The summer after earning tenure at Suffolk University Law School, I flew to Maui for a reunion of cousins. In addition to coming home with lifelong memories of a wonderful gathering, I returned with a suitcase full of new Hawaiian shirts.
I now call that cache my original “tenure wear” collection, because I began wearing those shirts to teach class. After seeing lawyers on Maui conducting their everyday business in bright Hawaiian hues, I decided that it was time to add some color to our classrooms.
Twenty years later, the Hawaiian shirt remains my standard classroom attire.
So imagine my dismay, then, over how certain white supremacists are appropriating the Hawaiian shirt as a symbol of their cause. (For more details, see Samantha Sutton’s In Style piece, here). In news coverage of their various protests, a lot of these guys are now appearing in the latest aloha fashions, along with their guns and ammo.
The twist is that Hawaiian shirts stand for something much more inclusive and open. They originate from an island state known for its diversity and beauty. When you think “Hawaiian shirts,” you imagine beaches and palm trees, delicious food and drink, trade winds and sunshine, and warm, friendly people.
Okay, I agree if you’re saying that, given the challenges of fighting a global pandemic and systemic abuse, we shouldn’t get too caught up in the fashion choices of someone who is waving around an AR-15 because he can’t dine-in at Wendy’s. However, social context matters, and the Hawaiian shirt is only the latest symbol or tradition to be snatched by extremists, along with stuff like the flag and the concept of patriotism.
I take exception to these cultural hijackings in part because of my own story. During the Second World War, my paternal grandfather was removed from his home in Hawaii and kept for years in American internment camps, solely because of his Japanese ancestry. Members of my family served in the U.S. Army during the war, while at the same time their loved ones remained imprisoned in those camps.
Two generations later, I became only the second person of color to earn tenure at a law school that has sent countless graduates into important positions of public service. I’d say that’s progress, if haltingly so, and I am grateful for it.
As we witness daily, America still faces hard challenges with diversity and inclusion. During these trying times, the appearance of white supremacists sporting attire that actually mocks their worldview saddens me. So I’ll keep wearing my Hawaiian shirts, thank you, minus (of course) the cartridge belts and tactical vests.