The diverse culture of the nation’s 50th state—and the island nature of Hawaii itself—shaped Barack Obama’s view of the world and the politics he would practice.
Those who knew him as a child say that view and those politics click with the themes of his Democratic presidential campaign. For Obama, though, Hawaii is even more personal, the place where he picked up basketball and formed his racial identity.
“If you grow up here, where we have no majority and there’s a complete ethnic mix, people have learned how to get along with others who look different and are from different places,” said longtime family friend Georgia McCauley.
“In Hawaii, because we have a confined space in terms of being an island state, we perhaps have to learn how to cooperate and compromise more,” McCauley said. “We learn how to listen to each other and work on things in a positive manner.”
Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961 to a white mother and a black father who had met in Russian class at the University of Hawaii. He was an island boy most of his first 18 years, a pudgy kid called Barry who lived in a modest apartment with his grandparents.
His mother’s charitable work, his multiethnic friends and the economic gap between his family and his classmates at the island’s most prestigious private school—he attended on scholarship—helped forge Obama before he left for college on the mainland.
Obama has recounted numerous instances when he felt like an outsider, as when a seventh grader called him a “coon” and the parents of a white girl objected to her going to the prom with him. The islands’ roughly 49,000 blacks account for less than 4 percent of the population.
“Hawaii’s spirit of tolerance might not have been perfect or complete. But it was—and is—real,” Obama wrote in a 1999 essay for the Punahou alumni magazine. “The opportunity that Hawaii offered—to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect—became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear.”
“He himself is a child of diversity, and Hawaii gave him that opportunity,” said Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, who was friends with Obama’s family and remembers him as a boy. “He believes diversity defines you, rather than divides you. That’s the central message of change he’s bringing. It’s nothing to be afraid of.”