Racism, Microaggressions and Humor in Hawai'i

Apr 1, 2021

This week, a Filipino woman in a high-rent midtown section of Manhattan was kicked to the ground and stomped while her attacker yelled, “You don’t belong here.” Asians in Hawai'i have felt relatively safe, but some people are questioning Hawai’i’s reputation as a melting pot. Some say discrimination may just look a little different here.

Professor Jonathan Okamura is the author of "Ethnicity and Inequality in Hawai'i," his area of specialty for more than 30 years at UH Manoa.

"Perpetual foreigners. That's one of the dominant, racist stereotypes of Asian Americans," he said.

COVID-19 just brought it to the surface, Okamura said, but shunning and violence are overt expressions of subtler dynamics that happen every day. 

Credit Noe Tanigawa

Tech developer Jeff Kim lived on the East Coast, in L.A. and in Chicago. As a teen, he recalls a friend with whom he thought he shared mutual understanding and respect.

"I saw him just passing by on the street and he said, 'Hey Jeff, my favorite Asian friend!' Kim said. "And I told him immediately, I said, 'Why can't I just be your favorite friend period.' You know he just kind of laughed it off and it just always stuck with me."

How racism plays out in Hawai'i involves humor. The police chief who imitated Japanese people on Kaua'i thought it was funny.

Professor Okamura differentiates so-called jokes that relate ethnic groups to roaches, to demeaning characteristics and to inferior jobs, but he said, ethnic humor is possible.

"I used to like Booga Booga, because it was not spiteful. I'm thinking especially of Rap Reiplinger. He made fun of Japanese names, right, the Japanese Roll Call," Okamura said.

Okamura said this is different from what he calls demeaning and destructive humor targeting Filipinos and Micronesians in Hawai'i.

If Hawai'i has an ethnic humor expert, it's comedian Frank DeLima. His name was invoked recently by the Mayor of Kaua'i, in regard to his police chief, when the Mayor indicated that races, ethnic groups, treat each other differently in Hawai'i.

DeLima contends laughing is the main thing. He said nonprofessionals need to find the right audience too.

"Oh it's important that we laugh, that's the main thing and we just find where we can get that material to help us to laugh and just look through all the different types of comedy and find the one you like and the ones you don't like--let other people who may like it enjoy it." 

Anti-Asian hate rally in Honolulu on March 27. 2021
Credit Noe Tanigawa

At the rally against anti-Asian hate last Saturday, entrepreneur Mylen Yamamoto Tansingco told Hawaii Public Radio she's realizing jokes can be microaggressions, cuts that accumulate.

"I am also guilty of these microaggressions. And it's making me think about Hawai'i--we're like, 'We make fun of each other, that's how it is.' But I realize, it can hurt people."

As part of recognizing Asian hate and stereotyping, one of the changes underway in Hawai'i is changing what we think is funny.

Meanwhile, in the state House, two resolutions HR 111 and HCR 112, declare racism a public health crisis. State Senate Concurrent Resolution 66 condemns all forms of anti-Asian bias.

Hear a deeper discussion of local takes on Asian bias Friday, on the Aloha Friday Conversation.