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Hawaiian themed parties have become popular for everything from kids’ birthday parties to corporate events. But in recent years, some have questioned whether these types of events cross the line into cultural appropriation.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll examine both sides of this debate to help you make an informed decision.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: While elements of Hawaiian culture like leis and grass skirts have become common in mainland U.S. pop culture, using sacred cultural symbols purely for decoration or throwing a Hawaiian luau as a theme party can be seen as disrespectful and appropriative by Native Hawaiians. Approaching Hawaiian culture with authenticity and respect is recommended.

The History of Hawaii and Cultural Appropriation

The History of Hawaii and Cultural Appropriation

Hawaii, known for its stunning beaches, vibrant culture, and breathtaking scenery, has a rich and complex history that is often overlooked. The islands were originally inhabited by Polynesians who settled there around 1,500 years ago.

However, in the late 18th century, Western explorers arrived, and Hawaii became a hub for trade and a strategic location for military purposes. This marked the beginning of a turbulent period of colonization and cultural assimilation.

Brief history of colonization in Hawaii

In the late 1800s, Hawaii was annexed by the United States, leading to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. This colonization had a profound impact on the traditional Hawaiian way of life, as Western influences began to reshape the islands’ cultural landscape.

Traditional practices, such as the Hawaiian language, hula dancing, and native spirituality, were suppressed and discouraged.

The effects of colonization are still felt today, as the Native Hawaiian population continues to face challenges in preserving their cultural heritage.

Many Hawaiians are concerned about cultural appropriation, which is the adoption or use of elements from another culture without understanding or respecting their significance.

Authentic Hawaiian culture vs stereotypes

It is crucial to differentiate between authentic Hawaiian culture and the stereotypes that often perpetuate a shallow and inaccurate representation.

Authentic Hawaiian culture is rooted in respect for the land, nature, and the belief in the interconnectedness of all living things.

It encompasses the traditional arts, language, music, and spirituality that have been passed down through generations.

On the other hand, stereotypes of Hawaii often center around commercialized versions of hula girls, leis, and surf culture. These portrayals can be seen in movies, advertisements, and even tourist attractions.

While these elements may be part of Hawaiian culture, they do not represent its entirety and can perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

Concerns about appropriation of Native Hawaiian culture

The appropriation of Native Hawaiian culture raises concerns about exploitation, commodification, and the erasure of indigenous voices. It is essential to acknowledge and respect the cultural significance of practices and symbols that hold deep meaning for Native Hawaiians.

For example, the misappropriation of the hula dance, which is a sacred and storied tradition, can be seen as disrespectful and offensive.

When hula is performed without proper understanding or without honoring its cultural context, it diminishes its significance and reduces it to a mere form of entertainment.

As consumers and participants in popular culture, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves about the cultures we engage with and to support initiatives that promote cultural understanding and respect.

We must strive to celebrate diversity and foster genuine cultural exchange, rather than perpetuating harmful stereotypes or appropriating traditions for personal gain.

For more information on Hawaiian culture and the impact of cultural appropriation, visit Cultural Survival

Arguments That Hawaiian Themed Parties Are Appropriative

Using sacred cultural items as costumes

One of the main arguments against Hawaiian themed parties is the use of sacred cultural items as costumes. Traditional Hawaiian culture holds certain items, such as the lei, as deeply meaningful and symbolic.

When these items are worn as mere accessories or costumes, it can be seen as disrespectful and trivializing.

It is important to acknowledge and respect the cultural significance of these items, rather than treating them as mere props for entertainment.

Perpetuating stereotypes about Hawaii

Another concern raised by critics of Hawaiian themed parties is the perpetuation of stereotypes about Hawaii. These parties often reinforce outdated and inaccurate stereotypes, such as the idea that all Hawaiians live in grass huts, wear grass skirts, and play the ukulele.

Such stereotypes not only misrepresent the rich and diverse culture of Hawaii, but also contribute to a shallow and superficial understanding of the Hawaiian people.

It is important to celebrate and appreciate the true essence of Hawaiian culture, rather than reducing it to a collection of stereotypes.

Profiting from someone else’s culture

One of the more contentious arguments against Hawaiian themed parties is the issue of profiting from someone else’s culture. When individuals or companies organize these parties for profit without proper understanding and respect for the Hawaiian culture, it can be seen as exploitative.

This concern is particularly relevant when businesses appropriate Hawaiian culture to sell products or services, without giving due credit or compensation to the Hawaiian community.

It is crucial to be mindful of the economic implications and power dynamics at play when engaging in cultural appropriation.

It is important to note that these arguments are not universally agreed upon, and there are differing viewpoints on whether Hawaiian themed parties are appropriative or not. The intention behind these parties can also play a role in the perception of their appropriateness.

Some argue that if done with respect, understanding, and collaboration with the Hawaiian community, these parties can be a way to appreciate and share the beauty of Hawaiian culture.

Ultimately, it is essential to engage in open and respectful dialogue to better understand the impact of cultural appropriation and work towards cultural appreciation and understanding.

Arguments That Hawaiian Themed Parties Are Appreciative

Sharing and celebrating Hawaiian culture

Sharing and celebrating Hawaiian culture

One argument in favor of Hawaiian themed parties is that they provide an opportunity for people to share and celebrate Hawaiian culture.

These parties often incorporate traditional Hawaiian music, dance, and cuisine, allowing attendees to learn about and experience aspects of the culture in a fun and interactive way.

By embracing Hawaiian themes, people can develop a greater appreciation for the rich history and traditions of the Hawaiian people.

Educating people about Hawaii

Hawaiian themed parties also serve as a platform for educating people about Hawaii.

Through the decorations, costumes, and activities at these parties, attendees can learn about the geography, flora, and fauna of the islands.

Additionally, they may gain insights into the historical significance of certain symbols and practices in Hawaiian culture. This educational aspect can foster a deeper understanding and respect for the Hawaiian people and their heritage.

Hawaiian businesses selling luau party supplies

Another argument supporting Hawaiian themed parties is that they contribute to the success of Hawaiian businesses. Many Hawaiian companies specialize in providing luau party supplies, such as leis, grass skirts, and tropical decorations.

These businesses rely on the demand for Hawaiian themed parties to thrive and continue offering their products and services.

By supporting these local businesses, individuals who host Hawaiian themed parties can indirectly contribute to the Hawaiian economy.

How to Hold a Hawaiian Themed Event Respectfully

Avoid costumes and caricatures

When planning a Hawaiian themed event, it is important to avoid costumes and caricatures that can be seen as disrespectful or offensive. Dressing up as a stereotypical representation of a culture can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and contribute to cultural appropriation.

Instead, encourage attendees to embrace the spirit of the Hawaiian culture by opting for attire that is respectful and appreciative of the traditions and customs.

Pro tip: Encourage attendees to wear Hawaiian prints, leis, or traditional clothing like the aloha shirt or muumuu. This allows them to participate in the theme without appropriating the culture.

Use authentic decor

Authenticity is key when it comes to decor for a Hawaiian themed event. Avoid using generic tropical decorations that could be seen as a superficial representation of the culture.

Instead, opt for authentic Hawaiian decorations that showcase the richness and beauty of the Hawaiian culture. Incorporate elements such as hula dancers, traditional Hawaiian artwork, or natural materials like bamboo and palm leaves.

Pro tip: Consider working with local Hawaiian artists or artisans to source authentic decorations for your event. This not only supports the local community but also ensures that the decor is genuine and respectful.

Serve Hawaiian food

Food plays a significant role in Hawaiian culture, so it is important to include authentic Hawaiian cuisine at your themed event.

Serving traditional dishes such as poi, kalua pig, or lomi-lomi salmon can provide a genuine taste of Hawaii and allow attendees to experience the cultural richness firsthand.

Consider hiring a Hawaiian caterer or working with a local restaurant that specializes in Hawaiian cuisine to ensure authenticity.

Pro tip: Provide options for attendees with dietary restrictions or preferences, ensuring that everyone can enjoy the Hawaiian food experience. Offering vegetarian or vegan alternatives for traditional dishes can be a thoughtful touch.

Share Hawaiian history and culture

While planning your Hawaiian themed event, take the opportunity to educate attendees about the history and culture of Hawaii. Incorporate educational elements such as displays or exhibits that highlight the significance of Hawaiian traditions, customs, and landmarks.

Consider inviting guest speakers or cultural experts who can share their knowledge about the Hawaiian culture and its importance.

Pro tip: Provide resources or recommended readings about Hawaiian culture for attendees to further explore and deepen their understanding.

By following these guidelines, you can hold a Hawaiian themed event that is respectful and appreciative of the culture, avoiding cultural appropriation. Remember, the goal is to celebrate and honor the Hawaiian culture in a way that is authentic and inclusive for all attendees.

Alternatives to Hawaiian Theme Parties

Alternatives to Hawaiian Theme Parties

While Hawaiian theme parties have been popular for decades, there has been growing concern about cultural appropriation and the misrepresentation of Hawaiian culture.

Instead of hosting a Hawaiian theme party, there are several alternative party themes that can still capture the essence of a tropical paradise without appropriating a specific culture.

Beach Party

A beach party is a great alternative to a Hawaiian theme party. You can still enjoy the relaxed and fun atmosphere of a tropical beach without appropriating any specific culture.

Encourage guests to dress in beach attire, play beach games, and enjoy refreshing tropical drinks. Decorate the venue with beach-themed decorations such as seashells, sand, and palm trees.

This theme allows everyone to embrace the carefree vibe of a beach vacation.

Tropical Party

A tropical party is another fantastic alternative to a Hawaiian theme party. This theme focuses on the vibrant and lush tropical environment rather than a specific culture.

Decorate the venue with colorful flowers, tropical fruits, and vibrant fabrics. Encourage guests to wear tropical-inspired outfits and serve exotic cocktails and dishes.

This theme allows you to celebrate the beauty and diversity of tropical regions around the world.

Luau Party

A luau party is often associated with Hawaiian culture, but it can be transformed into a more general celebration of Polynesian culture. Instead of exclusively focusing on Hawaii, you can incorporate elements from other Polynesian cultures such as Tahiti, Fiji, and Samoa.

Decorate the venue with Polynesian-inspired decorations, play traditional Polynesian music, and serve a variety of Polynesian dishes. This allows you to appreciate the rich cultural heritage of the entire Polynesian region.

Remember, the key is to respect and appreciate cultures without appropriating them.

By choosing alternative party themes that celebrate the beauty of tropical environments and diverse cultures, you can create a memorable and inclusive event for everyone to enjoy.


Hawaiian themed parties walk a fine line between cultural celebration and appropriation. Approaching Hawaiian culture with respect and avoiding stereotypes is key.

A Hawaiian party can educate and bring people together, but should be executed thoughtfully. If in doubt, a generic beach or tropical theme may be a safer alternative.

The debate over Hawaiian themed parties reflects larger issues of cultural exchange and colonial history that are still playing out today. With an open and thoughtful dialogue, we can find ways to appreciate each other’s cultures while avoiding disrespect.

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