Should I have been offended that first time the doctor called me haole•
“Mango poisoning — it’s not uncommon for haoles,” is what she said as I sat on the exam table.
Such a matter-of-fact statement, yet I felt the sting of a word I knew was discriminating. Like other ugly words to describe a race, it had been adopted into our language as a way to describe one group of people.
Randy Wichman, president of the Kaua’i Historical Society told me that wasn’t its original translation.
“‘Ha’ means breath of life. ‘Aole’ is the Hawaiian word for no. Haole means no breath of life,” he said. “Anybody who was stingy was haole — Hawaiians included.”
Randy pronounced the word different also. Today it sounds like “howl-e” but he pronounced the word in three syllables, “hah-oh-lei.”
The first to arrive to the islands did not know how to share, so they were called ha oh lei.
“The most important Polynesian value is to share,” he said.
The word has been corrupted through time.
“Today it’s used as a racial slur. The evolution of it now is only in reference to Caucasians — (people have) forgotten the intent.”
When I first arrived to the islands, every time I heard “haole” spoken, even in casual conversation, I felt something threatening take root inside me. Like most racial slurs these words feel cloaked in hate.
I thought I had let the word “haole” pass through me that first time. I told myself, “Don’t be so sensitive. You aren’t from here. Go with the flow.” But the barb of a hate-based word is cunning the way it can stick its micro-fine spur into my psyche. I convinced myself to think of the word “haole” as a harmless description for a person — like cyclist, gymnast or baker. “It’s just a name,” I told myself.
But words can become obstacles for understanding. By keeping hate-based words alive, separation is the natural by-product.
I became aware of my intolerance for it while working at a large resort restaurant a few years ago. Restaurants have their own lingo — words like 86’ed for when you’re out of something, four-top to describe a seated table or in-the-weeds for when you’re crazily busy. The word “haole” was as common in the kitchen at this restaurant as any of these. Sometimes it was just, “Hey, you have two haoles at table 12,” but usually there was an expletive preceding it, “That f—ing haole on 12 needs more tea.”
Being new to the islands, I was much more guarded those first few years. At the restaurant I got along well with my co-workers so I told them how I felt about the word. We were all friends by then and they gave me a lot of ribbing over it. They’d tell me it’s just a word and I would answer, “Yeah, and it’s a hate-based word.” I’m sure it was not used any less, but I felt some relief having moved my discomfort surrounding the pervasive use of it.
I hear other Caucasians call themselves haole every day. In fact, I’ve developed my own insensitivity to it. This is my cause for concern. I hardly hear it now when someone says it to me in casual conversation. Albeit, I do not feel comfortable using the word myself. Yet, here I am seven years later, completely jaded to a hate-based word that used to offend me.
• Pam Woolway is the lifestyle writer at The Garden Island. Her column “Being there” appears every other week.