Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Complexity of Identity

The construct of social identity embraces the notion that the various identities of individuals are an integrated interrelatedness of many aspects of their subjective perceptions as well as their social identities (Sue & Sue, 2008). This complex web includes overlapping distinctions of race, ethnicity, religion, family, friendships, vocation, social group affiliations, and other circumstances that represent, for the most part, a diffuse perception of the self. Each affiliation and perception contributes to a unique worldview as well as a set of attitudes and beliefs in individuals and entire populations (Sue & Sue, 2008). Although these affiliations and perceptions create distinct separations, they also create opportunity for finding intersections between diverse individuals and populations (Laureate Education, Inc., n.d.). Perhaps John Kennedy (1961) described the greatest opportunity that comes from such diversity when he said, "what unites us is far greater than what divides us" (para. 13).

                                                            Diversity in America

Although statistics fail to explain the issues associated with diversity, they do graphically demonstrate the number of unique cultural contexts within the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau (2010) claims 72% of the population is White, 16% Hispanic/Latino origin, 13% Black, 4.8% Asian, .9% American Indian or Alaska Native, and .2% Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. Considering the additional demographics of gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, age, and household status, the diversity of America becomes readily apparent. Equally evident is the need to bridge the cultural gaps that cause separation and unrest between individuals and groups.

                                                        The ADDRESSING Format

Age: 54 years old with 4 generations of family on the Island of Maui; 3 adopted Hawaiian

daughters, 2 parents, and 3 grandparents. Mika is divorced.

Developmental Disabilities: None

Religion: Fundamentalist Christian

Ethnic and Racial Identity: Hawaiian

Socioeconomic Status: Hawaiian Low-Middle Class - with benefits of the Hawaiian Kingdom, given by the State of Hawaii to 100% Hawaiian citizens

Sexual Orientation: Heterosexual

Indigenous Heritage: Native Hawaiian

Gender: Male


Kapuna perceives himself as a Christian, Father, and a Hawaiian. Of these aspects, he believes the most salient is his Christian identity, although the one he thinks about most is his identity as a father. He believes his religion influences his fatherhood, although he believes his Hawaiian heritage pervades his beliefs and attitudes, and affects him in ways he cannot articulate or even perceive. For example, two important Hawaiian cultural values are 'ohana (family) and lokahi (harmony) and these remain important in Kapuna's life, although he perceives them as mostly unconscious, albeit powerful, spiritual mechanisms. As many indigenous Hawaiians, he is happy living in the Islands. He is, however, aware of his lack of typical American motivation and his priorities that are decidedly Hawaiian and different from the American culture. He believes he could not survive on the mainland because he lacks the skills and education to obtain and keep gainful employment.


Kapuna is a devout born-again Christian, and believes, above all, this is his most important
identity, although it is not the one he consciously thinks about the most. Most Hawaiians are Christian, although a few Hawaiians continue to practice traditional Hawaiian ritual although it is often in contradiction to Christianity. Traditional Hawaiian culture believed the land, ocean, water and sky were life's foundations and the source of the spirit, and they felt a deep spiritual connection to the earth. Gods and deities were embodied in all of these natural resources. Because Christianity is monotheistic, the Hawaiian lore became tales of the past and traditional ritual relegated to folklore. This creates a deep sadness in the Hawaiian culture. Hawaiians lost their spirituality and much of their culture when Christianity was heavily pressed upon them during the first contact of the haoles (White people.)

Kapuna has an accurate perspective on the Christianization of the Hawaiian people. When White people first came to Hawaii, they did not follow the laws of the Hawaiian Kapu system, although they were not punished by the gods (Silva, 2006). It became obvious to the Hawaiians that the laws of Kapu were not right. This new understanding left Hawaiians in somewhat of a cultural void that was filled by the Protestant Christian missionaries' teachings. They taught the Hawaiians their beliefs were not accurate and their belief in gods and deities was foolish (Silva, 2006). Although this instigated the loss of traditional Hawaiian culture, most Christian Hawaiians do not criticize Christianity because their worldview has been tainted by a new system of beliefs. It has, however, created a sad dichotomy for this minority population whose rich and colorful polytheistic religion and cultural history have been blanched by the White man's worldview.

Considering the pervasiveness of deep-rooted spirituality in the traditional Hawaiian worldview, the transition to an alternative belief system that eventually replaced their earth-centered beliefs had far reaching implications for the culture. Although most Hawaiians today consider their roots in Christianity, they continue to talk about the old Hawaiian systems, often with a decided sadness and sense of loss. As posited by Sue and Sue (2008), the belief systems founded on religious and spiritual beliefs are deeply interconnected with attitudes, beliefs, and emotional states, and have tremendous effects on well-being. The foundational change for Hawaiians represented a loss of generational influences and systemic beliefs that were all but erased in the religious and cultural transition. Koenig (2009) found when people become disconnected with their religious or spiritual beliefs, this disruption can contribute to pathology.

Hawaiian Heritage and Generational Influences

Kapuna is 54 years old, has lived on Maui his whole life, and is still surrounded by four generations of his Hawaiian 'ohana. Large and extended 'ohanas are an important part of Hawaiian life, and Kapuna is close to his many relatives (Mokuau, 1990). Traditionally, Hawaiian life was communal, and individual 'ohana members lived in close proximity to each other. When he was young, Kapuna had so many Aunties and Uncles, he cannot remember them all. Even in today's Hawaii, a little child might stop to ask a woman in a store for help referring to her as "Aunty". Family life remains a meaningful part of Hawaiian life (Mokuau, 1990). Unlike the typical American cultural perception of older adults, Hawaiians have fewer ageist perceptions and look toward their elders as a source of history, wisdom, and perspective (Mokuau, 1990). Kapuna's grandparents live with his parents and he and his six siblings contribute to their care, when necessary. According to McGuire, Klein, and Chen (2008) maintaining familial relationships in old age has a significant effect on longevity. Perhaps this idea correlates to Ryff and Singer's (1998) contention that having meaning and purpose in life contributes to psychological health and happiness. Although it may be overly simplistic to assume keeping older adults within the family environment will contribute to their health and longevity, there may be a direct relationship between the two. As an anecdotal response to this assumption, Kapuna's elderly grandparents as well as his parents have physical age-related challenges, but he reports they are happy and content, and love being close to their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Similar to many Hawaiians, Kapuna experiences sadness when he considers the plight of the Hawaiian nation and struggles to accept the militarized takeover of the Kingdom. As many Hawaiians do, he believes the American government should return lands ceded to Hawaiian heirs of the Kingdom. Although he does not feel animosity toward White people or Americans, he believes the history of Hawaiians with White people is disturbing and the losses of the Hawaiian people are a tremendous burden on the contemporary Hawaiian culture. Traditionally, Hawaiians considered the land and its natural resources as sacred and a source of life, but Hawaiians have become Americanized and no longer have a kingdom. They are a people without a land. Without their spiritual traditions, they imitate American culture and often feel like misfits trying to fit into a culture that is not theirs.

Although Sue and Sue (2008) discussed Asian Americans and included Pacific Islanders in that group, the authors provided little to no accurate information specific to the Hawaiian population. The Hawaiian people are, however, a minority population and as posited by Dermer, Smith, and Barto (2010) have most likely been exposed to "the constant bombardment of negative attitudes from society" (p. 329). The experience of some Hawaiians who have integrated into the mainland American culture may be quite different from Kapuna's. He has travelled to mainland America and has always felt welcomed but he would not want to live there. Although Kapuna and all Hawaiians are a minority in the Hawaiian Islands, they continue to acknowledge it as the Kingdom of Hawaii, and by some legal standards, it is their land.


Kapuna's role as a father fulfills a social expectation within his Hawaiian culture. He has three daughters ranging from age 17 to 23. One important idea he has tried to instill in his daughters is to wait to settle down and start a family. Traditionally, Hawaiians start families at younger ages than the average American teen, and Hawaiian children were expected to become adults earlier than the American norm. For many Hawaiians this idea has caused a cultural conflict. When Hawaiian girls become parents in their mid teenage years, they cannot keep up with the American norm of finishing high school and seeking higher education. Many Hawaiian girls wish to obtain an education, although receive conflicting messages from elder Hawaiian relatives. Hawaii is the only state that continues to uphold the legal age of consent at 14.Kapuna  recognizes the duality of messages to his daughters, even the ones they receive from Kapuna's extended family.

Kapuna's fatherhood is a source of pride for him. Fourteen years ago he adopted his three daughters, who were in the care of Child Protective Services because they were victims of abuse. Kapuna and his wife decided to adopt all three to keep the family together. This was a significant undertaking for two adults in their early 40s who had never had children. Because his children were sexually abused prior to their adoption, the family has been through years of counseling and many issues difficult for any family. He believes without his church affiliation, he might not have been able to contend with some of the more difficult family issues.

He spends the least time thinking about his Hawaiian heritage, although he believes his indigenous heritage is perhaps the most pervasive identity in ways of which he is not consciously aware. His actions, however, reflect his Hawaiian heritage daily. Kapuna  is a basket weaver by trade, and when he sits and weaves, he tells the island visitors jokes and stories about his native land. He feels as if the visitors view him as a Hawaiian, but he does not feel different from them in most ways.


Kapuna's worldview is less a perspective of a minority, but of a positive, forward looking Hawaiian American. His Christian religion is perhaps the strongest motivator of his attitudes and perspective. This affiliation, he posits, has helped him to feel like a part of something bigger. He is not usually conscious of his minority status, but when he is aware of it, it feels more like an honor rather than a status. He has never had to fight for acceptance or entitlement of a land that was taken from his people, although many of his fellow Hawaiians do fight to regain their lost Kingdom. He believes people love him for his Hawaiian heritage, and he is proud of his ability to relate to people.

Kapuna believes he is a good example of Hawaiians. He is happy to live on the land that was finally given to him from the Hawaiian Lands Act a few years ago. He is in touch with his a'ina (land) and although he is a devout Christian, he believes the spirit of the god Maui remains on the island. He believes as long as he is happy and grateful for what he has, he will continue to be blessed. As most Christians, he believes if he does what his religion recommends, he will remain happy and healthy and receive what he needs.

Bulhan (1985) posited the worldviews of all populations are filled with cultural assumptions, prejudice, and bias. Kapuna  believes his perceptions are accurate and good and if others followed the Hawaiian and Christian way of life, the world would be a better place. Stewart and Bennett (2006) claim people, as a general rule, measure others by their personal norms that are powerfully influenced by their culture, and they usually presume their culture is superior to others.Kapuna  is not free from making this type of assumption. He believes strongly that his belief in Christianity as well as his Hawaiian heritage could teach lessons all over the world.

Kapuna sees the world as a beautiful place, and is especially fond of Maui, his island of birth. He has never had to work too hard and he believes he has always had an abundance of resources for himself and his family. He was given a plot of land and his choice of homes built for him by the Hawaiian Homelands. Although the class structure of Hawaiians is different than mainland America's, he is probably lower middle class, yet enjoys the luxury of not working often because of his Hawaiian Homelands housing and the funding he and his wife received from the state to care for their children till they reached the age of majority. If one word, or phrase, in this case, could describe Kapuna, it would be happy-go-lucky. Living on Maui, and even when he visits the mainland, he is the picturesque barefoot Hawaiian boy (albeit, a fully grown one) with few cares, and an authentic connection to the ground below his feet.

                                                        The Complexity of Identity

Kapuna is an example of the complexity of identity, especially as a minority member in a larger culture that does not always accommodate or acknowledge the various differences in minority populations.Kapuna  is fortunate that he is able to establish himself as a friend to everyone he meets. He has never been threatened, nor does he menace those who are different from him. He is a father, Christian, brother, son, basket weaver, Hawaiian, and an American. He is all of these identities, although most of the time, he carries these identities below the threshold of his awareness. Kapuna  acknowledges his complex identity, and realizes because of it, his is able to will find more intersections between himself and other people (Laureate Education, Inc., n.d.).

Kapuna is never one single identity. He is a collage of all of them, each one overlapping the others. He is Christian, but he is a Hawaiian Christian. He is a father, but one heavily influenced by Hawaiian tradition and values. It is nearly impossible to separate these identities or determine where one converges with another. Kapuna perceives the world through a lens colored by the unique combination of his identities, and, for the most part, the complexity of this combination offers him the fluidity of relating to others. Discerning which of these identities reside at his core might be apparent at one time or another, although he believes he is an amalgamation of all of his identities. Each one mixes with the others, like paint on a palette, not one likely to be identified as its original hue. Kapuna demonstrates his self-acknowledged complex identity with a fluent ability to relate to others by finding commonalities within his multifaceted identity.


People are diverse, hence, complex. The complexity of human identity creates a bounty of diverse perspectives, attitudes, and worldviews. Although such bounty can cause separation, anxiety and an innate fear of the unknown, it simultaneously introduces the possibility for a bridge that reaches toward likeness. Perhaps subscribing to Kennedy's (1961) or Kapuna's perspective does, in fact, preserve the opportunity that comes from diversity, when even the most miniscule similarities leverage the power of unification over division. If cultural differences pervade worldviews, then diverse worldviews present opportunities for unity, which according to Kennedy (1961), and Kapuna, is far greater than division.


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