How mainstream media tried and failed to whitewash Bernie Sanders’ Hawaii win

For Indigenous people, engaging in American politics can be full of contradictions and complexities.

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Complex Original

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Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won 69.8 percent of the vote in Hawaii’s Democratic presidential caucus on Saturday. By Sunday, voters in Hawaii—a state that is made up mostly of people of color—woke up white.

Thanks to a history of settler colonialism and the legacy of plantation economy, faces of the “Aloha State” look a lot different than those from the continental U.S. On these Pacific islands, 21 percent of the population identify as multiracial, and 40 percent are estimated to be multiethnic. People of Native Hawaiian descent make up 21 percent of the population, Asians constitute 37 percent, and whites make up 23 percent—the lowest of any state in the nation.

Thank you, Hawai'i!

So on the day of Hawaii's Democratic caucus, it was barely worth noting that caucus meeting rooms were filled with people of color (POC), staffed by POC volunteers, and even reported by POC local newscasters. Sanders won by a landslide.

But mainstream media outlets quickly characterized Hawaii as yet another “white” win for Sanders.

Along with Washington and Alaska, Sanders won three of the 10 most diverse states in the U.S. on Saturday. Rather than acknowledging Sanders' significant leap in the race and highlighting the diversity of these states, The Washington Post ran an article titled, “Why did Bernie Sanders dominate Saturday? Caucuses in states with smaller black populations,” implying that beyond their relatively small black populations, these states were overwhelmingly white.

CNN (whose parent company Time Warner is the eighth biggest donor to the Clinton campaign) reported, “These caucus states—largely white and rural—are the type of places Sanders traditionally does well. In order to win the nomination, he must replicate this success in other, more ethnically diverse states that hold primaries, as he did in Michigan last month.”

The whitewashing of Sanders’ supporters has been a powerful tool throughout the Democratic presidential race.

But while Alaska and Washington have white majorities, they also have large minority populations. One-third of Alaska’s population identifies as POC and 14.8 percent identify as Alaskan Natives. In fact, CNN had recently dubbed Alaska “the most diverse place in America” but changed its tune to "mostly white" while reporting Sanders' win.

To voters in Hawaii, this coverage is perplexing and insulting.

Ian Mccaulley, a 29-year-old EMT and first-time voter of Korean, Scottish, French, and German descent said, “I voted in my hometown of Wahiawa. In Wahiawa, there aren’t a lot of white folks. I’d estimate that one-fifth of the turnout was white. And that’s being generous. I also noticed that a lot of the older, white voters were wearing Hillary shirts. I’m not sure why the media thinks Bernie only wins ‘white’ states. To me, he wins over the younger generation.”

The whitewashing of Sanders’ supporters has been a powerful tool throughout the Democratic presidential race. We've seen simultaneous portrayals of Sanders as a leftwing white man's candidate (a.k.a. Bernie Bros) and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton as the clear choice for diverse voters. 

After Sanders' big wins in Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington, some POC Sanders supporters were fed up.

Leslie Lee III, a black writer based in Tokyo, Japan, took to Twitter on Sunday saying, “I knew it. I knew if Bernie won Hawaii it would magically become a white state.” 

He added, “Ever since Bernie, I’ve been binge-watching friends. #BernieMadeMeWhite”

The hashtag was cheeky commentary on the media’s whitewashing campaign, but within hours, #BernieMadeMeWhite was trending internationally, and thousands of POC Sanders fans let the world know they exist:

@HillyesRose @MisaelFrancoO @TheBpDShow @cenkuygur I knew it. I knew if Bernie won Hawaii it would magically become a white state.
.@HillyesRose @MisaelFrancoO @TheBpDShow @cenkuygur Ever since I voted for Bernie, I've been bingewatching Friends. #BernieMadeMeWhite

#BernieMadeMeWhite poignantly critiqued the media's reliance on the black-white racial binary, which erased other minority voices like Muslims, Asians, and mixed-race voters who support Sanders in increasingly large numbers.

Hawaii—where I was born and raised—sits on the margins of this binary, and our history of multi-ethnic social movements is a testament to the power of POC solidarity. In the plantation era, multi-ethnic labor movements fought against exploitation on the islands’ sprawling sugarcane plantations. In the 1970s, Native Hawaiians, Okinawans, Filipinos, and Chinese in the Waiahole-Waikane Valleys fought rampant overdevelopment in order to defend their traditional lifestyles.

Ever since #BernieMadeMeWhite I have developed a newfound fondness for fine cheeses.

As a biracial woman of Okinawan, Italian, and Irish descent, the media’s whitewashing of Sanders supporters silences the history of my home and excludes me from a national conversation about race and politics. Mainstream media has already tried to tell me that I'm not feminist if I don't vote for Clinton, and now it's trying to tell me that by voting for Sanders, I'm not "diverse" enough to matter.

Before #BernieMadeMeWhite I was a first generation college grad whose aunts and uncles were Mexican-American migrant workers.

For many of Hawaii’s diverse voters, the same is true.

Aina Iglesias, a first-generation Filipino, moved to Hawaii with her family in 2005.

“When we got here, my mom worked an entry-level job, and my dad worked under the table as a carpenter. At one point, my mom was working three jobs in order to pay for our rent. My family has been living in Hawaii for the past 11 years, and we're still struggling to survive” she said.

When asked why she thinks Hawaiian Democrats voted overwhelmingly in favor of Sanders, she answered, “I can't speak for all people of Hawaii, but I am a woman of color, a working person, and an immigrant who understands that all of our struggles intersect, and that we need someone in office who also understands that, and is willing to fight for the underrepresented people in the U.S.”

Hawaii is 22% white. Bernie won w 70%. Bernie only wins white states? No, Hillary only wins red states. #HawaiiSoWhite #BernieMadeMeWhite

In Hawaii, intersectional struggles must account for Native Hawaiians, whose kingdom was illegally overthrown in 1893 and occupied by the U.S. ever since. For Native Hawaiians, media’s whitewashing of the recent caucus is just one more episode in a long history of being made invisible by the U.S.

I never imagined myself participating in an American election process for the simple reason of not viewing myself as an American.

Presley Kealaanuhea Ah Mook Sang, a lecturer of Hawaiian language at the University of Hawaii, identifies as a Hawaiian national. Prior to Saturday's caucus, she never voted in an American election because she didn't want her vote to be construed as a legitimization of American authority on Hawaiian soil.

“In short,” she said, “I never imagined myself participating in an American election process for the simple reason of not viewing myself as an American.”

But she changed her mind this year because she thought the world would stand to benefit from a Sanders presidency: “He’s the first candidate I see as a human who cares about all of mankind.”

Ever since #BernieMadeMeWhite I have developed a newfound fondness for fine cheeses.
A cop tried to ticket me for jaywalking but I let him know that #BernieMadeMeWhite and he let me off with a warning.

For Indigenous people across America, engaging in electoral politics can be riddled with similar contradictions and complexities related to the struggle for self-determination. To whitewash Sanders' Saturday sweep is to erase the voices of these Native people in states like Alaska and Hawaii, where they make up important parts of the community.

Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, a Native Hawaiian poet and PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii, argued, “America has long worked to make Indigenous peoples invisible. While blackness (and now the Latino body) is hyper-visual and always marked, our presence as Indigenous peoples is an absence.” 

“To present Hawaii as a mostly white population is not only to make a complete mockery of statistics, it also continues a historical trend of delegitimizing brown bodies and voices—especially those of Kanaka Maoli—in Hawaii,” Osorio added. “It is far too dangerous to show the diversity of POC voices—it is also far too dangerous to show that POC do stand with Bernie.”

Therein lies mainstream media's intent behind persistent whitewashing.

If hashtags were middle fingers, #BernieMadeMeWhite is pointed directly at @CNN and @CNNPolitics and rest of MSM. (I doubt they'll get it).

When people of color recognize their intersectional struggles, they are dangerous. They create change, and often, very radical change—the kind that Sanders calls for. 

We young, progressive, people of color recognize that our needs—which are often more pressing and deadly than those of our white counterparts—require a drastic transformation in our political system. While we may joke that #BernieMadeUsWhite, we remain steadfast in who we are and what we envision for the future. 

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