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Party themes should not borrow elements of Pacific Islander culture

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MARCH 04, 2016

This article is written in response to multiple instances of Pacific Islander appropriation from the Greek community.  This is not to suggest that only Greek organizations appropriate our culture or that all Greek organizations do, but to highlight the visibility of Greek organizations and the impact their events have on the UC Berkeley community. This past week, an event titled “Sigma Alpha Maui” was publicized. Its event description read: “Aloha haoles. Stop your studying for midterms procrastination bs for one night to come to Sigma Alpha Maui. Wear your favorite hawaiian shirt and filp flops. It’s going to be one giant ratchet luau. Okole’s will be droppin on the dance floor. Contact a brother or kapuna for a spot on the guest list. Mahalo and Mele Kalikimaka.” This description and theme, particularly the overt mockery of the Hawaiian language like the use of “Mele Kalikimaka,” or Merry Christmas,” as a closing salutation was highly offensive to UC Berkeley’s Pacific Islander community. After Pacific Islanders at UC Berkeley reached out to Sigma Alpha Mu describing our disgust with this event, we received an apology but were also greeted with the following image, an image that made us question their sincerity. Shortly thereafter, we found that the theme had changed to “Sigma Alpha Monsoon,” a theme that retained offensive imagery and words like “do not get stuck at the pool bar when the big one hits.” In light of the cyclone that hit Fiji recently resulting in the death of 42 individuals, we found this theme insensitive and proceeded to ask for the cancellation of this event through a public announcement at the ASUC Senate meeting. As a member of the Greek community and an individual who has served as programming chair, I believe that ignorance is not an excuse for culturally appropriative party themes. Instead, I urge you to think twice, be aware and do your research before hosting parties that may be offensive to our various communities.

Despite being raised in California, Maui was my second home, Hawaiian my culture. I grew up thinking words like puka were English and eating kalua pork and cabbage. Constant longing to return to the islands pervaded my dreams, making me believe that I was there with my family whom I missed severely only to wake up to bitter reality. Hawaiʻi was one of the few places where I found peace stringing leis with my grandpa while encompassed by the sweet aroma of plumerias, the scent of home.

As a child, I grew excited when friends told me that they had visited the islands, only to realize that their experience was different from my own. To them, it was about the climate and breathtaking scenery, but for me, it was about the awe that I felt staring at the Olowalu petroglyphs, imagining my ancestors standing in the same location many years prior. While experiences are unique, and I do not expect my deep love for the islands to be mirrored by all, refusing to care about Pacific Islander culture while in the islands is a type of colonialism, the belief that one’s culture is superior while ignoring the validity of others. Ignorance about our culture and understanding our islands as only “nice vacation spots,” imposes violence on our community by reducing us to mere commodities. Tourism trades in mana and olis for cheap plastic leis and mai tais. Hula dancers become an exotic fetish rather than respected for their participation in a sacred dance. And, coupled with this fetishism and commoditization, cultural appropriation becomes rampant, with little consequence. But this is not okay.

Appropriation of island culture predominantly takes the form of lūʻau party themes displaying tacky American takes on Hawaiian culture.  Modern day lūʻau themes do not capture the same spirit that Pacific Islanders associate with them, but reflect the stereotypes that have been imposed on our community.

To adequately understand lūʻau party themes as cultural appropriation, it is most relevant to trace the lūʻau’s origin.  In pre-contact period Hawaiʻi, Hawaiians were governed by the kapu system, an ancient code of conduct that included gender roles like prohibiting women and men from eating together. Therefore, the breaking of the ai kapu by the act of King Kamehameha II and Queen Kaʻahumanu feasting together, an event viewed today as the first lūʻau, signaled not only the alteration of gender roles, but a radical change in Hawaiian society. However, lūʻau themes do not recognize this event, but trivialize a moment that had a substantial impact on the Hawaiian community.

Though this critique may be understood by some as an overly sensitive reaction to a party only intended for “fun,” one must realize that this critique is not just about a theme, but the blatant disrespect of our culture, a culture that we constantly fight to preserve. Among other events, we have survived missionaries banning cultural practices, the imprisonment of Queen Liliuokalani and the overthrow of the Hawaiian nation, and the building of a telescope on Mauna Kea, obstructing religious rituals. To consider this an overly sensitive critique is to disregard the violence faced by our community — both micro-aggressions and blatant forms of racism that occurred in the past and, as evidenced by lūʻau themes, occur today. The lūʻau theme is a perversion and commoditization of our culture, an attempt to make our culture align with western ideals. Western ideals reduce us to leis, hula dancers, beaches and pineapples (something that is actually a product of colonization), but we are more than that. We are a community connected by our passion for our culture and our dedication to preserve the traditions of our ancestors.


Danielle Kalani Heinz is a UC Berkeley student.

MARCH 04, 2016