What does the title mean?
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.
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: