If you placed two biracial Asian women from Hawai’i in a room full of high school and college students and asked them to pen a short personal narrative about identity, they would inevitably title their story “Hapa.” Half.
At least, that is the conclusion that my classmate Hannah and I reach upon spotting our twin titles in the Table of Contents of the collection.
“Iwa!” Hannah says as she swings around in her seat. “We can’t both write about being hapa girls from Hawai’i.” But of course we both have. Hapa, it turns out, is the only way that we know how to explain our identities and our experiences growing up on an island in the Pacific, five thousand miles from our college in upstate New York.
As the pluckier high school students read their finished pieces of writing to the room, I skim Hannah’s narrative, which discusses her experience being racialized as a Japanese-American after leaving Hawai’i for our predominantly white institution in the Northeast. The inevitable “No, where are you really from?” had greeted her the way red pens feast on a fresh page of words.
Our approaches to writing about being hapa diverge symmetrically. I write about growing up with an Asian consciousness, but reckoning with the seeming ambiguity of my face and my race upon arrival on the mainland. The last, most misguided line of my narrative reads, “I will never again wear ‘hapa’ as a pass into ignorance.” I would later cringe at the words my first-year-self had written, lost in blunt liberal binaries between privilege and oppression and thoroughly and disastrously convinced that I had lost any claim to my Asian identity.
The word hapa was originally used to refer to individuals of mixed Hawaiian ancestry. The term was reserved for the children of Hawaiian women and the white European and American haole, or foreigners, who began arriving on Hawai’i’s shores in 1778. Christian missionaries brought with them models of European education, founding schools that instituted the English alphabet. The word hapa was transliterated from the English word ‘half’ in order to teach fractions to students, although in its mathematical usage, the meaning of hapa was closer to ‘part’ than ‘half.’ Biracial Hawaiian children became known as hapa haole. Although some white missionaries were opposed to interracial marriages and miscegenation, they did not push for legislation against either in order to remain in the good graces of the Hawaiian monarchy, which welcomed both.
After the 1850 Masters and Servants Act, which legalized contract labor in the Kingdom of Hawai’i, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino immigration to the isles began in earnest and continued throughout the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the men who labored on the sugar and pineapple plantations married Hawaiian women and had Asian-Hawaiian children. Words like hapa pake (Chinese-Hawaiian), hapa kepani (Japanese-Hawaiian), and hapa pukiki (Portuguese-Hawaiian) positively regarded these mixed-race Hawaiians. As the Asian population of non-Hawaiians grew, so did the usage and prevalence of the word hapa.
Contemporary usage of the word has expanded in scope, and today hapa has graduated to a term of empowerment. Hapa people are understood as mixed-race Asian Americans. Those who claim hapa as an expression of identity and diasporic community take pride in their dual heritage. The word has challenged the abundance of painful and prosaic discourses about people of mixed race, not the least of which is the claim that they do not have “enough” of one racial heritage or the other to be considered authentic members of either ethnic group. For those of us who do not pass for white, identifying as such is never an option. As Orange is the New Black’s Brook Soso, one of television’s most prominent mixed Asian characters, has lamented, “…To white people I’m not [Scottish]. One drop of ethnic blood and bam! I’m basically made in China, like you [Chang] or my toothbrush.” In a world that banishes nuance in conversations about racial identity, this refreshingly frank remark about mixed-race existence speaks to the realities of racialization. The ‘choice’ that we never agreed to make in the first place is made for us after all.
At the same time, it is disheartening that many of us have received cold receptions to Asian American spaces and communities at one time or another. Although for the first year or so of college I simply had not gotten around to attending any of the school’s Asian Students Alliance meetings, I abandoned the effort after my friend Emily, who is of Vietnamese heritage, told me that she had been asked some form of the question “Why are you here?” by multiple monoracial students during ‘ice breakers.’ It is certainly true that for many of us, having European physical features or passing for white endows us with privilege not granted our monoracial peers; of this privilege we should be wary. Whatever it is in my dad’s face that more than once inspired unsolicited shouts of “Konnichiwa” across narrow European streets during our last family vacation, white passersby have not yet found it in my own face. There are times and spaces to broach mixed-race-specific topics with monoracial peers, and there are situations in which our silences are more meaningful than our contributions. Checking our privilege means recognizing the difference. But the wholesale dismissal of my or Emily’s Asian identities on the grounds of inauthenticity or white privilege sidesteps questions that complicate Asian identity for us all.
Mixed-race identity tends to present discomfort, or at the very least mild confusion, to white people and people of color alike. The many contradictions of race are made most transparent in conversations about mixed-race identity because multiracialism destabilizes the conceptual mapping that we use to situate ourselves and others into neat categories. For instance, essentialist notions of what it means to be and look ‘Asian’ create a politics of authenticity that dictates a standard of ‘Asianness,’ both physical and cultural. Deviation from this standard is disparaged as a watered-down version of Asian identity or worse, assimilation. Yet, some of my monoracial Asian American friends have also voiced the pressure they feel to perform their Asianness adequately and authentically, lest they appear counterfeit to their peers and their first-generation parents. Who benefits from the presumption that a fixed cultural definition of Asian identity exists, or that if we only work hard enough to preserve our parents’ (or parent’s) experience of Asian culture, we can embody it? Surely it is not Asian Americans, mixed or otherwise.
Rather than adhering to dichotomies and absolutism, the identity of hapa assumes that we can exist as both and neither of our parents’ races. It does not demand allegiance to one or the other heritage. At the same time, being hapa means embracing a culture that is new and generative in its mixture of distinct ways of life. It means that I can have rice at every meal with chopsticks, but eat salad last; open gifts on Christmas Eve and receive lai see at Chinese New Year; feel at home in the mixture of my mother’s Bavarian German and my father’s pidgin English; and find no contradictions in the way that my German, my Chinese, and my Korean do not take turns but exist all at once.
When someone from Hawai’i calls me hapa, even if they are not themselves hapa, I know that there is no sentiment likening me to a “mutt” or an exotic hybrid hiding behind the word. A fundamentally positive association with mixed-race identity gives the term hapa an appeal that more clinical words like ‘biracial’ and ‘Eurasian’ lack. It is what spurs hashtags (from #hapanation to #hapapride) and Facebook pages for multiracial affinity spaces. It spills into the domain of commodities and public consumption through “Don’t Worry, Be HAPA” apparel and creative endeavors like Kip Fulbeck’s “The Hapa Project.” I have seen strangers come to each other’s defense in the fusillade of Twitter wars and later claim that they had to stick up for their “fellow hapas.” Kinship can bloom across economic classes and cultural particularities where the common denominator of hapa holds sway.
I can best describe the essence of this positive force by way of a memory. Growing up, one of my parents’ favorite albums was the debut of a band, none other than Hapa. A Hawaiian man from Honolulu and a white New Jersey-native made up the Maui-based acoustic duo. I remember one particular vacation spent visiting my dad’s family in Oakland. Cruising down wider streets and longer stretches of highway there than those carved out of the south shore of O’ahu, we played Hapa with the windows down. Ka Uluwehi O Ke Kai, a song about the many seaweed that dance through the ocean, guided our coastal drift. What I had distorted in my memory for many years after that drive was the source of the music. Too young to understand the difference between a CD player and a radio, I imagined that the other cars that sped along with us were listening companionably to the sounds of Hapa, under hills that were not the Ko’olau mountains and on a coast that never seemed to find its end.
Being a part of a hapa community, this pocket of the Asian diaspora, is akin to the feeling that is wrapped up in the tenderness of this memory. It involves reaching for the familiar across perceivable difference and finding a home there; a common music. It is unsurprising, then, that the term has washed up on new Pacific shores.
On the west coast and especially in California, mixed Asian Americans have adopted the word hapa as their own form of self-identification. In 1992, the University of California at Berkeley established the Hapa Issues Forum, considered one of the first of a slew of college- and university-based Hapa Clubs that followed on the west coast, though a number of Ivies now have clubs as well. Hapa Clubs introduce the term hapa as a fashionable community-building identity and promote their organizations as safe spaces to discuss issues around dual heritage. In most cases, mixed Asian identity is explicitly centered, though some clubs embrace all of multiracialism’s forms. In a move that distinctly dissociates the word hapa from its Hawaiian roots, some clubs have fashioned an acronym out of the word by abbreviating the words ‘Half Asian Pacific American.’ Hapa Clubs have given currency to the term as it is used across the mainland U.S. today. However, the history of mainland multiracial Asian Americans precludes this buoyant cultural moment. Differentiating this history from that of Hawai’i-born Asian Americans contextualizes the post-90s popularity of the word hapa.
Anti-miscegenation laws and Chinese communities’ own opposition to interracial marriage curbed any potential for a significant population of mixed-race Chinese Americans prior to the 1960s. Although a number of transformational events in the mid 19th century – including the California Gold Rush, the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, and the end of the Civil War – stimulated Chinese immigration to the mainland U.S. in the tens of thousands, the demand for cheap labor created a high concentration of male Chinese immigrants on the west coast. Very few Chinese women made the journey to America on their own. Anti-miscegenation laws in many states prohibited interracial marriage, but the mixed-race Chinese Americans who did exist (born out of interracial unions on the post-Civil War plantations of the south, for example) were generally unwelcome in Chinese communities.
Similarly, there were very few mixed-race Japanese Americans prior to the 1960s because of both anti-miscegenation laws and disapproval of interracial marriage by Japanese-Americans. Only about 5% of the immigrant generation married outside of their race and the children of these marriages were not welcome in Japanese communities due to prejudices against other ethnic groups, including Asian ones. Curiously, the rate of interracial marriage for Japanese Americans was even lower in Hawai’i than on the mainland U.S.
Prior to World War II, South Asian Americans were fairly accepting of multiracial individuals in their community. The comparably small group of South Asian emigrants, mostly men from Punjab, came to California in the late 19th century to work in agriculture. Many of them married Catholic Mexican immigrant women. After the 1946 Luce-Cellar Act was signed, giving naturalization rights to South Asians, another small wave of South Asian immigrants came to the U.S. This group accepted the Punjabi-Mexican-Americans, though they did not necessarily see them as South Asians. The inclusivity that characterized South Asian communities was unfortunately displaced by a new post-World War II focus on monoracialism.
Prior to the 1960s, most Asian ethnic groups did not receive mixed-race people particularly warmly and biracial Asian Americans who were non-white lived in the ethnic community of their non-Asian parents, while those who were part white would live on the margins of the white community. The wave of immigration that took place in the 1950s and 1960s, especially after the 1965 Immigration Act, which overturned the quota system of immigration, consisted primarily of Asian women. Many married white American servicemen and some of the children of these marriages grew up during the Civil Rights movement, which inspired the Yellow Power movement of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Despite the growing number of biracial Asians, the Asian American community’s pursuit of a monoracial identity excluded them from its vision of political and social recognition by uniting around a politics of authenticity. This was true particularly after ethnic specificities converged into the unified racial identity of ‘Asian American.’ The Yellow Power movement, for instance, did not accommodate issues pertinent to biracial Asian Americans. The coalescence of mixed-race Asian Americans under the term hapa during the early ‘90s was therefore the formation of a novel community of individuals who had historically lacked the support and advocacy power of larger Asian ethnic groups. Though hapa is just a word, it has empowered a largely imagined community with organizational strength.
To put the contemporary situation of mixed-race people in perspective both in Hawai’i and in the U.S. generally, one might simply consider demographics. In 2015, people who were two or more races constituted 23% of Hawai’i’s population in comparison to the 2.6% of the total U.S. population.
The difference in social climate makes itself known in other ways. Beyond comparing the demographics of majority-minority Hawai’i with those of the mainland U.S., a particular cultural feature of the island-state casts mainland attitudes toward multiracialism into sharp relief. The rhetoric used to speak about identity politics on the mainland is largely unfamiliar to racial discourse in Hawai’i. Who needs a term like ‘people of color’ when it applies to 77% of us? Locals even tend to throw around the word ‘Caucasian,’ a relic of 18th century racial pseudoscience that maintains a sense of apolitical dispassion compared with modern usage of the term ‘white people.’ In my experience, ‘Caucasian’ is used in Hawai’i as a substitute for the word haole (meaning ‘foreigner,’ although today it is racialized to mean ‘white’) to give one’s speech an heir of detached formality wherever the more common Hawaiian word is considered too colloquial by the speaker. Words like ‘marginalization,’ ‘racialization,’ and ‘constructs,’ words used in this essay, are deployed comparably less often. This is not to trivialize local progressive politics or to erase the conversations about race that activists and engaged citizens in Hawai’i are having, but to acknowledge that the content of the conversations themselves are different from that of those being had on the mainland and require different language. For instance, where liberal buzz words like ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ carry weight on the mainland, language that touches on issues of responsibility is more likely to influence politics and culture in Hawai’i.
What these differences in language seem to reflect is the way that racial discourses in Hawai’i and the mainland are centered and what they take for granted. Because Asian Americans make up such a large part of the state of Hawai’i and are at the helm of conversations about race, we do not pursue the monoracial identity that our mainland peers often feel compelled to. In Hawai’i, Asian Americans, many of whom are born and raised in the isles, are our endearingly goofy newscasters and our trailblazing civil servants (i.e. Attorney General Doug Chin, leader of the legal battle against President Trump’s Muslim ban; Mazie Hirono, the first Asian American woman elected to the Senate; and the late senator Daniel Inouye, the highest ranking Asian American politician in U.S. history). Asian Americans are our high school teachers, our pediatricians, and most of our neighbors. We are fortunate in that we do not need to present ourselves as a united front against discrimination in order to gain political and cultural recognition in the isles. That also means that ethnic particularities – such as mixed-race identity – are not as slippery or threatening to Asian American cohesion.
To be sure, Hawai’i is not the racial paradise that it is romanticized as, and I do not wish to perpetuate a sanitized vision of my state. For instance, Micronesians, many of whom emigrate from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau in order to obtain urgent healthcare in Hawai’i, are stereotyped locally as lazy and unintelligent. Usually a statement like “I’m sorry but I have to say it” prefaces unambiguous hate speech directed at Micronesians. Another salient issue is the familiar hierarchy of Asian ethnic groups in the state. Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, and Korean Americans in Hawai’i have considerable clout in comparison with their Southeast Asian and South Asian counterparts. Hawai’i certainly has its own baggage in regards to Asian America and the Pacific. The distinction that I make is that race relations as they affect mixed-race Asian Americans in particular are on the whole much more affirmative than on the mainland U.S.
Considering the history and present experiences of mixed-race Asian Americans on the mainland U.S., it is not difficult to understand the power and appeal of the word hapa for those who were introduced to it later in life. For many, this happened in college, during a formative time when many young people deepen their understanding of their racial identity/identities. However, as the word has become increasingly fashionable, opposition to the word has also gained visibility.
I first came across an NPR article titled “Who Gets To Be Hapa?” about half a year ago. The article threw light on controversy around the term hapa, which some Native Hawaiians see as an appropriation of a word that originally applied exclusively to their own mixed-race community. While it is seen as especially problematic that mixed-race Asian Americans who have few cultural ties to Hawai’i and a limited understanding of its history have begun to self-identify as hapa, criticism of modern usage of the word is also directed at us local non-Hawaiians.
I recoiled when I read this article. Having grown up with this word, I felt an instinctive defensiveness towards it, as I know that many other people who have come across this article and others similar to it have felt. It felt like being denied something that I had always had a right to. Over the next few months, I saw the same article come up on my Facebook feed several times. A friend of my dad’s had simply commented on the shared NPR article “I am hapa and proud of it” followed by the spaced-out smiley face beloved only by middle-aged men on the Internet. Whether he was dismissing the article’s critique, or had bothered to read it at all, I could not tell. I saw the article again when a mixed Maori acquaintance of mine who is typically very outspoken about indigenous rights and politics shared it, commenting only that it was “worth a read.” Each of us seemed to grapple with the issue quietly.
In truth, after overcoming my initial discomfort, I was surprised neither by Native Hawaiians’ frustration with the contemporary use of the word nor by biracial Asians’ continued use of it. While Asian Americans in the mainland U.S. are considered minorities, their positionality changes radically as soon as they reach Hawai’i. The Asian immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries left their mark on everything from Hawai’i’s palate to its customs, but as non-Native Asian Americans began to far outnumber Hawaiians, ‘influence’ became displacement of the culture of origin. In the case of the word hapa, it means appropriation. The normalized misusage of the word may seem benign, but it is indicative of a larger process.
The pulse of ‘paradise’ today beats with the ongoing fight for Hawaiian culture’s survival. While developers who wish to expand new tourist attractions further from the heart of Honolulu, often irreverent to sacred burial sites, represent one kind of threat to cultural continuance, Asian Americans who are too socioeconomically comfortable to pursue the political interests of Hawai’i’s indigenous people present a very different one. Native Hawaiians have much less influence in their own land than do us Asian Americans. We began as cheap labor but our successes have coincided with Hawaiians’ most devastating losses – the introduction of capitalism to the islands, Hawai’i’s annexation and ultimate statehood, and today’s tourism industry. My own heritage makes this point clear. My great-grandfather’s prosperity as a Korean immigrant closely followed the turns of history.
When he was just shy of seven years old, my great-grandfather Chan Jay Kim emigrated from Chemulpo, Korea on December 22, 1902 with his older brother Yee Chai and his wife. They had been recruited at their Methodist church to work on the sugar plantations of Hawai’i and were drawn to educational opportunities for Chan Jay. To ensure a smooth passage, Yee Chai passed his younger brother off as his son. After first voyaging to Nagasaki on a Japanese ship, Genkai-maru, Chan Jay and 101 other passengers boarded the SS Gaelic and became the first organized group of Korean immigrants in Hawai’i when they docked in Honolulu on January 13, 1903. The local newspaper that day celebrated this new source of labor for the booming sugar industry in Hawai’i and reported that the arrival of the Koreans “was of special interest for the reason that they were the first large party of immigrants to ever leave Korea for the western hemisphere.” At twelve, Chan Jay began working in the sugar fields for 25 cents a day.
Planters initiated Asian immigration to Hawai’i because they had ruled out Hawaiians as a possible source of labor early in the conception of the sugar industry. Diseases introduced by foreigners drastically decreased Hawai’i’s indigenous population from 300,000 in 1778 to 71,000 in 1853. When planters did attempt to employ them as contract-labor while demand for sugar was still low in the industry’s formative years, Hawaiians proved ineffective workers. Accustomed to working for themselves rather than for money under a subsistence economy, they were resistant to plantation work.
Planters began with Chinese labor in the early 1880s, but quickly adopted a ‘divide and rule’ approach to plantation management. To countervail a growing Chinese working class, they recruited Portuguese workers. When Chinese laborers accounted for one quarter of the population in Hawai’i and this significant foreign presence began to unsettle the Hawaiian government, the monarchy restricted Chinese immigration, compelling planters to turn to Japanese labor. Koreans were later introduced as strikebreakers to the Japanese, who protested the poor working conditions of the plantations.
It was to the arriving Koreans’ advantage that the first wave of immigration from 1903 to 1905 occurred after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 and subsequent illegal annexation of Hawai’i in 1898. The ethnic groups that arrived prior to Hawai’i’s annexation were bound by labor contracts that legalized indentured servitude. Under the Masters and Servants Act of 1850, those laborers who wished to escape the harsh working conditions of the plantation risked extended contracts if they attempted to run away and prison sentences if they refused to work once discovered. Strikes and labor unions were futile due to planters’ use of strikebreakers.
Koreans, on the other hand, entered Hawai’i as free labor because indentured servitude is unconstitutional in the U.S. The new territory status of Hawai’i also subjected the islands to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which had prohibited any further Chinese immigration to the U.S. in 1882. This had a hand in the Koreans’ arrival when the halt in Chinese labor importation forced planters to again look elsewhere for sources of labor.
After attending the Korean Compound School, founded by the Methodist mission in 1906, my great-grandfather worked in the sugar fields until he left Hawai’i to continue his schooling, which would not have been possible under the pre-annexation contract-labor system. Chan Jay graduated from Washington State College in 1922 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Three short years later, he established his own company, C.J. Kim Associates, in 1925. The Honolulu that I grew up in is still marked by his touch. He participated in the construction of a number of prominent buildings, including the Bank of Hawaii, the Alexander & Baldwin Building, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the Kamehameha schools (for students of Hawaiian descent), the Y.W.C.A., and the City Hall.
As a respected engineer on O’ahu, Chan Jay had influence in local business and politics. He established himself not only as a businessman but as a community leader. During his active years between 1930 and 1960, he served as a director of the Korean Chamber of Commerce, member of the board of the Korean Methodist Church, director of the Korean Dong Ji Hoi (a society dedicated to the Korean liberation movement during Japanese occupation), member of the board of the Y.M.C.A., member of the Engineering Association, and the president of the Washington State Alumni Association of Hawai’i. My dad was eight when Chan Jay passed away, but he remembers that his father would get into heated debates about politics with his grandfather Chan Jay, for whom politics were neither abstract nor limited to a niche Korean community.
Others followed on Chan Jay’s relatively smooth ascension to middle class comfort and the local political mainstream. Korean immigrants adapted particularly quickly to city life, which awaited them beyond the plantation and whose call many heeded in an exodus to Honolulu in the 1920s. Unlike many of the other ethnic groups, the Korean immigrants were accustomed to urban environments and established small businesses alongside the Chinese and Japanese immigrants fairly quickly. The Korean immigrants are often juxtaposed with their Puerto Rican peers, who arrived in Hawai’i at about the same time and in similar numbers, in order to track the Koreans’ comparably swift rise out of the laboring class.
The 1950s solidified the economic advances made by East Asians in Hawai’i. As many of the Nisei who had fought in the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team returned home from war, they “wanted their place in the sun,” in Daniel Inouye’s words. They observed the way that class differences were drawn along racial lines the same way in the South, where segregation marred the towns where they trained, as in Hawai’i, where the Nisei were still second-class citizens regardless of their sacrifices. They turned to the Democratic Party as a platform for social, political, and economic change. In 1954, a group of these Japanese Americans secured majorities in both houses, unseating the Republican Party, the political arm of the white oligarchy that dominated Hawai’i.
With this power, they focused on economic wealth for East Asian Americans. Rodney Morales, a Hawaiian writer and literary scholar, writes, “By the 1980s, Japanese and Chinese, along with descendants of earlier boatloads of Koreans, were among the wealthiest groups in the Islands.” Class was still drawn along racial lines, but the social strata had been shuffled. In 1998, Jonathan Okamura, an Ethnic Studies professor at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, wrote,
“An overall ranking of groups in the ethnic/racial stratification order would have Caucasians, Chinese, and Japanese holding dominant positions … The midrange of the ethnic/racial stratification order is occupied by Koreans and, to some extent, by African Americans … The lower levels of the ethnic/racial stratification order continue to be occupied by Filipinos, Native Hawaiians, and Samoans, a situation that appears unlikely to change in the next generation.”
Success stories like my great-grandfather’s demonstrate how a burgeoning capitalist society nurtured Asian Americans’ upward mobility in Hawai’i, while quietly dispossessing Hawaiians of land and language.
Misusage of the word hapa is a subtle but ubiquitous suggestion of the power of language and the power of a historical minority to be a source of another ethnic group’s continued marginalization. I hope people who have adopted the word hapa in the islands and on the mainland will search for ways in which our empowerment does not have to come at someone else’s cost.
Becoming more aware of the issues surrounding the misusage of hapa has given me the opportunity to evaluate my relationship to this word and to develop my own critique of it. While I have never been particularly averse to the use of mathematical words like ‘half’ to describe myself, I understand the displeasure others find in language that attempts to compartmentalize racial identity. No mixed-race person experiences life or race in neat halves or quarters of heritage and none of us can point to an elbow or a shoulder blade or a corner of the heart to demarcate where one heritage ends and another begins.
It surprises me, therefore, that so many mixed-race Asian-Americans have settled on the word hapa, which escapes none of this criticism. On one of the sample pages from Kip Fulbeck’s The Hapa Project, for instance, a woman writes, “I am a person of color. I am not half-‘white.’ I am not half-‘Asian.’ I am one whole ‘other.’ ” Yet, her statement participates in a project promoting a word that most people use to mean ‘half.’ Perhaps the very foreignness of the word allows users of this word to reconcile the contradiction. Perhaps they misguidedly believed what a language professor of mine once said, that the act of translation is like swallowing words and allowing them to become a part of you.
Mixed-race Asian Americans have found empowerment in the word hapa, as well as cultural capital in self-identifying with a fashionable term now divorced from a history of Hawaiian colonization. But fondness for the word seems to have swung too much in the direction of romanticization. Statements like “I want to have mixed babies” that fetishize multiracial people have easily become replaced with “I want to have hapa babies.” The word hapa now shoulders the same set of cultural fictions projected onto mixed-race identity, such as the myth that a growing mixed-race America will be the cure to entrenched racism. This perpetuates the historical erasure of mixed-race African Americans, and the exclusivity of the title hapa is implicated in this.
Despite some people’s insistence that hapa can be used to mean ‘mixed-race’ to refer to any multiracial person, the historical misusage of the word has ensured that it evokes a specific type of individual: one who is part-white and part-East Asian. People like me have become the face of the hapa movement, while mixed Filipinas and many mixed South Asians, for example, are less often associated with the word. Of course, mixed-race African Americans and Latinx people are almost never regarded as members of the hapa community. Where our pride in being hapa has become overzealous, we are guilty of elitism. The exclusivity of the term is an injustice to us all.
While the desire to be part of a community with many common experiences is understandable, there is also safety and evasion of responsibility in that choice. When we don’t align ourselves with multiracialism that goes beyond the Asian diaspora, we are less likely to hold ourselves accountable for colorism, a phenomenon that occurred in Korean immigrant communities after a socioeconomic divide formed between them and Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and Filipinos. We remain silent about such issues, which affect certain mixed-race people, but privilege us. We are less critical in our study of historical antiblackness within Asian ethnic groups and less willing to mobilize in movements like Black Lives Matter. In limiting our understanding of multiracialism to mixed Asian identity, we also deny ourselves important history lessons. Multiracialism is not always the product of a quaint interracial marriage, but is for many people intertwined with legacies of slavery, rape, and colonization. Different relationships to mixed-race identity complicate others’ as well as our own romanticization of interracial unions.
Ironically, the words that I wrote three years ago for that classroom full of students were the right words for the wrong reasons. I was willing to police my own Asian identity, housed under the word hapa, because I believed others perceived me as white. Shopkeepers airily commented that my sister and I look nothing alike and I assumed this was because my sister’s features pull the Asian side of our heritage more while I am often likened to my mother. No one yelled “Go back to China!” at me from car windows as they did my monoracial friends. But I have since been mistaken for the only other Asian girl in the room. I have received the cold shoulder from peers who are only interested in my friendship while class is in session and I am the only person of color they know. My self-perceived “ignorance” three years ago was not in identifying as hapa, but in asserting an Asian identity at all. What a relief it is to have graduated from that thinking.
This time the words are the right ones for the right reasons. In many respects, hapa simply falls short. I want to resist exchanging inclusivity for similitude in the interest of reaching for something more meaningful than comfort. The word hapa is inadequate for the types of affinity and community that I am searching for, and it is, above all, not my word to use.
I will never again wear hapa as a pass into ignorance.
“Alright, break.” I am in a classroom again, this time with no pretense to mentorship, no avuncular reassurances for wide-eyed high schoolers. I am playing the unambiguous role of the student.
It is the first day of a new semester and we all crowd the square table like fish, charmed by our professor in his silk dress shirt and collarbone-length braids. I glance down at the index card I’ve been given, sparsely populated by notes on my academic interests and my expectations for the new class, before shuffling to my left to pair-share. The girl sitting next to me turns and smiles. We introduce ourselves.
After gushing my enthusiasm for the syllabus, which includes such literary giants as Hurston, Morrison, Kincaid, and Baldwin, my partner shares her own interests. “I’ve always been drawn to the idea of double-consciousness, but also how one might have more than just two, but maybe three or four, forms of it,” she says. “I’m Latina. Mixed,” she offers.
“That’s like me,” I smile.
She laughs. “I know. I can recognize another mixed girl when I see one.”
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Iwalani Kim grew up in the Kapahulu neighborhood of Honolulu, Hawai’i. She received her B.A. from Vassar College in Political Science and German Studies with a minor in English. A former intern at Kweli Journal, Iwalani hopes to continue the work of providing writers of color with platforms to share their art through a career in publishing.