Hapa: A Unique Case of Cultural Appropriation by Multiracial Asian Americans?
On embracing a Hawaiian identity without the experience of colonization and inequality.
By Joanna Eng • August 14, 2018
H apa has become a popular term to refer to biracial or multiracial Americans who have partial Asian ancestry. But what are the implications of “borrowing” a Hawaiian term for this purpose?
The word hapa means “half,” “part,” or “mixed” in Hawaiian but has been used by non-Hawaiians to mean someone of part Asian heritage since as early as 1992 with the establishment of the Hapa Issues Forum student activist group at UC Berkeley. Following suit over the course of the past two-and-a-half decades, identity-based clubs with hapa in the name, meant for students of partial Asian descent, have existed at many colleges and universities across the mainland United States, including Brown, Columbia, Cornell, MIT, Tufts, and UCLA.
What are the implications of “borrowing” a Hawaiian term?
From Kip Fulbeck’s Hapa.me photography project (based on The Hapa Project created in 2001) currently exhibiting at the Japanese American National Museum to the HapaMama blog (started in 2008) and Hapa Mag (launched in 2017), the word continues to be claimed by non-Hawaiians in art and media. As someone of mixed Chinese and English ancestry (and no Hawaiian roots), I have occasionally used the word to describe myself and others and have even attended “hapa hour” happy hour events in New York City to meet others who identify as part Asian.
The origin of the word hapa, according to Hawaiian linguist Keao NeSmith, who appeared on Public Radio International’s The World in Words podcast, is that it was adapted from the English half and used in a mathematical context in Christian missionary schools during the early 1800s in Hawai‘i. It came to refer to people of mixed ancestry, though, in the term hapa haole (“half foreigner”), indicating someone who is part Native Hawaiian and part something else (usually European). NeSmith, who identifies as hapa haole, says the phrase is usually used in a fairly neutral or even positive sense and does not have derogatory origins despite some misconceptions that it does. Akemi Johnson, who wrote about hapa for NPR, found that these misconceptions may be because the word conjures other not-so-tasteful terms such as half-breed or because of the efforts of both colonizers of Hawai‘i and Japanese Americans on the continental U.S. to use people’s mixed ancestry to exclude them from certain groups and privileges.
Many part-Asian students took pride in the term—a term that they believed had no negative connotations, unlike so many other labels that have been “reclaimed.”
Starting in the early 1990s with student groups, the word hapa by itself was adopted on a wide scale on the mainland by multiracial Asian Americans. Many part-Asian students took pride in the term—a term that they believed had no negative connotations, unlike so many other labels that have been “reclaimed.” Because Asian Americans of mixed ancestry felt they were not being accepted as full members of Asian American communities and wanted to forge their own space, organizations like the now-defunct Hapa Issues Forum came to be.
Wei Ming Dariotis, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University who was heavily involved in early hapa identity activism (she started the San Francisco chapter of the Hapa Issues Forum), attests to the powerful role the word played in shaping her own identity. From her essay “Hapa: The Word of Power”:
When I learned the word “Hapa” I felt as though a whole new world had opened up to me. Before this, when anybody asked me, “What are you?” I had to answer, “Chinese Greek Swedish English Scottish German Pennsylvania Dutch.”
“Indigenous activists suggest that the word hapa is not only used inaccurately, but represents an extension of colonization.” —Mary Bernstein and Marcie De la Cruz, Social Problems
When used in this non-Hawaiian context, hapa is more than a casual descriptor; it actually represents a social movement. “The goals of the Hapa movement,” argue Mary Bernstein and Marcie De la Cruz in the journal Social Problems, “are to simultaneously deconstruct traditional notions of exclusively (mono)racial identities and to secure recognition for a multiracial ‘Hapa’ identity.”
However, Bernstein and De la Cruz point out:
Although the term is used among many to symbolize unity and shared experiences, its use has engendered resistance among the indigenous community. Some leaders of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement oppose the “inappropriate” use of the Hawaiian term hapa. Indigenous activists suggest that the word hapa is not only used inaccurately, but represents an extension of colonization. Despite heated debates over the appropriate use of hapa, some members of the mixed-race Asian Pacific American community continue to identify with the term.
Even if the word hapa was originally adapted from English, uneven power dynamics still exist when debating who gets to use this word and for what.
The editorial discussion archives for the Wikipedia entry on hapa confirm this controversy. And Dariotis, who was pioneering the field of “hapa studies” and had written a series of “hapa poems,” describes an experience she had after presenting some of her poems and research to an audience:
A young woman, who identified herself as Native Hawaiian and Japanese American, told me that my use of the word Hapa felt like a violence—like something was being taken away from her—another piece of Hawai‘i, another piece of Native Hawaiian culture and identity.
Some Asian Americans, and even Native Hawaiians, may not see this language appropriation as a big deal—words are borrowed and adapted between languages all the time. But, even if the word hapa was originally adapted from English, uneven power dynamics still exist when debating who gets to use this word and for what. Dariotis, after learning more about the history of colonization in Hawai‘i, came to the conclusion that:
This is a question of power. Who has the power or right to use language? Native Hawaiians, in addition to all of the other ways that their sovereignty has been abrogated, lost for many years the right to their own language through oppressive English-language education. Given this history and given the contemporary social and political reality (and realty—as in real estate) of Hawaiian, the appropriation of this one word has a significance deeper than many Asian Americans are willing to recognize.
“What we’ve done here is stolen the power of the word. Period.” —Claire Light, multiracial writer
Claire Light, a multiracial writer who has worked for Asian American arts organizations such as Kearny Street Workshop and Hyphen magazine, takes this argument a step further in her blog post on the subject. Referring to the fact that many Japanese and other Asian settlers found economic success in Hawai‘i by participating in the system set up by European colonizers, she writes:
That mixed race Asian Americans appropriated a word to find their own power is an item of their own blissful ignorance . . . and privilege. . . . The fact that Asian Americans saw no negative connotations in the word had to do with the fact that in this colonizing situation, Asian Americans played a helping role on the side of the colonizers. That’s about as ironic as it gets. . . .
What we’ve done here is stolen the power of the word. Period.
Further, as someone who is also descended from the early Anglo settlers of New England, I now realize that my White ancestors could be some of the same people who helped colonize Hawai‘i in the 1800s, taking control of the local culture and economy. Whether I am directly related to these particular colonizers or not, I continue to benefit from exactly these kinds of unfair power dynamics.
This claiming of Hawai‘i as our utopia is naïve and comes from a place of advantage and power for many multiracial and/or Asian American mainlanders.
For me, the joy I once experienced at fitting into the “hapa” identity is somewhat parallel to the way I used to feel about visiting Hawai‘i. For many multiracial, part-Asian, and Asian American people from the mainland, Hawai‘i can feel almost like a racial utopia upon first visit. I loved the feeling of walking around and simply blending in—because almost everywhere else, I stand out as either an Asian person or a mixed person or both. Thanks to Hawai‘i’s 37 percent Asian population and 19 percent multiracial population, I experienced a certain kind of comfort there that I hadn’t experienced anywhere else.
Dariotis confirmed this parallel on The World in Words’ episode on hapa, explaining one reason that she and other non-Hawaiian activists in the 1990s had embraced the identity: “There was also, I think, this fantasy that Hawai‘i is an idealized version of the melting pot. Before I knew very much about Hawai‘i’s history, that’s all I knew about it, was that it was just this beautiful place of blending.”
But this claiming of Hawai‘i as our utopia is naïve and comes from a place of advantage and power for many multiracial and/or Asian American mainlanders. As a tourist (and a relatively light-skinned one), I wasn’t privy to the racial and class inequalities that still exist in Hawai‘i. I don’t have to live with any of the negative consequences of the colonization of the Pacific Islands.
Mixed, multiracial, and part Asian all work for me as alternatives to hapa.
Of course, multiracial people have the right to self-identify based on their preferences. But I have to agree with Light when she says, “I don’t want to use the word [hapa] anymore; its power is gone and its savor has soured for me,” and with Dariotis, who writes, “A word used to give power to one community, while taking power away from another, is not a word I can use in good conscience.”
Mixed, multiracial, and part Asian all work for me as alternatives to hapa. (Now that I am part of a multiracial family where my wife, child, and I are all of various and multiple heritages, I tend to go for the catchall mixed to describe all three of us—but I wouldn’t use it in a journalistic context to describe someone else, unless they had stated a preference for the term.) As the self-identified multiracial population grows in the United States, we will have to see what other terms take hold, but I hope they will come from a place of thoughtfulness and inclusivity.
Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and cofounder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She studied anthropology at Cornell University and is excited to finally be using her major for something. Joanna lives in the New York City area with her wife and child.