For some black athletes on the Big Island, the aloha spirit is color blind

  • UHH photo UHH junior guard Damani Whitlock said he's found the Big Island culture to be accepting and inclusive. “What I’ve noticed in Hilo, what I’ve noticed is Hawaii doesn’t see color,” Whitlock said. “Everybody is family. Nobody looks at me as a criminal. They treat us like family when we come in.

  • UHH photo UHH senior guard Jordan Graves, a native of Monterey, Calif., said he doesn't feel any racial tensions on the Big Island. "I feel like nobody judges me by my skin color."

For UH-Hilo men’s basketball players Damani Whitlock and Jordan Graves, aloha means acceptance.

Whitlock gets into a car in Hilo without worrying about being pulled over and then “who knows how it goes.” He’s not nervous about choosing self-checkout at stores because he’s confident employees won’t flock to watch his every move. He can even go shopping and just look around.

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Because of his negative and visceral experiences growing up black in Southern California, Whitlock will never take the aloha spirit for granted.

“There is no such thing as window shopping for us,” Whitlock said. “We get racially profiled as soon as we leave the house.

“It’s sad to see people cross the street when I’m just walking my dog. It’s sad that the color of my skin just terrifies people.”

Whitlock, a 21-year-old junior guard for the Vulcans, spoke on the telephone last week, and he’d just attended his second peaceful protest in Eastvale, Calif., in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

Floyd was unarmed, handcuffed and took his last breaths May 25 as a Minneapolis police officer kept his knee on his neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds – in broad daylight with cameras rolling and three other officers by his side. It’s an unspeakable fate for many but quite an imaginable one to Whitlock, who worries about such a scenario every time he gets into his car back home.

“I shouldn’t be scared every time I drive about being pulled over and having my life put in risk when I’m just driving to the store for my family,” Whitlock said. “People don’t realize (in Hawaii), it’s a scary situation, because you don’t know. One day the (cops) could be your best friend and the next day it’s the total flip side.”

He’s proud to be part of the Black Lives Matter movement – demanding change to a system the professes to create freedom for everyone – and that protests have spanned the globe.

When he’s on the Big Island, his perspective changes. Black lives matter, but him being black matters less to others.

“What I’ve noticed in Hilo, what I’ve noticed is Hawaii doesn’t see color,” Whitlock said. “Everybody is family. Nobody looks at me as a criminal. They treat us like family when we come in.

“I’ve met so many wonderful people, from the staff to the community. It’s a blessing to play basketball there. I love it to death.”

Aloha for everyone

Graves, a 22-year-old senior guard from Monterey, Calif., grew up in a diverse community with mixed cultures and said he was rarely the victim of systematic racism. But racism was present. Graves was painted with the usual black athlete stereotypes (running and jumping), had “ignorant” things said to him in high school, and there were times he saw others perceive him as a threat.

“When I’m walking around, I can just see eyes staring at me,” he said. “Like I’m not supposed to be there.”

In Hilo, he’s happy to report he’s only looked upon as a menace on the basketball court.

“I feel like I’m treated as well as anyone else, as a regular person here,” Graves said. “I don’t feel any racial tensions here. I feel like nobody judges me by my skin color.

“The aloha spirit is spread to anyone. If you’re not familiar with it, get familiar with it.”

It doesn’t hurt, he said, that whites don’t hold a majority in Hawaii like they do on the mainland. According to a U.S. Census Bureau data estimate released in 2019, whites held a plurality in Hawaii County at 34.2%, while 0.8% identified as black. Data released in 2015 showed that 69.4% of the population identified their race and ethnicity as something other than non-Hispanic White race alone.

Graves noticed a difference in how he was perceived shortly after arriving on the Big Island.

“I felt there was more racism toward haoles, not necessarily toward minorities, like blacks and Hispanics,” he said. “It’s more directed to haoles.”

During the 2019-20 school year, an unofficial tally showed there were nine black athletes on UH-Hilo athletic rosters, six on the basketball teams. Graves said that while he may talk to a black student to see how they are doing, ”We don’t feel we have to stick together or fight a battle. We’re here, we talk.”

Whitlock said he’s never felt racially profiled on the Big Island and that the large racial diversity probably has something to do with it.

“Native (Hawaiians) are the minority here, they feel our pain but not in the exact way,” he said. “A lot of them tell me all the time that America took them by force, they didn’t want to part of American. I hear that a lot.”

Just one of the girls

Waiakea alum Kadara Marshall was born and raised in Hilo and considers herself privileged to have been able to grow up black without having to look over her shoulder for fear of discrimination. She can see why a black person moving from the mainland to the Big Island would find that the nonwhite majority here would make it easier to be black.

“It allows you to breathe and allows you to know your skin color isn’t looked at as a bad thing,” she said.

The 21-year-old Marshall – the third-oldest child of Michael and Beckie Marshall, along with brothers Akil and Miles – probably could have told Whitlock and Graves they would find acceptance in Hawaii. She remembers being called the “N-word” in a few instances and having boys picking on her, but she otherwise described herself as having a blissful childhood. She was the only black athlete on countless teams growing up – participating in volleyball, soccer and track and field in high school along with Pilipaa volleyball club – but always felt secure in who she was. She was one of the girls in so many ways.

“No one put the pressure of being different on me except for myself,” she said. “Being black did affect me, but not because anyone put race on me.”

It’s when she got ready to go away to college and play volleyball at Western Nebraska Community College that she started to feel uneasy. The thought of moving to a potentially unwelcome place made her question whether she would lose her humanity.

“Although I hadn’t experienced the reality of what a lot of black Americans go through, I knew the reality is it can happen to anybody that is a black American or a darkened skin tone. I had to prepare myself for any and everything, and it was uncomfortable and unsettling.

“Luckily, when I got to Nebraska, the little town, the little community was so diverse, and we had people from Hawaii and from all over. It wasn’t long before I thought to myself, Oh, I’m good here.”

Marshall transferred to play volleyball at Dickinson State, graduating with a degree in political science in 2019. The school in North Dakota wasn’t as diverse as Western Nebraska, but she said she never felt like a victim of outward racism.

“I have to say that I was lucky in the places that I went to,” she said,

Floyd’s death – and the protests that have followed – spurred Marshall to try and educate herself and others on black heritage. Ignorance, she said, spans from the mainland to Hawaii, even if it takes on different forms.

“Hawaii leads with aloha, so the ignorance we possess isn’t the same negative connotation people from the mainland possess, typically,” she said. “A lot of people on the mainland, if they’re ignorant it stems from a position of hate and not wanting to accept. In Hawaii if we’re ignorant, it stems from a place of literally not knowing.”

What’s next?

Whitlock and Marshall had a one-word piece of advice for how to effect change: vote.

“We may be the minority but we have the majority,” Whitlock said. “We decide how this country is going to go. We can change everything.”

Marshall hopes the worldwide, all-inclusive protests have planted seeds of change and unbreakable momentum. She’s in Hilo, actively applying for a job and is willing to live just about anywhere.

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“I believe in my generation,” she said. “With social media, there are a lot of negatives, but one of the positives is we see everyone as human. We can go online and connect with someone from Ukraine or Australia at the drop of a pin. We see them as normal people, where as other generations there was a huge racial divide.

“I would say a lot of our generation does have friends from across the world. I think that is helping with our humanity, and we just want equal rights. It’s not about supremacy, we just want equality. I think that’s beautiful.”

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