I was born in Hawaiʻi.
It’s a fun fact I use for every orientation, and it usually catches people by surprise, given the fact that anytime I try to tan, I usually end up with a sunburn (thank you, Irish grandparents!) that quickly fades away. In a word, I’m pretty far from sun-kissed, even though I live there with my family when I am home for holidays and summer breaks.
But when I reveal where I live, the most common responses makes me cringe.
“Oh, so you’re Hawaiian!”
“That makes you Hawaiian, right?”
“I never would have guessed you were Hawaiian!”
Here’s the thing: I’m not Hawaiian. I totally understand what people are trying to say: I live in the state of Hawaiʻi, therefore my demonym — the word used to describe people from a certain state or city — must be Hawaiian, just like people who live in Oregon are Oregonian or those living in Malibu are Californian.
Except it’s not.
“Hawaiian” is a word describing people of Native Hawaiian blood, used in the same way one would call someone Norwegian if their family could be traced back to the Scandinavian country. Me? I’m an Italian, Irish and French Canadian Hawaiʻi resident.
People in Hawaiʻi are very careful to make this distinction between Hawaiian and Hawaiʻi resident, but the change has yet to really seep in across the continental United States.
Just recently, Merriam-Webster added a note to their definition of Hawaiian, which reads, “In Hawaii, the word Hawaiian is understood as an ethnic designation for a native person of Polynesian descent, and its use in the more general sense ‘a resident of Hawaii’ is considered an error,” according to HONOLULU Magazine.
The Associated Press fortunately denotes the difference in its style guide, dictating that “Hawaiians are members of an ethnic group indigenous to the Hawaiian Islands and are also called Native Hawaiians. Use Hawaii resident for anyone living in the state.”
It may seem like a small difference to some, but it saves people in my situation from an incredible amount of internal cringing. The last thing we want is for it to appear as if we’re intentionally appropriating a culture we interact with daily and deeply cherish.
And on Pepperdine’s campus, a conglomeration of different cultures, continents and countries, it’s important to be aware of these distinctions. Students have to be careful with how quickly they jump to categorize people with labels and demonyms.
The biggest thing one can do? Listen.
When someone corrects another’s wording, like asking them to say Hawaiʻi resident instead of Hawaiian, they should adjust their vocabulary.
Listen to body language, too. Sometimes, people may not want to correct others, but they’re clearly uncomfortable when confronted with a misconceptions such as these.
Finally, don’t be afraid to gently point out when terms like Hawaiian are misused. It’s the only way people can change their misunderstandings.
And please, over everything, don’t be one of the people who asks if I’m an American citizen because I was born in Hawaiʻi. But that’s a whole other can of worms.
Email Madeleine Carr: firstname.lastname@example.org