And, crucially, the Hawaiians traded and shared among themselves — because to survive, they had to. People from the uplands exchanged sweet potato for fish with people from the coasts. A cultural norm of hospitality emerged. The islands weren’t a utopia, of course. They experienced wars and occasional famines, and even had a kind of untouchable caste. But a premium was placed on getting along — the “aloha spirit.”
“I don’t want to sound like a tourist commercial,” Davianna Pomaikai McGregor, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said as she explained this to me. “But I think the Native Hawaiian people and the practice of aloha set the framework” for race relations on the islands.
The reason it sounds like a TV jingle is that it has become one: “Aloha” is a marketing gimmick for the state’s primary industry, tourism. A cartoonish version blares at visitors the moment they get off the plane, often in the form of dancers in grass skirts. Everyone I spoke to with Native ancestry found this irritating and sometimes insulting. One, a university student, told me that she felt like “aloha” was used to make Native Hawaiians invisible in their own land. So it’s important to understand what’s missing from the tourist version. “You’re supposed to give back, not just take take take,” Mahesh Cleveland, a Hawaiian-born lawyer with Native ancestry, told me. “There is an expectation of reciprocity.”
As an explanation about why race relations are different in Hawaii, the “aloha spirit” is actually quite profound. It suggests that attitudes about other people stem, in part, from our understanding of the ecological limits of the world we inhabit. If you think that the resources of the world are limitless and that you don’t really need other people to survive — that they’re disposable because the bounty is endless — you may be inclined to treat people as things. But if you’re aware of how much you depend on others and how small and fragile the world is, you’re likely to have a very different approach to human relationships.
Traditions of hospitality toward the stranger exist in many cultures. They’re central to Christianity, for instance. But for the past 500 years of European and then American expansion, during which the modern race idea was forged, the idea that the world’s bounty was limitless, and that there was little downside to its relentless exploitation, has dominated. That attitude is now getting us into trouble as we change the climate.
If we could begin to grasp the limits of the planet we live on, if we could understand that the earth itself is an island and that we are all dependent on one another for survival, perhaps we would see each other differently, too — and have less use for the very idea of race.
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Moises Velasquez-Manoff, the author of “An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases” and an editor at Bay Nature magazine, is a contributing opinion writer.