among dock workers, plantation workers, etc. that broke down barriers between ethnic groups.   In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, plantation owners purposely recruited workers from disparate countries – Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, Portuguese – figuring that with different languages and cultures, these workers would never get together to organize to improve their wages and working conditions.  According to Velasquez-Manoff, “Ethnic and racial stereotyping was widespread.  The Chinese “coolies” were cast as depraved gamblers; the Filipinos as prone to violence; the Japanese as cliquish and loyal only to the ascendant Japanese empire.”   The Portuguese were given higher status because they were from Europe but they were considered “a lesser form of white.”  Finally, the stereotype of the Native Hawaiian was that they were good natured but lazy and in need of paternal “support” from their white “betters.”  [Page 7]

When the union came organizing they understood the divide and conquer strategy of the bosses they were up against.  They made sure that EVERY ethnic group was represented within the leadership of the union and it worked.   Over time, workers began to see themselves as having common cause and racial stereotyping started to decline.   (The article also notes that since there were neither laws nor strongly enforced customs against miscegenation in Hawaii, the rate of race-mixing was significantly higher than on the mainland.)  The article notes that things are not perfect in Hawaii but if Dr. Pauker’s research is correct, most kids in Hawaii grow up at least partially inoculated against the racist disease that afflicts too many of our fellow citizens.

Oh, one other Pauker study.  She followed 143 white college students from the mainland who came to Hawaii to study.  She found that they began over time to think of race more like Hawaiians do --  as a fluid concept.    “Essentialist” thinking began to disappear.

I have highlighted some of the main points of this article but there are many more and the issues are developed in much more detail.   I cannot stress enough how valuable it would be for everyone to read it.  It made me, a non-psychologist, want to read some of Dr. Pauker’s work myself.

In these scary years ---  when Donald Trump and his enablers in the Republican party are stirring up the racial stereotyping that is just below the surface within the souls of too many of our fellow white citizens ---  it is heartwarming to read such a detailed article.  Hawaii to most mainlanders is just a vacation destination.  The fact that it may be a laboratory of how to unlearn the racism that has stamped the US from the days it was used to justify chattel slavery was welcome news to me.   It’s a fact that all Americans need to know.   The point revealed in the article, also made me just a tad more optimistic about the future of our country.   Hawaii with its rather large mixed race population may portend a future trend away from racism on the mainland as the percentage of the mainland population identifying as mixed race rises.   

Finally, the article comes with some great pictures of 21 Hawaiians.   Some of the pictures are captioned with the ethnic backgrounds of the subjects but the nine on the first page come without ethnic captions.  I challenge anyone to guess at the ethnicities of those nine Hawaiians.

(Dr. Pauker’s research is listed on the website for her lab at the University of Hawaii at Manoa)

A few specific research papers to illustrate her and her colleagues’ work are the following:

Freeman, J.,Pauker, K.
, Apfelbaum, E., & Ambady, N. (2010). Continuous dynamics in the real-time perception of race. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 179-185. [PDF]

Pauker, K., Ambady, N. & Apfelbaum, E. P. (2010). Race salience and essentialist thinking in racial stereotype development. Child Development, 81, 1799-1813. [PDF]

Pauker, K., Xu, Y., Williams, A., & Biddle, A. M. (2016). Race essentialism and contextual differences in children’s racial stereotyping. Child Development, 87, 1409-1422. [PDF]

Pauker, K., Carpinella, C., Meyers, C., Young, D., & Sanchez, D. (2018). The role of diversity exposure in Whites’ reduction in race essentialism over time. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9, 944-952.* [PDF]

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies.