Actually that headline should read “why is a sexologist tweeting incessently about an offensively branded cat litter?”

And the question in your mind may also be, “and how long is she going to keep it up?” (No pun intended.)

There are several reasons.

First of all, this product is orange… racist… in poor taste. It needs to go. It needs to be called something else, like “Purty Tropical Flowers” or something. It is a prime example of immense cultural insensitivity, greed, and utter disrespect. It may even be an example of theft of indigenous property, as Proctor & Gamble, owners of Fabreze, have trademarked these very words, “Hawaiian Aloha” – four times! I believe this could be a violation of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People (see Articles 11, 12, 13, 15 and especially 31). Here is the text of Article 31:

Article 31

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.

Traditional cultural expressions… such as “aloha,” right? All the world identifies aloha with Hawai’i and its culture. Now we are being asked to identify it with a product that disguises the smell of cat feces.

I currently live and work in Hawai’i. Before I moved here, I spent over sixteen years learning about current events and issues, history, political status, and the past and present culture of Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiians). This isn’t enough time to achieve understanding, but I do continue to study. One of the first things a Hawaiian said to me was, “my culture is not for sale.” Sadly, cultural appropriation, distortion, commodification, erasure (aka cultural genocide) are rampant. Most Hawaiians may not sell out their culture, but other people have certainly stolen everything about Hawai’i that they could get their hands on.

So, as a counselor who is ethically bound to strive for cultural competence, which in this instance includes understanding how multi-generational trauma operates, I am aware that this seemingly trivial matter of branding cat litter as “a luau for your litter box” has far greater implications and effects on living, breathing human beings. Every single grabby, greedy, disrespectful, desecrating action against their culture adds to the cumulative distress (read STRESS!) that piles up on every single native Hawaiian alive today, whether in Hawai’i or living in disapora. Health statistics for Kanaka Maoli are consequently dismal, similar to stats for other people of color in the continental U.S.

So, I am outraged at the kind of insensitivity (or worse?) displayed by companies that pat themselves on the back for being pro-diversity (etc. etc.) like Clorox (owner of FreshStep) and Proctor and Gamble (owner of Fabreze). The Clorox Company Foundation says “The Clorox Company Foundation has a mission to improve the quality of life in communities where Clorox employees live and work.” Well, guess what? Clorox is based in Oakland. Plenty of Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders live in the San Francisco Bay Area. In fact, the hula scene alone is extraordinary, with world class teachers like Patrick Makuakane and Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu (we sure missed him at the Merrie Monarch this year). And what do many hula dancers do? They perform at lu’au, now equated – thanks to Clorox and FreshStep – to a cat litter box. Mahalo nui, NOT! Proctor & Gamble embraces LGBTQIA etc. PRIDE on its home page, which is wonderful, really, but what about Hawaiian pride? Here’s a living, breathing, extraordinary people with a vibrant, heroic culture and you’ve – what? – equated it with a cat box. Lolo, dat. Pilau too.  (Crazy. Stinky, rotten…)

Would the executives at these companies have approved a product called “Mazeltov Cat Litter,” with the slogan “it’s like a Bar Mitzvah in your litter box?” Or “Burrito Cat Litter -it’s like a Fiesta in your litter box?” No. Of course not. Unthinkable. And I apologize for even having to use such offensive examples in order to make a point. But really, can someone please tell me why the Hawaiians and their culture are somehow exempt from consideration, why they are considered fair game?

Did Clorox or P&G even think to ask a wide selection of Hawaiians, both in CA and here on the islands, what they thought about taking and applying “Hawaiian Aloha” to such a product? I think not. P&G, located in Ohio, could perhaps be excused (momentarily) for such an oversight, but not Clorox located on the Pacific Rim, with flights to Hawai’i daily from Oakland Airport. They could have rounded up plenty of Hawaiians for focus groups without much effort or expense.

And it’s so ridiculous! Who here doesn’t know what a lu’au is? It’s a party right? With music and dancing and food. People have them for weddings, first birthday parties for a cherished child, graduations, whatever! People wear lei. People have a good time. Commercial lu’au also provide music, dancing, and food. And with tourism providing about 21% of the economy of Hawai’i, the dancers, musicians, food growers, food vendors, food servers, hotels, production companies, lei makers, and so on, now have THEIR “brand,” THEIR livelihood, diminished in value by comparisons with a cat litter box. 

And if a lu’au has an odor associated with it, it’s the smell of roasting pig. It’s not whatever petrochemicals are in that box.

Most people have heard the word, “aloha.” They think it is just a greeting or a way to say “I love you.” Now, I love my cats, I do, I do, and I even feed/neutar/spay the feral kitties on my property. But no way in the world would I equate my fondness for my animals with pouring a heavily scented substance into their litter box. Besides, I have asthma, and fragrances trigger it. And did I mention that asthma rates in Hawai’i are higher than those on the U.S. continent? Again, way to go, Clorox and P&G… Now I’m not even going to buy your unscented Fresh Step cat litter until this hewa (trouble) one goes away!

But there’s more to say about “aloha.” Kapu Aloha is a spiritual philosophy most recently invoked and actively practiced to save sacred Mauna Kea from industrial-strength development in a conservation district zone. Aloha ‘Aina is care of the land – I would even say, profound care in relationship to the land. A cultural practitioner, Ramsay Taum, once told me “alo” means “face to face” and “ha” is the breath of life. Aloha is sharing the breath of life. This important cultural tradition simply does not belong in a cat box.

And if anyone has a right to “trademark” it, it is the indigenous people who developed the concept and the word. Is that understood?

As a white person who “loves Hawai’i” I have learned that many horrible things have been done to enable me to make “free use” of whatever cultural odds and ends strike my fancy, but most of those things have nothing to do with the original culture of Hawai’i AND are even actively detrimental to it, and its people. Here is what happens. A commercial enterprise from the dominating culture (such as mine) decides to co-opt some element of native culture (usually without permission or offering compensation) and tack it onto a shabby product which is supposed to grant me the privilege of enjoying something about that culture, without having to actually confront or engage with any real representative or understanding of that culture. It’s all a sham.

Then (and here’s where I come to the sexology part), that commercial enterprise adds the additional element of shame by equating the dominated culture’s fun, pleasure, and cultural practices with something that are undesirable – such as a cat litter box. It’s so embarrassing, so wrong, so shameful, that most people are just going to want to pretend they don’t see it. But I connect the dots here, and the picture that emerges isn’t trivial.

As a sexologist, I know about shame. I’ve come to understand that if you want to control and conquer someone, shaming is the best way to do the job. This happens in marriages and families, and it also happens when an aggressive country seeks to dominate or exploit another. This is part of the history of the U.S. in Hawai’i.

A few years ago, I found myself actively protesting another repulsively branded product, a sexually transmitted disease app which the entrepreneur decided to name “Hula,” “because it gets you lei’d.” The product itself had a sort of socially benign mission, but it was not appropriate to name an STD alert app after a sacred dance developed by people who had been decimated by STDs and other Western diseases after contact with Capt. Cook’s sailors. This entrepreneur never thought to ask Hawaiians what they thought and only learned after the fact. They were outraged. Quite a lot of people spent a lot of time pressuring him and his company for several months until he finally agreed to rename it. We even had the human rights committee of the American Counseling Association consider the situation and they were about to send letter to this company, affirming that the product name was a violation of human rights.

Sigh. Deja vu. I guess we’re going to have to do this again.

I am aware, even as I protest the above heinous product brand, that in so doing, I take up space that should be better devoted to what #RealHawaiianAloha actually is! So, for the record let me say that real, true examples of Hawaiian Aloha are found in the voyages of the Hoku’ea, returning from an around the world tour; in the search for food sustainability through the cultivation of kala and other indigenous food plants; in the protection of sacred sites; in a real understanding of family and community; in the practices of Kapu Aloha and Aloha ‘Aina.

This is only a short list.