Lee Cataluna: Good intention trapped in outdated local style
It’s unfortunate that Case’s attempt to build a connection backfired, because clearly he didn’t intend the remark to come off so badly.
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It has long been said about Hawaii that because we can joke about race and ethnicity across the board without worrying about causing offense, we are somehow more evolved and accepting of diversity.
For generations, people have gotten away with ethnic jokes at work and race-based humor in the mainstream because such things are supposedly a “tradition” from the plantation era and, besides, no harm is intended. Thus, some pretty troublesome stereotypes have leached into the Hawaii soil like contaminants that were fine all those years ago but have have broken down into something more corrosive over time.
On distant shores, there is not the understanding of “traditional local humor” and all the supposed camaraderie that comes with it.
This week, Hawaii Congressman Ed Case caused a kerfuffle when, while speaking at a gathering of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote Celebration, he described himself as an “Asian trapped in a white body.”
That line would probably be greeted with chuckles at a Rotary Club luncheon in Honolulu, but at an event in D.C. covered by journalists who write for national publications, the idea of a white man claiming he embodies all that it means to be Asian is a jaw-dropper. Can any of us ever say that we understand to be something we’re not?
Then there is the troublesome word choice of “trapped,” which could be unpacked in a voluminous academic dissertation about race, agency and subjugation.
After being called out on Twitter, Case’s office issued an apology:
“I am fiercely proud of representing the state with the highest percentage of many ethnic groups in our country including Asian and Pacific Islanders, a state where no ethnic group has been in the majority for generations. Like so many others from Hawaii who treasure our multicultural heritage, I have absorbed and live the values of our many cultures. They and not my specific ethnicity are who I am, and I believe that this makes me an effective advocate on national issues affecting our API community. I regret if my specific remarks to the national API community on my full absorption of their concerns caused any offense.”
It’s unfortunate that Case’s attempt to build a connection backfired, because clearly he didn’t intend the remark to come off so badly. He was trying to say what so many people from Hawaii say: We live in a diverse community so we understand some deep truths about our shared humanity.
Not to defend Case. He’s a grownup who has been to the big leagues before and he should know how to handle himself.
But his ill-received remark is a reminder to folks from Hawaii who still think plantation-era ethnic humor is exempt and somehow endearing. It isn’t. It might have been a way to defuse tension and build bonds through mutual denigration back in the day, but it has outlived its usefulness in the modern world and provides a too-easy pathway to race-based put-downs.
Probably more than ever, we need to find ways to laugh together and not take ourselves too seriously. But there’s plenty of material to be found in our daily routines and the craziness of our hyper-connected world without relying on race as a punchline.
Reach Lee Cataluna at 529-4315 or email@example.com.