this piece was originally published June 2014 on (the now defunct site) AAPI Voices
by Sharon H. Chang
What does Hapa mean? One way to know is to look at the ways in which the word is used.
It’s a “Hawaiian word for ‘mixed-race’,” says Hapa Kitchen Supper Club, “coined to refer to people of East Asian and Caucasian backgrounds.” Hapa Sushi Grill & Sake Bar calls it “a harmonious blend of Asian and American.” It’s a “slang term,” proclaims The Natural Hapa: Bamboo Bundles and Hapa Time: Style Inspiration chirps it’s “just one of the coolest words ever.” There’s Hapa Yoga, Hapa Ramen, Hapa Grill, Hapa Cupcakes, Hinode sells a “Hapa Blend” of brown and white rices and Hapa Culture sells…erasers?
Let’s talk about this word, Hapa.
I spoke recently with Maile Arvin, Ph.D., a Native American scholar, a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Santa Cruz, and soon-to-be Assistant Professor at UC Riverside in Ethnic Studies. According to Maile, Hapa with a capital “H” (as used on the mainland) is indeed intended “to denote people with Asian and white ancestry.” But its Native Hawaiian roots look quite different:
Hapa is a Hawaiian language word literally meaning 'part.' Historically it was most often used as ‘hapa haole,’ which referred to a Native Hawaiian person who also had white ancestry. As other peoples from Asia and elsewhere came to Hawai'i, 'hapa' also came to refer to Native Hawaiians who also had other non-Native Hawaiian ancestry. The word began being used in Hawaiian language newspapers in the 1830s, and first appeared in Hawaiian dictionaries in the 1860s.
The hapa of Maile’s people stands in stark contrast to a widely commodified version, which lumps together mixed-race Asians and Pacific Islanders and then somehow magically loses the Pacific Islander part. This is no accident (whether intentional or not). It stems from a history that has sought to forget and remove Native peoples for centuries. Maile further explains:
For Native Hawaiians, ‘hapa’ is a way to claim and recognize those of us with multiracial ancestry as being integrally part of the lahui, or the Kanaka Maoli nation. This claiming is especially important because along with British and American settlement in Hawai'i, there was tremendous depopulation through the introduction of diseases to which Native Hawaiians had no immunity. The population of Hawai'i was between 800,000 and 1 million in 1778. By 1878, there were only around 50,000 Native Hawaiians. On top of depopulation, U.S. science, law, and popular culture began to divide Native Hawaiians into "Pure" and "Part" categories. ‘hapa’ identity was one way Native Hawaiians could refuse racial "blood" logics, and insist that we were still growing as a nation, not dying out.
Lumping-then-losing by non-Native Hawaiians then is an insidious practice following in the veins of what’s long been happening institutionally. Consider for example that reporting Asian and Pacific Islander in combination (API) was federally directed until Congress approved a revision separating “Asian” and “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.” Before the categories were separated things looked pretty awesome for Pacific Islanders. According to numbers generated by the U.S. Census in 2002:
- APIs were much more likely than whites to have earned at least a bachelor’s degree (average 48% API versus 30% whites)
- APIs were unemployed at a similar rate to whites (6% API versus 5% whites)
- 40% of all API families had incomes of $75,000 or more, compared with 35% of white families
But when the data was disaggregated, things were devastatingly different. In their report reviewing the state of NHPIs based on numbers around the turn of the century, Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC) and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (Advancing Justice) found:
- Only 18% of NHPIs have a bachelor’s degree, a rate identical to Blacks or African Americans
- From 2007 to 2011, the number of unemployed NHPI increased 123%, higher than any other racial group, to an unemployment rate of 14%
- NHPIs suffer high poverty (15%) and low per capita income ($19,051)
It would seem pretty obvious that we are dealing with some strong settler-colonial echoes out of the past. But given the 1st TEN pages of my Google “hapa” search turned up only happy sales pitches loaded with utopian visions of an Asian minus Pacific Islander race-blended future (that you can usually eat), I don’t know that we’re getting the picture. Take the afterword to Kip Fulbeck’s well-known Part Asian 100% Hapa in which sociologist Paul Spickard dismissively writes that while he sympathizes with Hawaiians, language “morphs and moves” and “is not anyone’s property.” “Continental Americans,” he adds snarkily, “Might just as well complain about Hawaiians using ‘TV’ and ‘cell phones’” (Afterword, Part Asian 100% Hapa, pp.260-262). And Kip Fulbeck himself was very defensive when asked about the same:
I’ve actually never heard of any controversy about the word in real life, having lived and worked in Hawai’i. It’s just not an issue there. People refer to me as “Hapa” or “hapa haole” and that’s that. Any arguments that do come up occur only in Internet forums or academia, and those aren’t environments I’m particularly interested in since they’re so removed from the real world” [emphasis mine] (Wei Ming Dariotis, “100% Hapa: An Interview with Kip Fulbeck,” War Baby / Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art, p.152).
We need to recognize that attempts to erase Native Hawaiians have been happening for a long time, that attempts persist today on purpose, and that using the word Hapa without (a) having any Native Hawaiian ancestry, or (b) any awareness of its history and significance, may make us complicit with white-dominant-colonial agendas which have sought to wipe away and wipe out indigenous peoples for practically ever. Said Maile:
It is frustrating to me, and many Native Hawaiians, that non-Native Hawaiians now use hapa to refer to multiracial people outside of a Hawaiian context. This erases the use of hapa by our own people to keep growing our lahui… this extraction is also inappropriate and tone-deaf because the Hawaiian language was systematically banned with colonization. Language revitalization efforts are strong now, but the appropriation of Hawaiian words obscures the existence of a thriving Native Hawaiian language and people.
Of course, this still leaves open the question: Can we, should we, still refer to the term outside of the Native Hawaiian context, but with a capital “H”? Maile urges care when doing so:
If you decide to use hapa in a non-Native Hawaiian context, I urge you to not rush to explain away the problems with it, but hold them in tension. Examine the many ways living in the United States can make you complicit with settler colonialism. There are no easy solutions to this complicity, but it is important to struggle against it nonetheless.