Changing Hawaii

By Diane Yukihiro Chang

Monday, July 7, 1997

Kalaheo’s problem
isn’t black and white

IN the 1970s, at Roosevelt High School, it was prestigious to be recruited for the newspaper or yearbook staff because they were both highly visible school projects. Since most of the work was tedious, though, occasional horseplay helped break the monotony.

One of the fun chores was writing captions for photographs. And since we were just naive kids who didn't realize the power of the press, those little lines could get ridiculous.

For example, maybe there'd be a picture of a teen mugging for the camera with lips puckered. The caption might be something like, "Kiss me, my cherie amour (Smack, smack, smack!)."

Pathetic, wasn't it? That's nothing compared to what ran in Kalaheo High School's yearbook in 1997.

It's the nightmare of every publication adviser. Kalaheo's annual includes a feature photo of three African-American students singing. And the caption under it reads, "I like pigs feet! I like hog mollz! Where da collard greens? Who got da chintlinz?"

As Robin might say, "Holy politically incorrect, Batman!"

On its face, it's blatant racism. But my first reaction to the story wasn't the same as that of the parents and guardian of the three students. They wanted all 830 yearbooks to be recalled.

Nor was I cheering on the attorney for the three students, who is threatening to sue the state.

My first reaction was that the yearbook's faculty adviser must have missed seeing that particular page before it went to the printer's.

Don't call me ethnically insensitive; label me a realist. Everyone who lives in Hawaii -- from recent arrival to established kamaaina -- knows that we all have stereotypes of various races, ages, genders and sexual preferences.

For goodness sake, one local comedian even specializes in ethnic humor.

The problem is knowing where to draw the line. To young people, it's all very confusing. Why is it OK to laugh at Frank DeLima but not all right to put racial slurs in a cutline?

They don't yet understand how harmless fun could have serious ramifications, such as devastating self-esteem, perpetuating cliched images and getting an adult supervisor fired.

If the system of faculty review had been working at Kalaheo's yearbook headquarters, the teacher serving as advisor would have seen the caption, and told the writer why it could not be used. The staffer would have changed it. End of issue.

Instead, it's the beginning of a controversy.

DOE Superintendent Herman Aizawa and the Board of Education didn't help matters, either, when they didn't immediately respond to the attorney for the three African-American students.

If I had been Herman, I'd be apologizing personally and profusely in an effort to escape a possible lawsuit. The mistake was made, so why run away from it? Run toward it with the intention of fixing it.

DEEP down, this is perhaps what the three Kalaheo students and their parents wanted in the first place: a heartfelt "I'm so sorry" and a more stringent and effective policy so this does not happen again at their school or any other public school.

Fiascoes provide the best learning experiences.

Maybe we can't stop people from making fun of different ethnic groups in Hawaii, but in the 1990s we certainly can keep demeaning stereotypes out of our high school annuals.

Diane Yukihiro Chang's column runs Monday and Friday.
She can be reached by phone at 525-8607, via e-mail at, or by fax at 523-7863.

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