Like Jamaica Kincaid’s island birthplace in the Caribbean, Kauai is a very small place. You can’t circumnavigate the island because of the Na’Pali coast at the northwest corner, a set of towering cliffs surrounded by dense forest on one side and ten foot waves on the other. In between, according to my Hawaiian friend J whose family lives here, there are all kinds of sacred native sites and graves, so even though the map says you can hike through she warned us it would be stupid, rude and dangerous to do so. But if you could drive all the way around, minus the difficulty of driving through jungle and over cliffs, it would take maybe three hours. That’s how small it is.
Currently, I am in a coffee shop in Kapa’a, on the eastern coast. The shop and its inhabitants could have been lifted out of Mendocino county in the 1970’s, with the same grungy look; same excellent coffee; the same oddly gendered straight white boys with long dreadlocks, dreadlocked wives and dreadlocked babies; and same girls behind the counter in tank tops with nothing underneath left to the imagination. Except of course, they are not the same, so it all delivers a healthy uncertainty as to where exactly I am anyway, and what the date actually is. And I am sitting here posting to my blog through a wireless connect, which could not have happened even ten years ago.
One of the features of traveling anywhere is a heightened sense of not being where one is supposed to be, and therefore an uncertainty as to how to be, what to do, and who everyone around you actually is. And one of the features of traveling here is that there are lots of white people with lots of opinions about how the island is developing, all having rather disparaging things to say about someone else. They share these things with me in a variety of ways because I am also a white person. One of the most frequent things I hear from other whites is how it feels to be a “minority” here, and how you can get almost anything you want if you are a person of color, but as a haole (which is Hawaiian for white person) you are constantly running up against racial discrimination.
That this utterly flies in the face of reality is not the point: reality includes the fact that native Hawaiians on Kauai are often living twelve or sixteen to a two bedroom house or – something you can see in the neighborhoods around Kapa’a – people erect one of those sheds you can buy at Home Depot in the back yard as a way of adding an extra room. Native Hawaiians are also sometimes homeless, and living in a tent at one of the state parks. And much of the island is actually owned by very wealthy whites that run things through local proxies, often from great distances. Big chunks of the island have been developed for the second home market, and this has spiraling consequences for everybody born into ordinary circumstances on an island where space is ultimately limited (look at Martha’s Vineyard!) We were informed that a house quite near our rental, which is completely empty, as its occupants have returned to southern California, is on the market for 8.6 million dollars. Another house that we can see from our lanai (terrace) is owned by a physician who comes to the island six or seven times a year; otherwise the house also sits empty.
This is not to say that all white people on the island are rich. This is far from the truth, and there are white folks who were born and raised here who also cannot afford a place to live, and find that their claim to a “home” here – as most people experience their place of birth — is consequently quite fragile. Or people who came here more than a decade ago to get away from it all, surf, work as little as possible and opt out of the rat race who now find that the rat race has come to them and pushed them to the margins. A subset of these white folks – men – focus their rage on tourists at the slightest provocation, which I suppose is a step up from focusing it on a mythical group of Native and Asian-American oppressors. In the times I have spent here I have never been spoken to rudely by a kanaka maoli (Hawaiian) resident, but I have been verbally attacked repeatedly by stressed-out white guys for crossing them in some way I could not have predicted. For example, last time we were here, N and I were getting ready to check out of a supermarket, and I asked a spaced out little girl with a shopping cart whether she was in line. She said no, so I moved my cart forward and started unloading stuff. The next thing I knew, I heard a loud male voice saying, “It’s people like you who wreck the spirit of Aloha!” It was a tubby, dreadlocked white guy who then started to yell at me like a New York cabby while his daughter cowered behind the candy shelf. Despite the fact that I conceded the place in line immediately, loaded my stuff back into the cart, told him that his daughter had said she was not in line, and subsequently kept my mouth shut when it appeared to be useless to say more, the guy refused to see it as a misunderstanding rather than as a deliberate insult and kept yelling at me until he left the supermarket.
I have had enough encounters like this with ragged looking, enraged white men that I would venture to say it is a general phenomenon of island life in which an ordinary middle-class college teacher like myself immediately becomes a “rich person” by having spent the money to come here on vacation in the first place. Beyond that, it doesn’t matter who I am or what my intentions are. This is something I simply accept, and really, it isn’t so hard. But it is also worth noting that it is a complex feature of a colonial economy that relations become complicated far beyond our capacity to explain them in terms of the causes and consequences of social conflict back in the North American metropolis.
Part of the cause of the disparity between rich whites and poor whites, and undoubtedly the rage of the white resident for the white tourist, is that there is very little work here that is not part of the service economy, and almost no work, I suspect that is well-paid. I don’t doubt that there is vast resentment among everybody, white or not, who labors for the rich on Kauai. But white Americans are not used to living without the illusion that, no matter how poor they are, they can’t move up in some way and achieve control over their own lives – this is why Ronald Reagan was so popular, even as he created the conditions for transforming good working class jobs into poorly paid service economy jobs. And of course the historic consequences of that are that mobility mostly doesn’t happen in a service economy. I think that is probably clearer in a small place than in a big place like North America, where the possibility that prosperity is just a game show away still lurks. I imagine a lot of white people come here from the other 48 states confident that they are choosing an easier life where they can get along with less money when, in fact, they have chosen an economy that is more expensive and thus much harder to get along in without working all the time, and working for people who appear not to work at all, and probably treat them rudely as a matter of course.
Meanwhile, I have to get off the internet, since the several cups of coffee I have purchased have had their predictable effect, and as soon as I leave this table it will be snapped up by the sprawling white hippie family that appears to be living on the beach with their multiple babies and who came here to get out of the rain. And yes, they all have dreadlocks. And maybe even trust funds.