Keola Birano sees Barkley’s words as inspiring an important conversation about his own native Hawaiian community.
The often outspoken Charles Barkley was able to stir up the sports world once again by sharing his thoughts on Russell Wilson’s “blackness” being questioned by some of his teammates:
“There are a lot of black people who are unintelligent, who donʻt have success – itʻs best to knock a successful black person down cause theyʻre intelligent, they speak well, they do well in school, and theyʻre successful. Itʻs crabs in a barrel…Weʻre the only ethnic group that says, ʻhey, if you go to jail, it gives you street cred.’ ”
Is this true? Do some black people tear down others who they deem less black because of their intelligence and/or success?
I’m not an African American so I can’t say with any credibility, however, I can tell you that this isn’t just an African American issue. This is also a Native Hawaiian issue.
Many people would like to believe that Hawaii is a peaceful paradise, where all the locals show aloha and every day is a party. They don’t realize the social and economic hardship that many Native Hawaiians deal with on a daily basis. I’ve seen it first hand as a child as my father moved from job to job and struggled with drug addiction throughout his life. I grew up around criminal elements and saw how these people would act and behave. I witnessed my dad selling drugs and heard about the stories of the fights he had been in. He would run away from the cops with us kids in the car. He psychologically abused my mother and threatened her in front of my siblings and I. I hated my father, which meant I hated being Native Hawaiian.
Surprisingly, my father wasn’t Hawaiian. In actuality he was Filipino, Irish and Cherokee. So why did I think he was Hawaiian? It’s because he told me he was, especially when he talked about his exploits in street fighting. He’d colorfully share how he was able to scrap and get away from the cops and by the end of the story he would announce that he was more Hawaiian then my mother, who was actually Hawaiian. The criminal elements he hung out with were Hawaiians.
On the other hand, I wasn’t tough, and I hated being mean to anyone. I enjoyed keeping the rules and being helpful. This didn’t sit well with my father, and he would let me know on many occasions that he saw me as a “faggit.” In his eyes, I wasn’t man enough for him. All these messages taught me that Hawaiians were a people I didn’t want to be. When I did well in school, I attributed it to my Japanese lineage.
That all changed when I went off to college on the island of Oahu and met Hawaiian faculty, staff and classmates who contradicted the belief I had about Hawaiians. The Hawaiians I met in college were intelligent, articulate, law abiding but still did many of the cultural things that make us different, like playing Hawaiian music, dancing hula, chanting and being one with the ocean. In addition, I learned about my history and found out that my ancestors were intelligent and, at one time, had one of the highest literacy rates in the world. I also learned that my people were overthrown and became citizens of a country that didn’t respect their independence, that our language was outlawed in schools, and that many of our Gods were destroyed and replaced by Christianity. Lands that were once used to help all people were turned into currency with property being viewed as a commodity and not a member of our society.
Looking at my people through the lenses of history, I was able to understand our social and economic predicament. It doesn’t give people like my father an excuse but it does help me forgive and give me hope that things can change. They can change because as a Hawaiian we have potential.
Sir Charles is right that there are probably black people who don’t view education as important. Does that make them idiots? I don’t think it’s that simple.
For those of you who have children or have been around kids you know how impressionable kids can be. I grew up thinking Hawaiians weren’t an educated people because of my environment, and I bet the same could be said for some of the African Americans who feel this way.
Another element that could be fueling this narrative is history. The African American community has experienced a history of slavery and racism. Just like Hawaiians there is little trust in a system that was created by a dominant culture who at one point deemed our populations as less then.
Why should we trust the educational system now? Do schools teach our history? Does the educational system really care? These questions hold a lot of people back because they feel like the educational system brainwashes you. So when you come out from the other side you’ve learned how to be successful in a system that doesn’t respect or understand our values.
So what does this mean? Should African Americans or Hawaiians stop going to school if they want to be true to their people? How do you stop a narrative that is deeply rooted?
I think we need to first find and share with our young people the stories of successful community members. People from all backgrounds should be brought forth as models even those who don’t have a college degree because what’s most important is to show that your education or occupation doesn’t define you as a African American or Native Hawaiian.
We can be anyone we want to be. You don’t have to lose your cultural values, no matter what path you take. If these models could be propped up in popular media it would make a great impact and counteract the current stereotypes that film, music and news portray.
Finally, our people need to know their history. The good, the bad and the ugly. Knowledge will free you from the assumptions you learned as a child and help you gain a better understanding of your community issues, which will guide you on how to address them.
I’m happy that Charles started the conversation, but now we need to stop fighting amongst ourselves, or else we’ll just be hurting the next generation of children who deserve the right to dream big and be anyone they want to be without backlash from their people. Whether you’re an NFL quarterback, an academic advisor, or a community leader, we are all interconnected.
To change the system, we need all of us to be working together.
Photo Credit: Associated Press/Chitose Suzuki
Also by Keola Birano:
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