Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Contested terms

[MRM Classic -- from January 31, 2008 -- I especially like the comment thread from this post because the responses are all so thoughtful and nuanced and provocative. And because I don't think that there are easy answers to these kinds of questions. I suppose one could say that we should just stop using the word "hapa" but for MANY people, this is a word of empowerment and agency, so it's difficult to give up. I still haven't completely decided how I feel, but out of respect to indigenous Hawaiians I have tried to stop using it in my writing or to qualify it with a very long footnote/explanation]

"How do I feel about "hapa"?"

Someone emailed me a few days ago, in response to the post I wrote about Hyphen Magazine, particularly about the link to the essay by Wei-Ming Dariotis, San Francisco State English professor and specialist in mixed-race Asian American, "hapa" studies, and asked me what I thought of the article.

In the essay, Professor Dariotis explains, very elegantly and powerfully, what the word "hapa" meant to her during her path from graduate school to professordom. And she also charts, clearly and concisely, why she can no longer embrace the term--because it is clouded with colonial implications for the mixed-race Asian Americans who use it, given the particular historic circumstances of Hawaiian colonization (both literal and cultural) and the various forms of appropriation by whites but particularly by Asian-ethnic settlers (like Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans, Korean Americans, who make up a racial majority in Hawaii--unlike the continental U.S., Asian Americans are the majority race (over 65%) in Hawaii and are also the power base there), of indigenous Hawaiian culture.

So what do I think about giving up the word "hapa" to describe mixed-race Asian Americans?

The truth is, I don't have a strong opinion. I can really see both sides. I respect Professor Dariotis and her rationale, but the truth is, I also know a lot of people who really identify, strongly, with the term and see it as a form of empowerment and do not see its colonial history or oppressive implications. And as someone who teaches English, I am aware of the flexibility of language--the way it mutates, and the way that it becomes appropriated by various groups, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. Language, like people, is fluid--no one truly owns it. We take words out of the context of their original meanings, their original language, and we make them fit into our own linguistic system.

I am sensitive to the situation of indigenous Hawaiians--the ways in which they have been stripped of so much--land, government, culture--so that now taking this piece of their "language" seems like it could be another form of oppressive force.

But what I would also counter with is this: is there not another way to look at this? That instead of seeing the use of the term "hapa" by non Hawaiians as a form of oppression, it is, instead, a sign of respect and homage? If we go in with good intentions (these are never enough, but they can help), if we take this word "hapa" -- not "hapa-haole" (which has a definite historic connotation and context), but "hapa" or "half"--if a group of people who are, themselves, marginalized from mainstream American, English, discourse, finds this word, "hapa," finds that it speaks to them, gives them an identity, gives them a label of their choosing, gives them a home, so to speak, then is it really appropriation? Or can there be good forms of appropriation?

Sort've like the question: are there any benign forms of Orientalism?

I would respect an indigenous Hawaiian person telling me they are offended by my use of the word "hapa" to describe mixed-race Asian Americans. But I would also respect a mixed-race Asian American person who chooses to use "hapa" as an identity marker they take pride in.

Does anyone else want to weigh in?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You address all the issues so well. I agree with you completely. While I understand why the term may carry with it some inadvertent and historical offense, I definitely respect its use as an identity marker. Growing up on the West Coast, I never gave much thought to it because everyone takes it for granted - hapa is part of everyday conversation. On the East Coast (at least upstate New York), I found out that a lot of people don't use the term (colloquially, I mean). They use other words...the only one I can think of is "halfie," because I remember thinking it was a weird word to use. So I'm glad for the people who've come to identify with "hapa" and I maintain respect for those who might feel offended. Great post.