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As a rule, I do not watch shows about Hawai`i. Or at least, I try not to.
Too often, shows about my home produced by mainstream media are whitewashed and made to serve neocolonialism—portraying Hawai`i as a post-racial utopia that ignores the extractive tourist economy and martial law resulting from over a century of illegal occupation by the United States.
But last August, homesick for the islands where I'd grown up after moving to Knoxville, Tennessee, to pursue my Ph.D., I made an exception: I watched The White Lotus. My friend texted me to say the show took place at a resort in Hawai`i; she said it was amazing because it followed the staff and guests who served and hated the wealthy weirdos on their land. I ignored the reviews of The White Lotus on Twitter, the backlash it faced for trying to be a critique of white American privilege that was at best a failed satire and at worst a harmful show. My friend said the show reminded her of me. That's all I needed to hear.
In the first moments of The White Lotus, I was comforted. As the season opened in Kahului Airport with Shane, a rich, white real estate bro on the way back from his honeymoon, I was reminded of the first time I flew home from Maui.
I was six years old. My mom had just married my step dad, and we were on our way home (from their honeymoon, which I'd crashed) to our house in Pālolo after a week spent in a family friend's cottage nestled above Hana's cliffs. As the camera zoomed in on Shane, I could smell the plane exhaust creeping through the sliding doors of the open-air airport. I felt the sticky leather of the gate's seats against my back and legs.
For the 2022 74th annual Emmy Awards, pop justice is featuring critiquing this year's award-winning copaganda—and highlighting abolitionist storylines lurking in our favorite shows.
I watched in disgust as local hotel employee Lani went into labor at the hotel in the first episode—sending white hotel manager Armond spiraling. After she went to the hospital that day, she would disappear for the rest of the show. I watched as Kai, a Hawaiian busboy, fell for Paula, the resort's sole nonwhite guest, who convinced Kai to steal from the white Mossbacher family who'd brought Paula along. He got caught in the act, and arrested—his only legacy was the reconciliation his actions fostered between the white family.
While The White Lotus shows us the rekindled romance between Mark and Nicole Mossbacher, we never learn what happens to Kai after his arrest. This storyline—in which Kānaka Maoli are vilified, arrested, and erased in order to appease white settlers, happens all too often in real life.
From 2010 to 2018, Honolulu Police Department's data shows that on average 73.3 percent of people who experienced use of force by police officers were people of color, with 32.7 percent being Kānaka Maoli or Pacific Islander. In 2015 Hawai`i ranked fifth in the country for number of people killed by police officers, and more recently in 2020, Honolulu police officers were reported to disproportionately arrest Samoan, Micronesian, and Black persons for violating stay-at-home orders. Out of those arrested for violating COVID-19 stay-at-home orders in 2020, many came from communities that were unhoused or lower-income; 15 percent were Hawaiians like Kai.
On the show, I watched as a crew of local paddlers played the role of "magical natives," providing enlightenment and entertainment for the Mossbachers' son, Quinn—as white resort guest, Tanya, conned Belinda, a Black spa manager with dreams of opening a women's center, into performing physical and emotional labor for her, dangling the promise of money over Belinda until she grew bored.
Like Belinda, none of the local or Indigenous characters in The White Lotus are given plotlines of their own. When they are allowed into the white plot, they are victimized, vilified, or erased. While The White Lotus does, cursorily, outline colonial and systemic problems, it provides no escape from them. It replicates, and in this way perpetuates, tired and problematic tropes.
It's hard to see political or cultural critique in a show that was filmed in Hawai`i during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Kānaka Maoli and politicians alike were asking visitors not to come to Hawai`i. It's even harder when the writer and director himself was comfortable saying that his idea for the show came from a desire to "get out of L.A." during quarantine.
If the show is satire, it's the wealthy white elite who get the last laugh. Because while Kānaka Maoli characters like Kai are arrested for attempted robbery, white characters like Shane get away with "accidental" murder, reinforcing the white American idea of Hawai`i as an amusement park to be exploited for pleasure—much like Westworld—an adventure they can buy and abandon for their privileged lives on the continent.
In Haunani-Kay Trask's book, From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai`i, she calls on theorist Frantz Fanon to talk about the colonial project in Hawai`i from which shows like The White Lotus stem. "The first step in the colonizing process,' Fanon had written, 'was the deculturation of a people.'" Directly after, Trask asks: "[and] what better way to take our culture than to remake our image?"
Even if The White Lotus tries to be an indictment of white privilege and settler colonialism—as the show's creator Mike White claims it does—in erasing local and Kānaka Maoli characters from the narrative, The White Lotus supports popular culture's remaking of the Indigenous image as dependent on what Trask calls the "hostage economy" of tourism. The show steals Kānaka Maoli futures. It contributes to "the obliteration rather than incorporation of Indigenous peoples"—what Trask identifies as one of colonialism's main goals.
The abdication of Indigenous futures is not contained to the characters of the show, but extends to the actors that play these characters. Aside from Natasha Rothwell, who plays Belinda, all of The White Lotus characters nominated for Emmys are white. Not a single Hawaiian character is nominated for an Emmy. Kānaka Maoli are erased from the narrative of the show, and from Hollywood's larger narrative, obliterating Kānaka Maoli from popular culture as a whole.
This obliteration of Kānaka Maoli is not only present in popular culture, but also in the history of American policing in the Hawaiian Islands. Erasure of Kānaka Maoli began as early as Captain Cook's arrival in 1778, and spread through the 1800s as United States businessmen worked to establish a plantation-based oligarchy. The "Bayonet Constitution" continued the disenfranchisement of the Hawaiian people, leading to the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in 1893, and, in 1898, when the Spanish-American war began, Hawai`i was named a United States territory. Its people have been subject to complete colonial rule ever since.
In Hawai`i, the lines between Army, Military Police and Civilian Police are blurred. An example of this blurring is the Massie Case of 1931-32. Due to a false accusation by Naval wife Thalia Massie, five local Asian and Hawaiian men—Joseph "Kalani" Kahahawai, Benedict "Benny" Ahakuelo, Horace Ida, David Takai and Henry Chang—were tried for rape and battery. When they were not found guilty by the court, two of them were kidnapped by Navymen, and one of them, Joseph Kahahawai, was killed. Though the Navymen were tried for Kahahawai's murder, the court instead found them guilty of manslaughter—a charge that came with a 10-year sentence. Due to their status as white Naval officers, the navy pressured the governor to reduce their punishment to a mere hour of supervision by the high sheriff.
American "justice" bent to the white supremacy of American military rule.
Obliteration of Indigenous persons, Indigenous justice, and Indigenous sovereignty was present through Hawai`i's territoryhood—and found explicitly in the Japanese Internment Camps and military desecration of Kahoʻolawe mandated during WWII. Though 21st century martial law is couched under the veil of statehood, Hawai`i's people are now subject to erasure at both the hands of the military and civilian police, who disproportionately target Kānaka Maoli and residents of color.
Hawaiians now seek to not only abolish policing in the islands, but the American government as a whole. Across social media platforms Native Hawaiians are asking tourists to stop coming to Hawai`i. Abolition groups like Hawai`i Peace and Justice, Hawai`i Friends of Peace and Justice, Hawai`i Community Bail Fund, Pu'uhonua Penpal Program, and the newly formed Hawaiian Abolition Collective are doing work to promote land stewardship, provide education and training for Hawai`i's peacemakers, and speak out again the American military and prison industrial complexes. The Hawaiian sovereignty movement, present in The Thirty Meter Telescope protests on Mauna Kea and the Crisis at Kapūkakī protests of the Navy's petroleum contamination of water, demands deoccupation of Hawai`i. Kānaka Maoli now call for an end to American policing and to America's military rule.
Hawaiian abolition is directly tied to its sovereignty, and to Kānaka Maoli ability to see a just future as individuals and as a people. As Haunani Kay-Trask writes, "When awareness begins, then so, too, does decolonization."
While shows like The White Lotus seem like a small rock on the mountain that is the fight for Hawaiian self-governance, the negative depictions of Kānaka Maoli that the show perpetuates are important when it comes to Hawaiian morale. What we need in Hollywood, in books and in plays and in music, is more positive depictions of Hawaiians— more chances for Kānaka Maoli to dream a happy future for themselves. A huge part of this comes from providing opportunities for Hawaiian creators to tell their own stories, instead of continuing to give these roles to those who come to Hawai`i as an escape, who have no idea what it is like to live as a Hawaiian or to imagine a Hawaiian future not tied to imperialist rule.