The State of Aloha

Rep. Ed Case really stepped in it. Freshly elected to the U.S. House and back in the Capitol representing Hawaii’s 1st District, Case spoke at the Renaissance Washington hotel Jan. 15.

The event was a celebration of Asian-American and Pacific Islander congresspersons. It was one of those events with hundreds of people in attendance and it was hardly newsworthy.

Then Case started talking. No one has the actual speech, but Nicholas Wu was there. He’s part of an organization called the National Journal, a strange conglomerate of policymakers, journalists and media folks who help governments and corporations make policy presentations. It’s a classic in-the-beltway kind of outfit covering a typical beltway affair.

But Case changed all that. Wu posted a picture on Twitter. You can barely make out Case at the podium. Others are facing him so you can’t see the audience’s faces. Wu quoted Honolulu’s congressman: “I’m an Asian trapped in a white body.”

Social media exploded. Twitter users from all over lambasted him for his offensive insensitivity. Like most political gaffes, the written apology that quickly followed wasn’t much of an apology. Case wrote that he was “fiercely proud” to represent a district with no ethnic majority. He wrote that “like so many others from Hawaii who treasure our multicultural heritage, I have absorbed and lives the values of our many cultures.”

Then his spokesperson tried to help, but made it even more cringe-worthy. Case, he explained, was merely saying what his Japanese-American wife sometimes says about him.

That’s probably true. But I doubt she would say that about him when speaking to hundreds of people in D.C. at an event honoring Asian-American legislators who aren’t white.

What makes it weird is not what he said, but who said it. The Case family has deep roots in Hawaii going back many generations. Born in Hilo, Case had five siblings. After being educated at Hawaii Preparatory Academy in Waimea, Case went on to Williams College in Massachusetts.

Case’s father was a lawyer who moved the family to Honolulu when he took on a job at a prestigious law firm in the early 1950s — at a time when Hawaii firms would not hire nisei and other Asian attorneys. Case would eventually follow in his father’s footsteps, go to law school, and practice law in Honolulu. In fact, before he ran for Congress this time around, he was working for the Outrigger Enterprises, owners of the traditional canoe club of haole elite.

He is a committed moderate who ran on the grounds that he would work with Republicans to get things done. (Ironically, his own party took the House). And now he’s telling the world he’s an Asian-American, apparently. He ought to know better than to say something stupid like that in D.C.

The whole fiasco reminded me how Mainlanders of all colors often misinterpret Hawaii’s racial diversity. The sugar and pineapple industries in the 19th and 20th centuries imported labor from all over the world. Because of that, we have had diverse ethnic and racial groups for generations and our approach to race is complex and unlike the rest of the country.

It reminded me when I left the islands for the first time to go to college. I was in the cafeteria with my new friends and described a classmate as an Oriental guy.

The chatting stopped. Everyone around me gasped. “He’s not a rug,” my friend scolded.

I realized that the term — which was common parlance on Maui — was unacceptable in California. I quickly apologized. But then I wondered about my new friends.

Could they handle Hawaii, where it was perfectly fine to inquire into a stranger’s ethnicity and where it was just as fine to casually and proudly rattle off your ethnic makeup?

Do folks on the Mainland even know what we call each other here? What would they think about Frank De Lima’s Filipino Christmas song? Or Rap Reiplinger’s sweaty, malasada-wielding politician, Willy Maunawile? Or the Beamers’ “Mr. Sun Cho Lee”? They’d flip out!

I have a theory. I think coming from a multicultural society like the islands is more than just celebrating cultural pageantry. It’s about truly living with others. It’s about working, fighting and loving others who have different roots. It means accepting our neighbors, but poking fun at our differences the same time. It’s arguably the true language of diversity.

Maybe Case should’ve turned the gaffe into a “teachable moment” for Mainlanders. If you’re going to double down and act like a local, he might as well have called himself an Oriental trapped in a haole body. That would’ve really put people through the roof.

Then again, Case has shown us that Hawaii’s approach to race is still out of step with the Mainland. Willy Maunawile wouldn’t stand a chance.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”