Black identity in Hawaii: the conflicting experiences of being black and local

Black History Month

Hanabata days

Victoria Lynch prefers to go by Vicki. If you ask her what her ethnic background is, she’ll tell you she’s Black and Hawaiian — which she often calls “Blackanesian” — but she prefers not to think in those terms.

“How I identify on the outside, I’ll tell you what you want to hear,” she said. “But I hate being identified as a race. I’ve never liked it. I still deep down identify as a human, as a person who is just as smart as and just as capable as and, sometimes, just as dumb as anyone else. It’s the same as when I was a child.”

When she was a child growing up with her grandparents in Waianae, she was a tomboy who wanted to play in the NFL and had to have it thoroughly explained to her why she probably couldn’t before she decided to believe it or not. In the same way she didn’t see the difference between what it meant to be a boy vs. being a girl when it came to playing professional football, she had no conception about what it meant to be part of one race or another. Kids are simply kids.

Vicki with her great grandmother.

“As a child I wasn’t self-aware of my looks. I was just running around playing with the neighborhood kids, playing outside til the streetlights came on. Growing up, I didn’t see the division in the different races. One of my best friends was Filipino and I was over there all the time. I grew up in a church that was an English-speaking and Samoan-speaking congregation. My younger brother thought he was Samoan for a while,” she laughed.

But the halcyon days of youth don’t last long.

“We were taught that there were some differences, but all right, you’re Filipino, you’re Hawaiian, you’re Samoan, you’re Black whatever. I knew I was different, but I didn’t know how different I was until I started to get older. I think for me the biggest thing was my hair — having black, kinky hair.”

Hair care became a cumbersome task.

“In elementary school I had pigtails; I had two braids. One year, through the advice of one of my aunties, she told my grandma ‘just cut it off, it’ll be easier to do her hair in the morning before school if you give her an afro.’”

Having an afro in Waianae, where people were culturally local and ethnically mixed, was no big deal. It became an issue, however, when she went to a summer camp with churches from across the island.

“The folks from the Kailua churches were predominantly caucasion, and the folks who went to the Town churches were predominantly Japanese or Korean. North Shore churches were predominantly Polynesian: Samoan and Tongan. Now I’m darker than everybody else, and here I am sporting my afro — now there’s a big difference, and I could see the difference.

Vicki with her grandparents.

“I started to see the differences because other people started to see the differences. I was used to seeing all kinds of races, but when you grow up in Waianae it all blends in to that way of life. But now I’m being exposed to Asians who were not exposed to brown skin people, so there’s a difference culturally in how they were raised. They’re asking questions like, ‘you get cable in Waianae?‘ Are you seriously asking this question?”

That was when she realized that being Black meant something different.

“It wasn’t big enough for me to be traumatized by it. It was just enough for me to start to notice the difference. But the difference started to make an impact when it became negative.” 

Double consciousness

In 1897, the prolific African-American sociologist and writer W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term “double consciousness” to describe the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” For Vicki, it wasn’t just her Blackness that made her conscious of how others perceive her.

“An eye opener for me was in high school when I was on the phone talking pidgin. I didn’t realize I was, and my grandma came and tapped me on the back of my head. I thought, oh I’m in trouble, but she didn’t tell me to get off the phone, so I kept talking to my friend. She came and did it again a little bit harder. I got off the phone and asked my grandma, ‘why you hit me for?’ 

Vicki’s grandparents.

“She sat me down and said look, do not speak pidgin in my house. I’m like, I wasn’t talking pidgin. A lot of local kids, they don’t realize there’s a difference between speaking good English and speaking pidgin — I was one of those kids. She said you have four strikes against you. You’re from Waianae. You’re Black. You’re Hawaiian. You’re female. So when you apply for a job and you walk in there talking like how you’re talking, who do you think they’re gonna hire? You, or someone from Town?”

Though it seemed strange that her grandma, who is from Hawaii, told her not to speak pidgin in her house in Waianae, the advice eventually sunk in, and she made a conscious effort to change her manner of speaking. Vicki believes her grandma was right, but speaking “proper” English did her no favors in the workplace. While working as a receptionist at the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, she encountered prejudice due to how she looked and how she spoke — often from other Hawaiians.

“They didn’t know how to take me. I’d say good morning in my professional voice, and when they looked at me they saw an African-American woman, probably from the mainland, working at a place for Native Hawaiians. I could see the judgment happening.”

Sometimes it was innocuous, like when a woman on the phone asked where she was from, and when Vicki said she was from Waianae, the woman assumed she was Asian because she spoke so well.

“I thought that was the funniest thing. I said no, I’m not Asian, not that I know of. She didn’t want to ask so I said, ‘do you wanna know what I am?’ She said yes, and I said I’m African-American and Hawaiian. She gasped and was blown away. I wasn’t offended, but for her to make that comment and be surprised that a person from Waianae of Black and Hawaiian ancestry can speak good English, it stuck with me.” 

Other times, however, the prejudice was not as easily dismissed with laughter. Frequently, clients didn’t want her to help them because they thought she wasn’t from Hawaii.

“Clients would come in and I’d say how can I help you today, and I’d get a response like, ‘I wanna talk to somebody.’ And I’d respond and then they’d be quiet. They didn’t want to talk to me. So I’d say you are talking to somebody, and this somebody is gonna help you find the right somebody.”

In those exchanges, she often had to start speaking pidgin — “when I’m angry it comes out automatically” — in order to break the silence.

“I experienced that weekly. Not daily, but definitely weekly. I’d always question myself: am I being overly sensitive? Am I overly aware? My whole life I tried not to be because it was just a negative and I didn’t want it to rule my world or dictate how I approach every day of my life. So I know I wasn’t being over sensitive.  But when they come in and look at me and I’m not speaking pidgin or sounding local, they didn’t want to deal with me.”

There was an extra sting because Vicki is Hawaiian, and proudly so, and her job for 10 years was dedicated to helping other Kanaka Maoli at the Department of Hawaiian Homelands. Yet she looked Black and talked white, both of which signify you’re not from here.

“I had to prove myself. It got tiresome. I had to prove that I belonged. How much more Hawaiian do I have to be for you? Do I get some brownie points because I’m from Waianae and I can trace my lineage back to King Kamehameha? What do I have to do? Do I gotta talk pidgin?

“I strongly feel like I was judged by how I look. It’s still a struggle on a day-to-day basis on how I’m perceived. I don’t regret changing the way I speak. I still feel it was good advice from my grandmother. I am who I am and I sound how I sound. There’s no going back. Over the phone, hey it’s great, but I still question myself when I meet face-to-face with people. Now you’re looking at the face of who I am, am I going to be judged?”

Facing the future

These issues of identity became more complicated when she gave birth to her son.

“At first I wanted him to be know how to be human, how to be kind. Especially as a male, I wanted him to know how to be kind and respectful to women. But I also wanted to raise him to be culturally sensitive to all races, and to identify with his predominant races, which would be Black and Hawaiian. It was easy being in Hawaii to identify with Hawaiian culture, but it took a little bit more for Black culture.”

And by Black culture, she does not mean rap music.

“There’s a place for everything, and unfortunately my ears are not the place for rap music,” she laughed. “But I don’t judge you if you listen to it!”

She enrolled her son in a charter school to learn more about Hawaiian culture, but he ended up getting teased for being Black.

“Now he doesn’t grasp strongly to either of his predominant cultures. I don’t know if I failed him, but I can’t blame him for feeling the way that he feels. He was in the midst of Hawaiian culture being treated as an outcast, which was so not Hawaiian to me.” 

Now, as the burden of Hawaii’s ballooning cost of living grows heavier, Vicki is faced with another hard decision: moving to the continent.

“I have no other choice. Am I concerned? Yeah. But it’s an economical move. I don’t want to have to worry. It’s just so hard to live in paradise. You have to struggle. It’s just me, single income. I need to have multiple streams of income in order to survive here.”

Some of her concerns are familiar to anyone who has left Hawaii for an extended period of time: missing your family, friends and the food. But being Black adds an additional set of anxieties.

“Everything on the mainland is about race, and I hate that. I hate feeling like you have to identify who you are before someone will have a conversation with you. I hate that type of mindset.”

One of Vicki’s friends who lives on the continent — a fellow Blackanesian woman originally from Hawaii — told her about a time an older white man stopped his car to block her from pulling out of a parking stall. She waited, and the man eventually moved, but when she pulled out, the man started following her and chased her. She drove in circles until he finally stopped. Her friend believes the situation was racially motivated.

“Is that a concern for me? Yes. The mainland is racially tense. I don’t want to leave, but I refuse to live the second half of my life struggling paycheck to paycheck.”

Being who you are

Despite the prejudice she’s faced in the past and the uncertainty of the future in front of her, Vicki is comfortable with who she is.

“Definitely I identify as being local. I’m very much attached to this aina. The smell of saltwater in the air comforts me. The smell of the air, the way the wind blows, all these things we take for granted. I’m sensitive to it. I love the rain. It makes traffic horrendous but I love the rain.” 

To her, being local is something deeper than one’s ethnic heritage.

“It’s not just Hawaiian or Polynesian, it’s everyone who lives here. From Black to white and everything in between. Being local isn’t about race. It’s about a way of living. Our differences make us unique, but we are more alike than we are different.”

This is the eighth installment in a month-long series for Black History Month, about Black history and identity in Hawaii. The other stories are linked below.
A word, a plant, a group of people: unpacking “pōpolo”
The Pōpolo Project: building a space to ask questions and challenge ideas
Black History in Hawaii: from whaling ships to royal courts
Black History in Hawaii: visible and invisible blackness
Black music in Hawaii: reggae grows Hawaiian roots 
Local musician perpetuates the culture that adopted him
Black music in Hawaii: hip-hop’s Hawaii connection
Black futures in Hawaii: envisioning a beautiful, equitable horizon for everyone

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