When you travel, do you think about race?
So many of us travel to exotic tropical destinations that are primarily communities of dark brown skin. A couple of years ago, I traveled on a cruise ship to Mexico and most recently traveled to Maui for a week with my family. On both of these trips, it was really hard to ignore the reliance on tourism by the local community, which doesn’t always translate to improvements in living for the local people (schools, housing, infrastructure, etc).
I couldn't help but feel as though I was a part of an invasion into a community. I come on my boat and plane alongside hundreds of others to take up space on someone else’s land. What is unique about being in Maui is that I was born and raised in Hawaii. There are many ways, being there makes me feel at home.
But on this recent trip, I was reminded of my white privilege. The looks that I would get from the locals on the beach, were not ones I would get from family. I was definitely seen as an outsider. Considering my pasty white skin tone from 15 months of being inside with the pandemic along with living in the PNW, it definitely is no surprise. And the reality is, I am a tourist to Maui. I was there to explore a place that I’ve never been to, but that is extremely close to my origins in Oahu.
In preparing for the trip to Maui, I was looking for an Airbnb. Many of these are one-bedroom condominiums that are turned into 2-bed units with a sofa sleeper. Out of the 40 or so that I looked at, only one of them was owned by a brown skin local. All of the others were owned by white people. And when I arrived, I was surprised at how many white people were on the island. In most places we went, the majority of people were white. There were more white people than brown people. There were very few black people. The white people were not just tourists, but from their very tanned skin and bleached hair, obviously lived on the island for some time.
When I travel, I try to be conscious about how I am supporting or exploiting the local community.
Which is a really tough balance considering that tourism is a major part of the economy.
So it goes a little something like this.
When I make food and business stops, I'm looking to see who is operating and owning the business.
Are there locals working there? Is it owned by locals?
Does my purchase support locals or the local community?
I also tip more than I typically do back home.
In Maui, this was very challenging, as many places were clearly owned and operated by white folks. There were a few times we had to turn around and keep searching for businesses owned by brown folks. Why was this so hard to do on a small island of Hawaii? Where were all the brown folks?
To combat the impact of tourism at some of the island’s most popular destinations, many of them now require fees and reservations. People complain about the fees that are now in place for places like Haleakala Summit at sunrise or Waiʻānapana State Park. For me, paying these fees is a small cost for having access to a very cherished and sacred land. These funds support the maintenance and prevent overpopulation of the sites.
The island is overrun by tourists and it is very noticeable.
On our hike of the Pīpīwai trail, it was incredibly crowded. There was rarely a moment in which we were in the forest without the sound of people. To take a deep breath on the trail meant to inhale bug spray. I couldn't even enjoy the smell of the Awapuhi Ke'okoe'o (white ginger).
On the way back through the bamboo forest, the bamboo began to whistle and crack. I thought to myself, is this Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and fire, telling us to leave her and her ancestors in peace. Were these warning signs.
During our drive on the Road to Hana, we listened to our guided tour from the GyPSy Guide, in which we named him Herald. He shared these startling statistics on Native Hawaiians.
“When Captain Kirk arrived in Hawaii, the native population was at its height and estimated at between 300,000 and 400,000 people. By the time the first missionaries arrived in 1820 that population was reduced to 140,000. Mainly due to the diseases introduced by visiting sailors. Of course, pure Hawaiian blood became harder to find as interracial birth started taking place. In 1872, there were 51,000 Hawaiians pure and mixed. In 1896, there were just 40,000 Hawaiians. The population has been reduced by as much as 90% since the first contact with Europeans. Hawaiians and mixed Hawaiians then represented only 21 percent of the total population. By 1960, census results counted 11,000 pure Hawaiians and 91,000 mixed Hawaiians. Of course, with better medicine, numbers of mixed Hawaiians have risen. But pure Hawaiians, still decline at a slower rate. At the turn of the century, census data showed that there were about 240,000 mixed Hawaiian's living in Hawaii. While another 140,000 reside in other states. It's estimated that there are less than 8,000 pureblood Hawaiians today.”
This is heartbreaking information, but as we know, is a replayed story all over the world. In reviewing the most recent census data on race in Maui, whites do make up the largest population residing on the island. There is more history, that I have not learned yet, that I am sure can explain why the white race continues to dominate this small island, but I know racism is definitely the answer.
Throughout the tour, Herald talked about who owned the land that surrounded Haleakala. Many of these were famous wealthy white men.
When I went to the Safeway in Kihei, guess what race was the majority. You got it, white. The cashiers were brown and maybe there were a few brown local folks shopping. A familiar view around the world in tourist locations, white people getting service by dark skin brown people.
My experience and my racial noticings, we're obviously a result of colonization, aka white supremacy. White people that believed they had a right to land, people, and water at the expense and killing of brown bodies. That lives on today in the continuation of white bodies having ownership of land, wealth, and space on the island.
I can’t simply observe this and not acknowledge my own contribution as a tourist with light skin.
How am I showing up?
Am I expecting service?
Am I respecting the land and ocean?
Am I respecting the people?
Is my visit exploitation?
Our condo was near a beach that was visited on the weekend primarily by brown locals. There was a graduation party, folks fishing, and camping, and the children having a great time in the water. It was so reminiscent of my times growing up with my cousins at the beach.
I was so appreciative that my children were being conscious of who was around them. Making sure to not get into folks' space, ensuring not to encroach on the fishing line. Their kindness was noticed and they befriended a local brown girl who showed them how to catch the waves with their boogie boards. They were ecstatic to make a friend on Maui.
And to me, that's really important. Don’t just expect Aloha from the people of Hawaii. Bring Aloha. Love the island, love the people, and with love you will care about the impact of your stay throughout your time visiting. You can be better than tourists who walk around as if they have a right and privilege to the space around them on someone else's land. You are a visitor. You are being welcomed somewhere and while exploring, participate from a very humble place. You have no rights and privileges to the air, water, and land in Hawaii. Although race, whiteness, white privilege, sometimes lets you feel and believe that you do. Disrupt that notion.
This article is not meant to discourage you from traveling. I simply want to share how I consider race when I am traveling. Something I simply cannot ignore.
I hope that each time I travel, I learn how to be a racially conscious traveler even more so that I can ensure that my light-skinned American privilege does not allow me to participate in exploitative behaviors that harm communities of color. Remember, you’re on an anti-racist journey, noticing race, historically and present, and learning more as you travel along.
How will you become a racially conscious traveler?