What’s a Haole? Is it a racial slur? Does it mean Caucasion? Hawaii Slang

When I first came to Hawai’i – I was at the beach in Waikiki and met a couple of locals. They asked where I was from, how long I was staying…the usual questions locals ask people on vacation. It was a friendly talk-story conversation – until they found out that I intended to stay in Hawai’i. At that point, I started to hear another word in the conversation – ‘haole’. I’ve thought about this a lot through the years…it’s all tangled up with colonialism, whiteness, brownness, localness, Hawaiiness…

I want to be clear…the guys were never unfriendly or threatening – they wre just a couple of brown skinned guys who grew up here – I have no idea what their ethnicity was – at the time, I probably thought they were Hawaiians – and they may have been – but looking back, it seems more likely they were ‘locals’ of Filipino or Japanese descent. The funny thing about the conversation was how it went cold when they found out I wanted to stay in Hawai’i. As a visitor, a tourist…I was a welcome guest, but as a person staying…I was something else…I became a haole. Instantly.

It occurs to me that I can’t describe what a haole is without giving some other definitions first:

Hawaiians are people who are descended from the Polynesian voyagers who settled these islands a thousand years ago. If you can’t claim ancestry, you aren’t Hawaiian. Period.

Kama’aina are people who are ‘of the land’. People who live here, who have roots here, who are a part of this place but usually not Hawaiians (though Hawaiians are certainly kama’aina).

Local is a word that carrys a racial weight. Essentially it means brown, Asian, grew up here, not Hawaiian but people who feel they belong here. Generally, if you can’t say what high school you went to (in Hawai’i) then you aren’t local. And if you are white you may be local haole, but you aren’t local.

And that brings us to Haole. 

In it’s simplest form a haole is a white person. European or American heritage. Pukui and Elbert’s Hawaiian Dictionary says that a haole is a white person of foreign origin, but that’s not the whole story. As mentioned above, at a certain point, you become a ‘local haole‘ (though some would argue this is an oxymoron and something only haoles would say).

There are other types of haole though – tourist haole (generally just called a tourist). They’re not staying and they don’t matter to people who live here, they just need to spend and support the economy. Harsh but true.

Mainland Haole would be an American who moved here. Military and university students often fall in this category. Coast Haoles get a little more respect – generally from California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska – we share the Pacific. Local haoles might have been born here, went to high school here, or have lived and worked here for enough time to understand the culture, how things work, and have been ‘localized’ with habits, dress, language, etc.

Then there’s Hapa-haole. Hapa means half in Hawaiian and in it’s pure form it means half Hawaiian and half haole – just hapa could mean half Hawaiian and half Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, or other Pacific Islander. Sometimes hapa is used just to indicate half but locally, it’s understood that at least part is Hawaiian. 

For those wondering, there is a racial connotation to the world haole. In previous times, local grade schools had ‘kill haole days’ when local kids would pulverize white kids and mostly not get any trouble over it. There are still neighborhoods on most islands where if you are a haole, you are a target. There’s a simmering resentment that sometimes comes to the surface for past or present discrimination of whites and for the plantation heritage, the overthrow of the Queen of Hawaii, and the colonization of Hawai’i. There are people who hate all haole. But mostly, that’s just not true any longer.

The story I’ve heard most says that when Captain Cook and his men arrived, they refused the traditional Hawaiian greeting of touching foreheads and exchanging breath – this is the ‘HA’ in Aloha – the breath of life. Hawaiians called Cook, his men, and the many white foreigners who came afterwards HA-ole which translates as ‘no breath of life’ or even ‘ghost’ or ‘not living’. Eventually, the word just came to mean foreigner – a person not from Hawaii and since most of those who came here initially were from Europe or North America -it came to mean white.

I’m going to go a little further though – I’m going to add on a little distinction that I’ve discovered. When you come to love and understand Hawai’i – to really feel it in your bones – it doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is. Local people, kama’aina, locals, Hawaiians – they recognize it. You may still be a haole, but you are a local haole, you (in a sense) belong to the people here. You belong to this place and it is understood that you belong in this place.

For those who never get it, however. The white people who come here and disrespect the land, the people, the culture, the unique way of doing things here – they have a different distinction which, if you hear it and it’s applied to you, you need to get out of that area – the facking haole or effing haole. If someone is calling you that, you need to leave because you aren’t safe and you’ve been put in a category (rightly or wrongly) that puts you in danger. There are people who simply hate all haole and there are people who deserve to be hated – that’s all I can really say about that.

When I lived on Kauai I used to hang out in a little marina in Kapa’a. There were a bunch of local fishermen who I’d talk story with. One of them, who some guys said was the direct descendent of King Kamuali’i of Kauai, we became friendly. We were barbecuing and drinking beers one day and a rather angry young guy had a few too many and sort of spat in my direction “What’s that facking haole doing here?” I was very aware of a lot of stink eye and anger being pointed my way all of a sudden…then George, the descendent of the king, he walked over to me with a murderous look in his eye…”This haole?” He roared…”This guy, he’s a haole…but he ain’t no facking haole!” And he put his arm around me and everyone laughed and it was all cool. It’s wierd, but it stands as one of the proudest moments of my time there. If you get it, you get it – if you don’t – well…no big deal.