By David Shapiro

Saturday, September 13, 1997

Racial slur in a
high school yearbook

IT was painful to see the last school year end on such a sour note over a racial slur in the Kalaheo High School yearbook. It's more painful that the issue is still around to poison the new school year.

Parents of African-American students were outraged by a caption under a photo of three black students that said, "I like pigs feet! I like hog mollz! Where da collard greens? Who got da chintlinz?" It was an offensive reference to "slave food."

If top officials of Kalaheo and the Department of Education had responded quickly with a sincere apology, a reprimand of those responsible and real action to prevent it from happening again, the matter may have ended there.

Instead, parents' concerns were met first with silence and then with a form-letter apology. Officials stonewalled on how the poor judgment of students made it into print without adult guidance. The school and DOE offered no meaningful ideas on how to stop it from happening again other than to accept an offer of help from Kaneohe Marine Base.

Left with no other recourse, parents of two of the students filed suit for $28 million, bringing a predictable backlash from other ethnic groups. These were the main lines of attack:

Why can't blacks take a joke? Local people don't get so offended by Frank DeLima's ethnic jokes.

Slavery was the worst act of oppression in U.S. history. The yearbook slur was the most insulting kind of stereotype of the descendants of slaves. How long can we keep asking black children to accept these affronts and "get over it"? If they walk away without making a stand, how do they know their own children won't have to face the same humiliation?

We're wrong to compare the Kalaheo yearbook slur to DeLima's ethnic humor. DeLima's comedy is grounded in a love for Hawaii, its people and their diversity. There was no love in the Kalaheo yearbook.

Blacks should stop acting like victims. Hawaii's immigrant sugar workers and their descendants rose above hardship.

We insult history when we liken slavery to lesser persecution. Gays did it during the debate on same-sex marriage. I've heard Caucasians compare indignities they suffer at the hands of locals to the black experience.

Hawaii's sugar workers and their descendants have every right to be proud of how they overcame difficult conditions. But their situation was not nearly as cruel as slavery. Immigrant sugar workers themselves rarely make the comparison.

We must never minimize the horror of slavery and its continuing legacy of suffering. We must never forget those of many races who died in the 1860s to end slavery and in the 1960s to seek true freedom for the descendants of slaves. We have a duty to pass the unvarnished truth from generation to generation until the victims of slavery finally get full justice.

It was about money all along.

The Kalaheo parents tried to work things out with school officials before filing suit. Black parents must be so tired of seeing their children subjected to such hurt. They must be so tired of arguing with indifferent bureaucrats. In their position, I'd forget the small arms and haul out the nuclear arsenal, too.

I'd love to see an effort by all to get this settled outside of the courtroom. There are no bad people here -- just some folks who need to put themselves in the other person's shoes and see what it tells them.

Was the insult worth $28 million? No. But if that's what it takes to inspire our schools to act firmly against cruel racism, that's the way it'll have to be.

David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at
Volcanic Ash runs every Saturday in the Star-Bulletin.

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