Harvard Astronomy Professor Weighs in on Stand for Mauna Kea


What does the title mean?

When I first visited Hawaii, I noticed that the word “Mahalo” is used frequently, quite often printed on the swinging doors of trash cans. However, it turns out that “mahalo” does not mean “trash” or “garbage.” It means, “thank you.” I was mistaken about this subtle point for only about an hour.

“.ne.” is a form of nerd-speak for “not equal to.”

“Trash” means detritus.

As disclosure, I recently moved from a Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) partner institution (Caltech) to a Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) institution that is in indirect competition with the TMT (Harvard). Also, while I was at Caltech, I rarely hesitated to express my ambivalence about the TMT project. Thus, I recognize that many will interpret what I write as simply anti-TMT. This is as unfortunate as it is inevitable. The truth is that I am pro-social justice. Anyone who has followed this blog or my Twitter feed over the past year should be able to understand that I am not expressing any new viewpoints herein. Indeed, my only inconsistency would be in not speaking out for fear of reprisal.
I have been inspired by the Twitter feeds of @siouxpernova@IBJIYONGI and @DNLee5, which have been compiled on Storify here and here, by @docfreeride and @elakdawalla, respectively.
Chanda has also written a beautiful and poignant essay here. If they can speak up, then surely as a tenured professor, I can speak up as well. 


faber email

Text from image above: The Thirty-Meter Telescope is in trouble, attacked by a horde of native Hawaiians who are lying about the impact of the project on mountain and who are threatening the safety of TMT personnel. Government officials are supporting TMTs legality to proceed but not arresting any of the protestors who are blocking the road. (emphasis mine)

She followed up on her first course of hyperbole and racism with a tasty dessert of paternalism, asserting that she knows what is best for the native Hawaiian people by saying, “Astronomy in general, and TMT in particular, are good for Hawaiians.”

Please stop here and think a minute on something. Just meditate on the fact that the astronomy community comprises people in power—who, BTW, are 91% white—who are comfortable just firing off an email like this to a colleague, and others are just as comfy forwarding it to their dept. Think about the message that sends to few people of color in our community, particularly the handful of Native astronomers. Alright, let’s move on.

Calling peaceful Hawaiian protestors a “horde” and accusing them of lying is directly comparable to calling Black people “thugs” for protesting against systematic police brutality (the latter which, BTW, finds its historical roots in slave patrols and the enforcement of domestic terrorism against Black Americans [Nelson 2001]). This racist language, whether her intention or not, serves a purpose. It reinforces white supremacy and silences the voices of non-white people. Her excuse about being “in a hurry, without thinking through how the message was written or how it would be interpreted”—as strange as that sounds, given that this is a subject she feels so passionately about—doesn’t correct for the damage done to the precious few Native astronomers we have in our community.

Even after setting this email aside, my devotion to social justice compels me to stand with the Native Hawaiians, the Kānaka Maoli. How could I call for justice for Black people on the mainland and not do the same for people suffering under the same system of oppression in Hawaiʻi? To do otherwise would require me to buy into a lie that says that it is right for white people to take whatever they want. Yes, the construction of the TMT atop Mauna Kea is technically legal. But the theft of land from indigenous Americans was also legal. Slavery was legal. The incarceration of Japanese-Americans during WWII was legal. There was 100+ years of state-sanctioned terrorism against Black communities, also known as Jim Crow Laws.

We do not find our morality in our laws. Our laws do not make us righteous. Only a commitment to finally putting into action the words of our country’s founding documents can help America claim any sort of moral authority. The simple historical fact about Hawaiʻi is that white America took it from the native Hawaiians in much the same way they took the mainland from indigenous people who had previously lived there for 14,000 years.

This fact needs to be recognized, atoned for, and set right before we pursue something as frivolous as a damned telescope. To put it another way, no US institution or foundation would have the wealth available for such an endeavor if it weren’t for the land and labor our country stole. History matters. Ignoring it is like calculating your net worth while ignoring your debts.

Unlike many (most?) astronomers, I don’t see the protests atop Mauna Kea as an impediment to progress. In fact, true progress can only be made by coming to terms with what those Hawaiians are trying to teach white America: When you commit yourself to living a lie, it’s kinda not weird when your billion-dollar plans encounter difficulties.
Because…it’s complicated.


Here is a simple, straightforward statement against the use of racist language for anything in astronomy. If you agree, I encourage you to cosign here.

In case you are confused about my use of terms such as “white people,” please see this useful summary of whiteness theory. Of course, as I always do, I also strongly recommend reading the intro text book Seeing White and this basic definition of racism. An astronomer recently tried to helpfully point out to me that the TMT board has a large fraction of non-white members. This misses the forest for the trees since the US astronomy community is 91% white, by construction. Diversifying the board does nothing to change the culture of astronomy, which is to say the culture of white astronomy.

Other resources, in addition to those linked in the intro above:

Decolonizing Astronomy Reading List
Let Physics Be the Dream It Used to Be
Science Needs a New Ritual

Read Entire Post via Mahalo.ne.Trash: Decolonizing Astronomy: Or Why Debt Should Enter Your Net-Worth Calculation.

4 responses to “Harvard Astronomy Professor Weighs in on Stand for Mauna Kea

  1. The TMT protestors threw rocks on the road to the summit when they couldn’t achieve their ends through legal means. This is not “peaceful.” The TMT visitor center logs document months of abusive and threatening behavior from the “protectors.” That behavior is not “peaceful.”

    The TMT protestors have said again and again that the TMT will ruin the water table, harm native birds, will contain a laser death ray (I’m not making this stuff up), and is being built by NASA. These are all unfounded and without any merit. They have been given ample evidence to disprove these assertions, and yet they continue to circulate. This, I would say, is lying.

    Finally, this statement is just plain wrong: “The simple historical fact about Hawaiʻi is that white America took it from the native Hawaiians in much the same way they took the mainland from indigenous people who had previously lived there for 14,000 years.”

    The facts of Hawaiian history are not simple. The depopulation of North America was brutal and without restraint. You’ve read about “The Trail of Death,” I take it? Among the survivors were my ancestors. Can you show me any instance of “white people” taking land in that way? Actually, most white people did everything they could to ensure the Hawaiian ruling class retained power. It wasn’t until the corrupt Kalakaua came to power that things went sideways. Have you read about his dirty dealings with Gibson and the opium dealers? Have you read about how he spent THE ENTIRE ANNUAL BUDGET one year on his grand, self-aggrandizing palace?

    Actually, depending on how far you want to stretch the CRT definition of “white”, I could could show you a few instances of white people taking Hawaii: The Battle of the Painted Mouth in Iao Valley; the Battle of Nuuanu in 1795; the dirty election of Kalakaua. The Hawaiian aristocracy were the ones oppressing the majority of native Hawaiians. They were the ones profiting from the depopulation of Hawaii, and they were the ones inviting foreign capital into Hawaii. They did quite well for themselves, and didn’t really mind when their subjects began to disappear.

    It strikes me as repugnant that you’re suggesting “white people” are further oppressing native Hawaiians. Look at Governor Ige: he’s Okinawan. His ancestors were brought to Hawaii as essentially disposable labor — on the direction of King David Kalakaua, who promised them protection and a place in Hawaii. He — and the Bishop Estate and other aspects of the oligarchy — profited from the miseries of Ige’s family. And yet now we have Mr. Ige being maligned for helping to build an egalitarian, pluralistic society that really will benefit everyone. That’s ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as poor white trash in the South telling the decedents of freed slaves that they are stealing their land, ruing their communities, etc etc etc.


    • Justin, I believe you are severely misinformed about Hawaiian history. Your statement about “most white people [doing] everything they could to ensure the Hawaiian ruling class retained power” is completely false.

      It seems like you’re familiar with the Bayonet Constitution of 1887. However, your interpretation(s) of this are wrong. Sanford Dole, who would eventually become the President of the Republic of Hawaiʻi in 1894, after the overthrow of the Kingdom, wrote that if Kalākaua refused to sign this constitution, “he will be promptly attacked, and a republic probably declared.” Sanford Dole was white.

      Lorrin Thurston, one of the most prominent pro-annexationists and member of the infamous Committee of Safety (made up of white businessmen whose intentions were to depose Queen Liliʻuokalani), wrote, “It may be necessary to secure the government by a coup d’état against the common natives as well as against the Queen.” Lorrin Thurston was white.

      “White people” did not intend to keep “the Hawaiian ruling class” in power, and you damn well know it.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Your erroneous claims and biased appropriation is tantamount to erasure a clear characteristic of genocide. None of what you say is fact. What you have stated here is your racist, self righteous and inaccurately skewed, cherry picked and pro-occupation tailored genocidal manifest. Not history. Not fact. Not accurate. Nor reality. Your comment is not just inaccurate but filthy with entitlement, superiority and blatant racism as you generalize a whole people sweepingly which is the exact definition of racist. Hawaii is occupied. No treaty. No cessation. No relinquishing of rights to self determination. No title to the summit. How about you do something amazing- you provide a title (that passes the US laws of escrow including chain of title), a treaty (not a house resolution), and how about you move if you hate Hawaiians so much that you take every pathetic chance you get to mutilate and distort history to serve your sick desire to not see a court of justice objectively see justice through. Find a better life to live. This one is below that quality of life a slug has. And by the way you are incorrectly suggestion that “white people” do not shoulder the responsibility of this theft and denial of basic human rights to self determination and clear land titles. What gives you that assumption of entitlement that you can first of all relegate the term “white people” to assume its all white people and second of all to assert the genocidal tactic of erasure with your non objective, hate fueled and superiority biased conclusion to all the cherry picked examples you provide and then mutilate with your subjective unprofessional self-appointed know all of everything approach. You are not here to engage in healthy debate. You are here to engage in the unethical tactics of extermination and erasure that is often used in genocides and ethnocides. Find a girlfriend, boyfriend or hobby. You look like you need one of those if I may wield some of the entitlement you attempt to monopolize to commit the atrocity of erasure.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s