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Hawaiian Shirts: A Formal Defense of Casual Attire

Editor’s note: All opinions pieces published in the Clerk represent only the views and ideas of the author.

On November 17th, 2019, Honor Council released the trial abstract for the case known as “Kardashians,” concerning a party held on campus that was deemed a violation of the social honor code provision against “cultural insensitivity,” specifically towards Native Hawaiians. This article expects that readers are familiar with the contents of the abstract and the social code. In my mind there are two possible objections someone could have with this trial: one could argue that Hawaiian shirts are not culturally insensitive or one could argue that there is nothing wrong with cultural insensitivity. In this case, I felt as though the former was more relevant and will explore this idea further. All opinions and biases ought to be rigorously examined and that was my intention in writing this article.

Cultural insensitivity is undefined. It is, after all, an uncommon term outside of the modern collegiate lexicon, and an assessment of the pseudonymized Kardashian family’s usage of Hawaiian shirts requires a standard. Whether or not there is an inherent issue in including a vague term in the Honor Code is irrelevant here; for the sake of the argument, there must be a defined standard as a focal point for the issue. As a result, we must define cultural insensitivity in a way that agrees with both the abstract and conclusions drawn from the world at large. As mentioned in the abstract, cultural insensitivity does not depend on an intent to cause harm; blatantly offensive costumes can be donned unwittingly, and precedent suggests that such actions violate the social code. Furthermore, cultural insensitivity is clearly separated from simply borrowing aspects of other cultures, just as the irreverent usage of a Native American headdress is a far cry from using chopsticks. The difference is context. The headdress is sacred while chopsticks are a daily commodity, and context with respect to culture is absolutely critical. From this, we can derive a working definition: cultural insensitivity is a disrespectful use or reference to an aspect of another culture, regardless of intent. But even with clear criteria, does the Hawaiian shirt in a party setting constitute a violation? Certainly not, and to delve into why, we must examine the history of the shirt—the good and the bad alike.

According to an article summarizing the history of Hawaiian shirts, the first Hawaiian shirts appeared around the 1920s and were manufactured in Hawaii based on traditional Hawaiian, Chinese, and Japanese iconography. The term “Aloha shirt” was trademarked by Ellery Chun in 1936, and with the advent of large scale tourism, the ’40s and ’50s saw the garment featured in Hollywood and by Harry Truman and Richard Nixon. The shirt also became a commonplace item worn by soldiers stationed on the islands, and Operation Liberation in 1966 saw the Hawaiian government and workplaces adopt the shirt (and create a precursor to casual Fridays). Despite the outward marketing, however, the history of Aloha wear is marked by the negative connotations associated with aggressive colonialism, military involvement, and a culture forced into a tourist-centric self parody. As pointed out by Christen Tsuyuko Sasaki (in a paper referenced by the jury in their decision), United States military involvement permanently changed the islands, and the Aloha shirt, despite not being a part of traditional Hawaiian culture, became representative of that change. It is impossible to deny the uncomfortable history of American colonialism in Hawaii, and, as the trial’s resolutions pointed out, it plays a key role in the garment’s legacy.

At the same time, however, it would clearly be a reach to claim the Aloha shirt as a part of Hawaiian culture. The Hawaiian Islands were first settled around 400 CE, and the Hawaiian shirt appeared centuries later. Sure, the original Aloha shirts featured traditional designs from Hawaiian culture, but a depiction of cultural images is different from the culture itself. Even still, this becomes a moot point in today’s context, as modern Hawaiian shirts have since forgone more customary designs for stereotypically tropical patterns such as palm leaves, flamingoes, and flowers. In fact, modern Hawaiian shirts are hardly recognizable as remotely Hawaiian in any sense, save for the name and the general concept of Hawaii as a tropical place. While modern Hawaiian culture has adopted the garment as a symbol of the islands, cultural insensitivity refers more to established cultural traditions, often with religious or otherwise sacred context, as opposed to recent adaptations to a group’s way of life. Because of this, criticisms of the garment are inherently unrelated to culture, as the Hawaiian shirt, simply put, is not a traditional cultural item. 

There still remains the claim that the Hawaiian shirt is insensitive given its history, but even that is a stretch; similar situations have demonstrated that profitable items borrowed from other cultures are all easily defensible. For example, in 2018, Disney faced backlash for their trademark of the phrase “hakuna matata” for usage on clothing (a trademark that had existed since the original Lion King was released in 1994). “Hakuna matata” is a phrase borrowed from Swahili, and the protests cited “cultural exploitation” for profit by Disney. Despite this, American and African lawyers alike sided with Disney, as there was no restriction on the phrase’s usage besides specific marketing scenarios. Since then, the backlash had seemingly no impact on the film’s $1.6 billion gross, and the same people willing to condemn each instance of minor “cultural insensitivity” had no widespread qualms about the phrase’s prevalence in marketing at the time of the movie’s release a year later — rather ironic, considering the history of Swahili and the region’s frequent exploitation via colonialism. After all, nothing is lost on the part of the Native Hawaiian community when non-Hawaiians don Aloha wear, while native Swahili speakers lost the ability to market a phrase in their native language. Was the usage of “hakuna matata” less problematic than the wearing of Hawaiian shirts, or are Hawaiian shirts simply a more convenient target? There is a dangerous generalization that is made here, and it is paramount that we avoid it.

There is no reason to take Hawaiian shirts as an example of cultural insensitivity. To do so is a gross overreaction to a falsely “cultural” garment, and it is easy to point fingers at an item with the connotations of a middle-aged Florida man. While potentially tacky, Hawaiian shirts are certainly not insensitive to Hawaiian culture. The trial, therefore, has larger issues than perceived cultural insensitivity, as the utter lack of debate over the presence of insensitivity is of greater concern. When a community has become so obsessed with calling out others on their actions in the name of a false sense of morality that basic logic falls through, there is a clear issue. Thus, as a community, it is absolutely critical that we focus not on defending each and every student’s feelings to an exaggerated degree, but that we remain cognizant of the realities of the world. Our purpose as students is to develop as humans, and a relentless culture condemning the most minor supposed transgressions is no way to academically or socially flourish.

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One Comment

  1. sad chad December 18, 2019

    You say that because the islands were first settled in 400 CE, that it is a reach to claim that the shirt is a part of Hawaiian culture, despite your paragraph right before talking about how important the shirt was during a massively important period in Hawaii’s history. Who is it that decided that Hawaii’s culture was established in 400 CE? It is a culture that is constantly changing and evolving, just like culture in the US, and in Europe, South America, Africa, etc., and claiming that US colonialism isn’t a part of Hawaiian culture is like arguing that French colonialism isn’t a part of Algerian culture, or that Spanish colonialism isn’t a part of Mexican culture. I’d recommend you look into any of the speeches or writing of Haunani Kay Trask, a Hawaiian intellectual and activist who would very strongly disagree with how flippant you are about the impact of American imperialism on the islands.

    We live in a post-colonial world and that means reckoning with the fact that a lot of the things that people love and enjoy were born out of really fucked up and racist structures. The fact that the US decided to use a mixture of various east Asian and Hawaiian tropes and package them in a western buttoned shirt is an example of Orientalism. You say that the shirts may have started being truer to Hawaiian culture, but now just view Hawaii as just another “tropical place” as if this is a benefit to your argument when that is one of the tragedies of colonialism. The degradation of places into neat boxes easy for westerners to consume, and the subsequent exploitation of these places for those purposes. At the end of the day, nobody on this campus is going to attack you for wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and if people stopped wearing floral print button downs, idk how people would get through the spring semester. The problem comes when a party is thrown celebrating the Hawaiian shirt, especially when people do not even know the history or care about it. It seems more like a celebration of US imperialism than anything else. And when the community talks about how it makes them feel, consider listening rather than minimizing legitimate concerns.

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