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Who Gets To Be 'Hapa'?

Sunset in Waikiki: Tourists sipping mai tais crowded the beachside hotel bar. When the server spotted my friend and me, he seemed to relax. "Ah," he said, smiling. "Two hapa girls."

He asked if we were from Hawaii. We weren't. We both have lived in Honolulu — my friend lives there now — but hail from California. It didn't matter. In that moment, he recognized our mixed racial backgrounds and used "hapa" like a secret handshake, suggesting we were aligned with him: insiders and not tourists.

Like many multiracial Asian-Americans, I identify as hapa, a Hawaiian word for "part" that has spread beyond the islands to describe anyone who's part Asian or Pacific Islander. When I first learned the term in college, wearing it felt thrilling in a tempered way, like trying on a beautiful gown I couldn't afford. Hapa seemed like the identity of lucky mixed-race people far away, people who'd grown up in Hawaii as the norm, without "Chink" taunts, mangled name pronunciations, or questions about what they were.

Over time, as more and more people called me hapa, I let myself embrace the word. It's a term that explains who I am and connects me to others in an instant. It's a term that creates a sense of community around similar life experiences and questions of identity. It's what my fiancé and I call ourselves, and how we think of the children we might have: second-generation hapas.

But as the term grows in popularity, so does debate over how it should be used. Some people argue that hapa is a slur and should be retired. "[It] is an ugly term born of racist closed-mindedness much like 'half-breed' or 'mulatto,'" design consultant Warren Wake wrote to Code Switch after reading my piece on a "hapa Bachelorette."

Akemi Johnson hails from California, but when she learned the Hawaiian word "hapa," she immediately felt connected to the community it represents.
/ Courtesy of Akemi Johnson
Courtesy of Akemi Johnson
Akemi Johnson hails from California, but when she learned the Hawaiian word "hapa," she immediately felt connected to the community it represents.

Several scholars told me it's a misconception that hapa has derogatory roots. The word entered the Hawaiian language in the early 1800s, with the arrival of Christian missionaries who instituted a Hawaiian alphabet and developed curriculum for schools. Hapa is a transliteration of the English word "half," but quickly came to mean "part," combining with numbers to make fractions. (For example, hapalua is half. Hapaha is one-fourth.) Hapa haole — part foreigner — came to mean a mix of Hawaiian and other, whether describing a mixed-race person, a fusion song, a bilingual Bible, or pidgin language itself.

This original use was not negative, said Kealalokahi Losch, a professor of Hawaiian studies and Pacific Island studies at Kapi'olani Community College. "The reason [hapa] feels good is because it's always felt good," he told me. Losch has been one of the few to study the earliest recorded uses of the term, buried in Hawaiian-language newspapers, and found no evidence that it began as derogatory. Because the Hawaiian kingdom was more concerned with genealogy than race, he explained, if you could trace your lineage to a Hawaiian ancestor, you were Hawaiian. Mixed Hawaiian did not mean less Hawaiian.

Any use of hapa as a slur originated with outsiders, Losch said. That includes New England missionaries, Asian plantation workers and the U.S. government, which instituted blood quantum laws to limit eligibility for Hawaiian homestead lands. On the continental U.S., some members of Japanese-American communities employed hapa to make those who were mixed "feel like they were not really, truly Japanese or Japanese-American," said Duncan Williams, a professor of religion and East Asian languages and cultures at the University of Southern California. He said this history may have led some to believe the word is offensive.

For Losch, "hapa haole" — meaning part Hawaiian, part other — always has been positive. "This is absolutely who I am," he said. The license plate on his car reads, "HAPA H." His family members have been proud hapa haole for generations. An issue for him is when non-Hawaiians call themselves hapa. "There are times when it feels like identity theft," he said.

This is arguably the trickier and more significant conflict around the term. Hapa, middle school teacher Piikea Kalakau told me, means part Native Hawaiian — not part Asian. "I ... am personally frustrated with the world misusing this word ...," she wrote in an email.

When I first learned the term [hapa] in college, wearing it felt thrilling in a tempered way, like trying on a beautiful gown I couldn't afford. Hapa seemed like the identity of lucky mixed-race people far away ...

I followed up with Kalakau by phone. The widespread use of hapa, she said, is a form of cultural appropriation, just as offensive as hula dancer dolls shaking their hips on car dashboards. She said correcting the definition of hapa is part of a larger Native Hawaiian "movement to take back our culture." She said her people were fighting to thrive again after surviving colonization and its damage to their language, culture and population. Kalakau encouraged me and other mixed Asian-Americans to find labels from our own heritages. "I wouldn't use a Japanese word or a Filipino word to describe myself because it doesn't fit," she said.

Mixed-race Chinese-American scholar Wei Ming Dariotis works through this dilemma in her 2007 essay, "Hapa: The Word of Power." In it, she details her difficult decision to stop using hapa, though the term had formed the foundation of her identity and community. "To have this symbolic word used by Asians, particularly by Japanese Americans, as though it is their own," she writes, "seems to symbolically mirror the way Native Hawaiian land was first taken by European Americans, and is now owned by European Americans, Japanese and Japanese Americans and other Asian American ethnic groups that numerically and economically dominate Native Hawaiians in their own land."

The desire of many Native Hawaiians to reclaim this word is often linked to a larger call for change. In Hawaii, a growing sovereignty movement maintains that the late 19th-century overthrow and annexation of the kingdom were illegal and the islands should again exercise some form of self-governance. But even within that movement opinions on hapa vary. I spoke with attorney Poka Laenui, who said he has been involved in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement for more than 40 years. He told me, in the "idea of aloha" — the complex blend that includes love, compassion and generosity — he doesn't mind if the term is shared. "If our word can be used to assist people in identifying and understanding one another, who am I to object?" he said.

Linguist and consultant Keao NeSmith told me he was shocked the first time he heard hapa outside of a Native Hawaiian context. NeSmith, who grew up on Kauai, learned more about the wider use of hapa when interviewed for a PRI podcast last year. Hearing the episode, his family and friends were shocked, too. "It's a new concept to many of us locals here in Hawaii to call Asian-Caucasian mixes 'hapa' like that," NeSmith said. "Not that it's a bad thing."

NeSmith cited the mixed nature of language and culture in Hawaii as one reason the use doesn't bother him. "We borrow Portuguese terms all the time, Japanese terms all the time, English terms all the time," he said. He called it hypocritical for a local person to protest someone using a Hawaiian word when "it's perfectly fine for us to do that and steal from other cultures and ethnicities."

I asked Williams, editor of the forthcoming essay collection Hapa Japan (to which I contributed a chapter), about his decision to use the word in his work. Why not the Japanese term "haafu"? "Haafu" seemed too narrow, he said; it implies a person has one parent who's a Japanese national. "It seemed like at least in the U.S., the term 'hapa' had a big umbrella feel to it," Williams said.

That broad interpretation of the word may have its roots in Hawaii, where I have friends descended from Japanese and Chinese immigrants who grew up thinking hapa meant part Asian. Elsewhere in the islands, "hapa haole" continued to mean part Hawaiian. This makes literal sense in that "part foreigner" describes only what is different, with the dominant race or culture assumed. It's like how I might answer, "half Japanese" to "What are you?"-type questions; where whiteness is normalized, it doesn't have to be named.

The idea that hapa means multiracial people of Asian and/or Pacific Islander descent spread to the U.S. mainland with the help of academic and artistic work like Kip Fulbeck's The Hapa Project. College hapa clubs also introduced the term to many mixed-race Asian-Americans at a formative stage in their lives. One of the first student groups was the Hapa Issues Forum, founded in 1992 at the University of California at Berkeley. My friend, the mixed-race Taiwanese-American novelist Shawna Yang Ryan, told me she first heard of hapa as a student at Berkeley via the Hapa Issues Forum. "They had shirts that read '100% Hapa,' and I wore mine all the time and spread the word (literally)," she wrote in an email. I had a similar experience at Brown University, when, in 2004, I joined the newly formed Hapa Club.

Since then, hapa has become a meaningful part of who I am. But now I understand this frustrates and offends others. Now, when I think of hapa, I think about the history of Hawaii and identity theft. I think about helping obscure a group of people by swapping my story for theirs.

Hapa is a word I don't think I should use anymore. But I also don't know how I will let it go.

Akemi Johnson is a writer and contributor to Hapa Japan, forthcoming from USC Ito Center/Kaya Press in January 2017.

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Akemi Johnson