a brief note on America’s cultural appropriation of “aloha”

Let me start by saying that I love Slate.com. Their political, scientific and cultural commentaries and analyzes are generally intelligent and readable. Usually.

I discovered a notable exception this morning. Titled “United slang of America” the play offers what author Matthew JX Malady believes to be the preeminent “official word” or “unique word” of each state. It’s a piece of humor, of course, and a lot of the results are clearly meant to be funny (“hella” for California, “cattywampus” for Alabama, “whirlygust” for Tennessee and so on).

Of course, I went straight to Hawaii, to see the word Malady chosen as the representative Hawaiian slang, as well as its definition and use, and that’s when I got sick:

Hawaii
aloha (name): greeting / farewell; (adjective): welcoming, sympathetic, kind
[Telephone rings]-Aloha!
-Aloha?
-Aloha.
-Aloha!
-Aloha!
-Aloha.
-Aloha.
-Aloha.

Maybe I just lived here too long. But seriously, “aloha” is not just a colloquialism, but an actual word in the Hawaiian language, a language spoken by the peoples conquered by the United States in the late 19th century. It is also (at least as far as its native meaning is concerned) much more than a simple greeting and / or farewell.

In fact, it was a term of deep affection that “maintains, reaffirms and binds relationships,” according to University of Hawaii cultural specialist Malcolm Naea Chun. “Aloha is not to be taken lightly,” Chun wrote in her 2011 little book. Aloha: Traditions of love and affection (which unfortunately seems sold out). “It should not be used casually or frivolously. “

And this is where the Slate piece of slang turns to cultural appropriation. For those who are not up to date with the latest advances in social science, here is an excellent definition of “cultural appropriation, taken from this August 30, 2015 Huffington Post Kadia Blagrove’s blog post: “Cultural appropriation is when white media trivialize and adopt aspects of other cultures without proper recognition, representation and respect. “

But Slate and Malady are pretty flippant about it all, I don’t blame them for equating “aloha” with “hella” (California) or “chughole” (Kentucky). No, the guilt of this crime is at our feet. All Slate reported that people in the United States really see “aloha” as just a kitschy way of saying “hello”, and have been doing so for many years. And that’s true.

Make no mistake: the appropriation of concepts like “aloha” also occurs here in Hawaii. Do you remember Aloha Airlines? Have you seen an Aloha Waste garbage truck lately? Or one of the many other products and / or services that find the need to insert “aloha” in the name? It all uses Hawaiian culture and ideas for contemporary business reasons, and it’s pretty darn messed up.

That being said, the real “official” slang for Hawaii is obviously “da kine”, brah.

Photo of the old hanger of Aloha Airlines: Forest and Kim Starr / Wikimedia

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Joan Ferguson

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