“Being able to feel that you do have the ability to do something is one of the ultimate life skills that you either get better at with practice, or if you don't take advantage and seize those opportunities, you get better at walking away from them.”
Near the Boiling Pots of Wailuku on the Big Island of Hawaii, Andrew Juntunen and three of his friends were playing a game of chicken by throwing a big piece of bamboo to each other like a spear and waiting until the last possible moment to jump aside.
It was a slightly cloudy afternoon and they were on a grassy lawn. Fronds of tall palm trees broke through the lush foliage surrounding the open area. Nearby, two boys, about 10 or 11-years-old, sat by their scooters, talking to each other.
Andrew said that the day was “really chill” until one his friends accidentally flung the spear into the trees. Before she could run to get it, one of the young boys picked it up and began wacking a small palm.
Andrew’s other friend called out to the boy, telling him to stop hitting the plant as it was alive too. Instead of apologizing, the boy, who was likely native Hawaiian or of Polynesian descent, turned around and began yelling insults, such as: “What are you, a hippie?” “How did your skin get so white?” and “Go home you piece of crap! You white people! You foreigners!”
At first Andrew was caught off guard, as he was confused about why a child would want to say such brash remarks to a group of adults; however, he assumed that the boy was likely repeating what he had heard from other kids, his parents or the media.
Due to the historical oppression of Native Hawaiians by Caucasians as well as the harms caused by tourists — including environmental destruction, disregard for the native Hawaiian culture, and rising prices — some natives have grown to resent those they deem foreigners. There have been several documented instances of racially motivated hate crimes against whites by locals.
Andrew, nonetheless, had only experienced friendly interactions and laid-back conversations prior to this incident. He had lived in Hawaii for 10 months the previous year and created many genuine connections with the natives he met. During the day, he had hosted movement workshops, such as hand balancing classes, floor acrobatics sessions and a nature parkour weekend. At night, he had often couch-surfed the homes of locals he met on the beach.
This incident was also the first time Andrew ever experienced any type of discrimination based on the color of his skin. But, he realizes that the kids likely didn’t understand the seriousness of their comments.
“Kids say stupid and hurtful things, but they're just kids,” Andrew said. “They're in this phase of experimentation and we have to be willing to work with them and not respond with frustration.”
Andrew and his friends continued hanging out on the lawn for a while longer, but the mood was ruined. Soon they packed up their belongings and left. But as they were walking back to the car, the boy who had yelled insults rode by on a scooter and threw a small stick in their direction.
In that moment, Andrew knew that he had two choices. He could let the situation go or he could try to try to make a difference in how the little boy treated strangers.
“If kids that don't get held accountable for their behavior at a young age, it just keeps on happening over and over and over again,” he said.
Although Andrew’s friends tried to convince Andrew to forget about the boy’s remarks, Andrew made a split second decision that he would follow the boy and try to speak with his parents.
“I had a sense that there was a window of opportunity to make an impact,” Andrew said. “Not only would it affect the kid and the people involved, but I could feel that it was also going to affect me.”
After driving for about 5 minutes down a small suburban road along the Wailuku River, the group reached a small yellow house, where they saw the young boy and his friend standing on a front porch. In the front yard, a heavy-built man and two women talked around a fire pit.
Andrew forced himself to exit the car. Questioning his decision, he walked up to the adults and began explaining the racist remarks that the children had shouted. He didn’t know if they would appreciate his frankness or become angered by his boldness, but he felt like he was doing the right thing.
“I was a bit nervous inside, but I spoke confidently and clearly,” Andrew said. “It was one of those moments where once you commit to the action, everything just falls into place.”
The man became silent for a moment and then yelled at the boy (his son’s friend) to come apologize. Afterward, he walked up to the car and apologized to Andrew’s friends. He explained that he felt responsible for the child’s actions, as his own son could develop similar discriminatory attitudes.
“We ended up having like a good little conversation about this idea of not just feeling responsibility for the people that are in your own group, but also seeing all of humanity as one tribe,” Andrew said.
Driving away, Andrew felt pride and closure. Although he knew that the discrimination he experienced was menial and likely due to naivety, this experience made him think about how early targeted hatred can begin.
In a lot of cases, he realized, prejudiced attitudes are passed down subconsciously through generations.
“This made think about the entire concept of racism and discrimination not just on an
individual basis,” Andrew said. “It's really a generational thing and the individual responsibility is to try and grow in the right direction.”
He hopes that by looking for patterns within his environment and in the people surrounding him, he can pinpoint and feel out what situations to intervene in.
“Being able to feel that you do have the ability to do something is one of the ultimate life skills that you either get better at with practice, or if you don't take advantage and seize those opportunities, you get better at walking away from them,” he said. “Those are the choices that are either going to facilitate our growth as individuals and as a community or they're going to keep us from growing.”