Thursday, January 31, 2008

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.

[12/23/12 Update: The link to the original hyphen essay no longer works, but you can find an updated version of the essay on the Mixed Heritage Center's site (click here)]

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?


Anonymous said...

I personally don't ascribe to the use of the identifying word. It does nothing for me, despite other half asians uses of it. I don't even see what the big deal is about either, it might have its good and bads but I honestly don't see other half-asians really caring all that much about it either.

baby221 said...

I never knew hapa had any negative connotation associated with it. I do use it as an identity marker, but less for solidarity than (sadly) convenience -- it's a lot easier to say 'hapa' than 'half-white'. Lately though I've been using 'halo' which I'm told is Tagalog for mixed, and also happens to be one of my favourite Filipino desserts. :) I think it's a bit more appropriate in my case since I am Pin@y and not Hawaiian.

So, hmm. Maybe I'll just stick with 'halo' -- I don't really want to be associated with colonialist oppression and I'm not that attached to 'hapa' anyway.

Anonymous said...

I grew up with the term 'hapa' applied to me as a descriptor, both by my Japanese relatives and by white Americans. I never really identified with it very strongly; I saw it simply as a term of convenience, like was mentioned earlier.

At UC Berkeley, we have a group that used to be called the Hapa Issues Forum, which was changed to Mixed Student Union to be more inclusive in discussing all mixed race people. Through this group, I have come to identify much more strongly with 'mixed' than with 'hapa', partly out of solidarity with other mixed people in the rejection of the pentagonal racial categories espoused by our national discourse on race.

Another issue I have grappled with around the term 'hapa' deals with the concept of fractionalization. People are often content to describe mixed people as the sum of racial parts, as if truly half of a person were one race and one half of another. While I recognize that 'hapa' has become a term of empowerment and individual identity for many mixed people, it still implies this racial binary and it is implied that the person is somehow divided among the two parts. I prefer to think of mixed people as simply defying categorization, because phenotypically we may or may not fit established categories of race.

For me, learning the origins of the term 'hapa' has led me to stop using the term, though I am cautious about calling other people out on their usage, as it can be a term of empowerment. I have made a resolution to raise this issue in mixed spaces to help people gain awareness of the term's history and background, but I feel that the final decision is up to them.

Tami said...

I really enjoyed this post, Jennifer. As I have read sites dealing with race around the Web, I've come across the word "hapa." From context, I got its meaning, but never knew its origins.

As someone without Asian ancestry, I don't think I have the right to weigh in on this issue, but will try to respectfully follow the lead of those of Asian and Hawaiian indigenous descent.

atlasien said...

I identify as hapa and feel conflicted about this issue.

I really loved the word when I first heard it, because it's a word that doesn't privilege the white European side. I always despised the word "Eurasian" for this reason. I like the fact that hapa connects me to a broader group of people with a wide range of ethnicities. I've sometimes heard it used even to denote mixed Chinese/Japanese.

I assumed the word "hapa" comes from pidgin shared by many groups in Hawaii, including Japanese-Americans, from the English root word "half". For me, it's close enough to "half" to signify "mixture" but far enough away not to signify "partial/imcomplete".

Some of this issue comes down to how close Asian-American and Pacific Islanders really are. We're often lumped together (hence "APIA") and in Hawaii have lived very closely together. We should try to be allies, but not paper over serious differences... I'm not from Hawaii and don't know any native Hawaiians so it's hard for me to weigh in on this.

Anonymous said...

I know that there's the history of oppression, and obviously I wouldn't want to contribute to that in any way. But I also wonder who has the right to determine which names are used to refer to certain groups of people. In general I think that groups should be able to name themselves, even if there is no monolithic "group" per se. (e.g., some Asians don't mind being called "Oriental," while for me personally that makes my skin crawl.) But naming your own group is one thing; does any group get to name what any other group is called (or not called)? Also, I thought that "hapa" is actually a loan word from the English word "half," so if this is true, does the fact that it's not an "original" Hawaiian word make a difference at all?

On the other hand, I'm intrigued by the idea of approaching the term from a perspective of respect and homage. Would this be a different kind of respect than the kind my high school paid to Native Peoples when we used a tasteful picture of an "Indian" (and yes, we called them "Indians" back then) as our school mascot and called ourselves "Warriors"? (No cartoon figures, no "redskins" -- no problem, right?) We (or rather, our football team) felt proud and empowered after pre-game chants of "Who are we? Warriors!" It wasn't until much later that I heard how offensive even these "positive" and "empowering" cultural appropriations were to Native Peoples.

At any rate, thank you for writing this. I honestly don't know what I think about this hapa thing yet. It has generally been easy for me to respect people's wishes in terms of what they're called once I'm educated on it, but this one seems a little more complicated.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure colonial is the right aspect to focus on here--words can be reclaimed from bad histories--but to me it looks like a form of erasure. (FYI: not of Asian ancestry, first time I realized the origin of hapa or thought about this issue)

To generalize "hapa" to all mixed-race Asian Americans does *erase* Native Hawaiians and their particular experience, I think. Considering the general erasure of Native Hawaiians in our mental landscape, I think it's desirable not to collude in it.

What you need is a historical linguist who will go way back to when some of these Asian languages had the same root language and find a word that no one claims. Many groups could use that, actually.

Jennifer said...

Thank you to everyone who left a comment--they were all very thoughtful and though provoking and exactly what I was hoping for when I asked others to weigh in.

I think what I believe, most strongly, is the belief in self-identification/self-naming and the respect for others in their quest for self-naming, but also sensitivity and respect on the part of others who are trying to come up with language and labels in a new way.

And I definitely think that in the area of race and ethnicity, and especially for mixed-race peoples (whether that is mixed inter-racially, intra-racially, cross-ethnically or cross-culturally) it's important to try to be mindful while moving forward into uncharted territory.

Which is why I don't have a single strong opinion about "hapa." Unlike "Oriental" which I think has too many negative, colonial, and racist connotations for me to ever feel comfortable with the word, "hapa" has a different history, although I think they are similar terms in the sense that it's easy for those of us who don't feel like part of an "Asian" or "mixed" community to feel strongly about this issue and to defer, to others who more closely affiliate with the term, to weigh in.

At any rate, complex issues call for complicated responses, and I think this is one of those issues.

Harry said...

Great conversation on this topic. Check out the printed edition of Hyphen ( for the companion story to Professor Dariotis' essay.

See a preview here:

Kalani said...

Interesting how people like to use the topic of how a language or word is never owned as their means of justifying the use of the word "hapa", which wreaks of colonialism/imperialism/manifest-destiny in itself. What people fail to realize is 1) the importance of the Hawaiian language to Kanaka 'Oiwi (aboriginal Hawaiians) and 2) why no one can ever, validate their non-use for another language other than the Hawaiian word. Another common misconception of how "hapa" is negative when it never was. Not Hapa Haole, at least historically and even till the present day, same with "hapa". With all due respect to Hawaiians such as my cousins who do call themselves "hapa", I personally do not. Yes I have Kanaka 'Oiwi ancestry. Yes I do have Madeiran (Portuguese) ancestry. Yes I do have Visayan (Central Philippines) ancestry. And yes I do have Chinese ancestry, but picking and choosing one made up word won't make me who I am.

People picking & choosing a word used to describe them is one thing. I really can't dictate what word they really choose. I may understand what they are, but that's as far as it goes. But what I really draw the line at is when people try to marginalize or just humiliate Hawaiians & our culture in the process of justifying the use of the word Hapa. I've seen way too many of that the past 12 years and that has to stop.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for stopping by--I appreciate your comment, esp. since your knowledge is deep and personal and intimate when it comes to this issue.

I do think it's difficult--I know that you may not see this or feel like it's a cop out, but I have friends who came of age in the 1980s and who saw a "hapa" identity as one that really spoke to them--that finally made them feel like they had a home. So I think it's hard for them to give that up--hence the defensive reactions.

At any rate, I appreciate your point of view--hope you stop by again.

Kalani said...

Hi Jennifer,

I understand what you're saying. So I take it these friends of yours you mentioned are part Japanese/White from Oahu or CA/WA?

Almost 10 years ago I informally took a poll, asking people about Hapa (or Hapa Haole) and their definition and was surprised. Because I'm not from O'ahu but about 80% I asked were from there & to my surprise, they did use HAPA vs. HAPA HAOLE (a term I was accustomed to as well as the same goes for others not from Oahu) and it was about a 20% to 80%, the 20% not believing that one had to have Hawaiian ancestry. I had asked both Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians. It doesn't necessarily reflect the entire islands' views, since it's obvious esp. in my own poll that O'ahu always has been and still is the forerunner as far as the model of the islands is concerned. In other words, what they believe and they say is what is known. I have cousins from Maui and I asked my cousin who lives in Hilo, Hawaii and my co-worker who was originally from Hilo and they, like where I'm from (Molokai) seem to favor HAPA HAOLE vs. the shortened version Hapa which seems, at least to me, incomplete.

But I grew up in the 70s and left Molokai in 1985. It seems that the term HAPA became popular on the west coast USA in the mid to late 80s? Because I've heard of that story, actually read about it brought over by the Japanese. Kind of reminds me of the term - KANAKA, how the Portuguese who left Hawaii to CA were labeled as such.

Today, kanaka, kanaka 'oiwi, kanaka maoli or maoli refers to an aboriginal Hawaiian. In ancient days, KANAKA was the term used to describe the people. In my days growing up, it was shedding its negative connotation. My Filipino grandmother always talked about my KANAKA mother, and she said it with so much disdain too. Then by the 80s people began using KANAKA MAOLI more of a political term to which many today may refer to themselves, although at the turn of the last century just as the US had occupied the islands, that term - kanaka maoli was used as a quantitive term, which gave way to Congress' definition of "native Hawaiian" which differs from "Native Hawaiian", the difference being the upper & lower case N.

Funny how terms change throughout times, no different than words like gay, cool, hot, and bad. Only difference is, English is a colonizer's language, while Hawaiian has been surpressed and in the culture the thought that every spoken word has "mana" in it, is what causes people to be more compassionate about educating people on co-opting of the culture.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for educating the readers of this blog about the linguistic politics of indigenous languages in Hawaii and the appropriation of terms like hapa. As my post suggests, I and other scholars (like Wei-Ming Dariotis) are aware of the way the term hapa has been used and appropriated to designate folks on the mainland who are mixed-race Asian American (regardless of what that mixture's ethnic breakdown is). So the friends of mine in CA who identified with this term spanned the Asian-ethnic spectrum (although predominantly their other parent was white or Latino).

Again, I would say that for those who are unfamiliar with the history and politics of indigenous rights in Hawaii, the term was one of celebration for having a name that spoke to their situation as being mixed-race Asian American, a marginalized position in the 1980s in CA (and I would argue today in many places).

What I suppose we should all keep in mind is that each place/region has its own history and politics, and certainly the relationship between the mainland/colonial U.S. and Hawaii is very fraught--but again, I would also say that it's difficult for those who so strongly identify in a positive way to simply relinquish hold of a term of empowerment for them, even while learning that it has an association of colonial oppression. I'm not excusing it--I'm just saying that it's human nature to embrace irrationalities or to ignore certain oppressions that we know exist and affect others (I am a carnivore, after all--I live with this contradiction daily and I also participate in a capitalist society).

Kalani said...

Hi Jennifer,

I concur. The world doesn't have the same perception, definitely not the same categorization as the US, given that the US Govt. has coined these lables and the meanings have changed throughout time. Oriental - Asian - Asian Pacific Islander - Asian/Pacific Islander - Asian and Pacific Islander; Negro - Afro-American - African American, etc.

Elsewhere people consider nationality/citizenship as a base for their identity, and in other places one's ethnicity or even religion dictates their identity.

I have had people try to make me select & choose these categories in order to understand how I see myself. I've recently had someone emphasized the dwelling and speaking of that country's language as a means of identity. So it depends.

Sir H-G Wat said...

I am a half Asian and half white individual (Chinese, Japanese, Ukrainian and Polish) who identifies strongly with the term Hapa. I have been reading a lot of discourse on this subject recently and have been frustrated by the lack of a forum through which to discuss my opinion.

I was born in Chicago in a very unmixed caucasian neighborhood. From the beginning and throughout my childhood my father (born in Aina Haina, Diamond Head side of Honolulu) told me I was Hapa Haole (which he often shortened to Hapa). As such, this term has been a significant self-identifier that I am very attached to.

In response to the controversiality of the term itself, I understand the issue that causes many Hawaiians to disapprove of the mainland usage of Hapa, but at the same time I respectfully disagree. Considering the ethnic heterogeneity of modern Hawai'i, I feel like it is very difficult for Hawaiians to understand the need for and reasoning behind the appropriation of a term distinct from both Asian and Caucasian for us to rally behind.

Particularly in terms of those of us who have been raised as "Hapa," I feel like the reclamation of the term by those of partial Native Hawaiian descent would rob many others of something very culturally important, a distinct name that we can rally behind. There are definitely other terms available, but for various reasons I find them lacking when compared to Hapa.

I refute the phrase "half asian" on the basis that I have another half and I dislike the term mixed, because it is non specific and does not describe any actual features of who I am. Hapa, on the other hand, allows me to name succinctly the lack of a cultural identity that has ultimately become a cultural identity I can share with many others.

I recognize that Hapa Haole is the full term, but Hapa is both more convenient and more recognized. I am torn on this issue because I highly respect the Hawaiian culture that I know through my visits to family still on the islands, but I see so much good coming out of the expanded use of Hapa as a cultural identifier that I could never bring myself to abandon it.

Kalani said...

To Sir G-H Wat,
Your father, like those of my parents' generation as well as my generation, use the original HAPA HAOLE. For me, it was different.

But just your statement alone saying that you understand why kanakas disapprove but yet you disagree already says a lot of how you expect people to just go by what you feel would be appropriate simply b/c of your problems with self-identity and how people viewed you. I had my issues growing up too. I was either too Filipino or too Kanaka or not enough Filipino or not enough Kanaka. But that doesn't give me the right to use any other term I feel would supposedly empower me b/c of my upbringing. I am just that, Filipino and kanaka and Portuguese and Chinese. Just b/c i speak Portuguese that doesn't mean I necessarily identify myself as Portuguese, however I identify myself as both Filipino & Kanaka b/c i grew up that way.

Of course you'd say that it is difficults for Hawaiians to understand. Why should they? They had their own issues & continue to be marginalize by people such as yourself.

But the whole bullshit about "reclaiming" and trying to empower a word or term that was never really used negatively (Not with Hapa, and I have evidence of that, but no one likes to acknowledge the actual proof in newspapers)

Refute the term half Asian if that pleases you. I could care less if people identify me as Asian, half Asian, Filipino, half Filipino, etc. I identify with what I was raised with but I don't use a term that is a recent fad in order to rile up the crowd & create this false sense of some type of empowerment.

You claim Hapa is more convenient. Sure, for only those who claim to use that term & define it as Half Asian, which would be the same thing, just that people as yourself claim to not prefer using that actual term - Half Asian. But don't think that even on the west coast that "Hapa" is EASILY known by the common people.

Unknown said...

While I recognize that 'hapa' has become a term of empowerment and individual identity for many mixed people, it still implies this racial binary and it is implied that the person is somehow divided among the two parts. I prefer to think of mixed people as simply defying categorization, because phenotypically we may or may not fit established categories of race.

This sums up how I feel. I did not grow up with this term. It was introduced to me through other people of no Asian ethniciy whatsoever as well as people of Asian ethnicity. It just kind of rubs me the wrong way. A friend of mine who is Asian commented on a photo of my husband and I saying we were the cutest "hapa" couple ever. I felt like she was saying we were the cutest "half Asian" couple ever. Is it really necessary to point out that we're half? I felt like it implied we were "only half" and how cute because we're both "half." I realize she probably didn't mean it that way and it most likely has a different meaning for her. I just generally dislike being told repeatedly that I "don't look Asian" or pointing out that I'm "only half." Kind of relating to another one of your blog posts about people not feeling "Asian enough." It's a judgement based on a person's looks.

Wei Ming Dariotis said...

Hi Jennifer,

First, thank you for posting about this issue and offering your critique of my article [].

When I wrote it, I was also hoping, as you describe, to start a dialogue. I still don't have a solution, and I feel that perhaps it is not my role to come up with one. Rather, it is our job to create spaces for people to discuss and consider, and to make decisions for themselves.

The problem with self-definition as a principle is that the "self" of mixed heritage Asians is not singular--we are many, and we have many different histories and identities, both in relation to the word "hapa" and to other words, like mestizo, halo-halo, ainoko, haafu, mixed, Eurasian, Afroasian, etc.

There is no longer a "Hapa Issues Forum" (of which I was a Board member for many years) to organize a "forum" for discussion of the issue, so online discussions like these become the next best way to engage dialogue with one another. I very much appreciate the thoughtful way you've laid out your post, and the very thoughtful responses your readers have posted. This is one of the richest discussions of the issue I've seen.

Wei Ming Dariotis
Associate Professor
Asian American Studies
San Francisco State University

Jennifer said...

Wei Ming,
Thanks so much for your comment--I had often wondered if you had ever seen this post that I had done (so long ago now!). I also wonder if you remember meeting me, back when I was a green, newly graduated from UCSB. You told me that AAAS wasn't like any other conference but a real academic home--I've found that to be very true.

And I do hope that this post and rich comment thread continues to be a place where people can come and weigh in and discuss how they feel and what they think about the term "Hapa."