What Are Words Worth: Hapa, Hafu or Mixed-Race?

January 27, 2015 • Asakawa, Columnists

HAFU_poster_small colorBy Gil Asakawa

I’ve just finished writing revisions for a new edition of my book, “Being Japanese American: A JA Sourcebook for Nikkei, Hapa … & Their Friends,” which will be published this July by Stone Bridge Press. I mention this not just to pimp the book to you all, but because I wrote in the new foreword how I have decided not to use the word “hapa,” at least for now.

Instead, I wrote that I’ll use “mixed race” instead.

Hapa is a word originally used in Hawaii to describe mixed-race people, like half-Asian, half-Hawaiian. The term was used as a slur, but over the years, it’s become commonly used even by mixed-race people. In fact, I’ve heard mixed-race people other than Asian combinations refer to themselves as hapa.

But in 2008, when I moderated a panel in Denver titled “The Bonds of Community: Hapa Identity in a Changing U.S.” for a conference sponsored by the Japanese American National Museum, a man stood up during the question-and-answer period and said he thought it was a racist term. At the time, I pushed back gently and noted that it’s already a pretty common term.

The interchange with this man has stayed with me ever since.

There are lots of uses of “hapa” on- and offline, including mixed-race author, filmmaker, standup comic and certified lifeguard (really) Kip Fulbeck’s “Hapa Project” and one of his well-received books, “Part Asian, 100% Hapa,” of photographs of mixed-race subjects along with their personal statements about their identity. There are also websites, including hapavoice.com, which invites mixed-race people to post stories about their identities or about growing up mixed-race. Hapa in its original context is used as the name of a Hawaiian music band.

Last year, I moderated a mixed-race panel following a screening of the powerful documentary “Hafu,” which follows mixed-race people in Japan. The screening was sponsored by the Mile High chapter of JACL, and most of the panelists were profoundly moved by the movie, even to the point of tears. A majority of the panelists agreed that they thought “hapa,” like the Japanese term hafu(ITAL) (“half”) was a slur.

In December, NPR’s “Codeswitch” team, which covers racial issues, ran a story about being hapa. I shared the story on Facebook, and it generated a lot of responses addressing both sides of the issue. I asked the commenters if I could use their comments and their names:

Patrick Yamada was forthright about using hapa. “I think eventually someone will be offended by any words we use. We’re a nation of over-sensitive monkutare(ITAL) (complainers),” he said.

Rob Buscher made a good point, though I’ll continue to use “mixed race.” “I prefer to use the term multiracial,” he wrote, “because mixed race conjures images of racial purity.”

The Hawaiian origin was expressed by Stacey Shelton Ferguson, who said, “My family has been using the term ‘hapa’ for as long as I can remember, with family members living in Hawaii. They always used that term referring to the mixed kids in the family. Growing up in the ’70s half-Japanese, half-Caucasian, I never fit in, living in a very Caucasian neighborhood as a child. I often felt like an outcast.

“I identify with the term ‘hapa,’ and I always felt proud to be able to call myself hapa! I am not offended by the term at all. It’s my vehicle’s license plate!”

“My son is half-Korean, and on census records crosses out all the racial identities and writes in ‘American,’” explains my friend Justin Mitchell, who is Caucasian. “Years ago, there was a pretty good mixed Western-Asian cuisine restaurant in Boulder called ‘Hapa’ that he and I used to go to occasionally frequent, and he wore their T-shirt for awhile. But it was because he liked the restaurant and not out of any sense of bi-racial pride.”

Emily Kikue Frank says, “I sort of feel like only other hapas and Hawaiians know the word ‘hapa,’ so I don’t generally use it, though I’ve always liked it. I’m fine with biracial, too, and have been known to self-identify as a mutt.” She adds, “Mostly people just assume I’m white until they see my mom.”

Linda Allen doesn’t like individual labels. “I was recently asked: white, Hispanic, Asian, African American, other: I chose ‘other.’ Depending on the situation, if they need the affirmative action: I use Asian most of the time. When in Hawaii — hapa — I love that term.”

Janis Hirohama writes, “I prefer ‘multiracial’ or ‘multicultural’ to ‘biracial’ or ‘mixed race.’ ‘Biracial’ implies a mixture of two races, and some people have more than two races in their backgrounds. ‘Mixed race’ . . . I may be overanalyzing, but to my ear it sounds a bit like “miscegenation” (an antiquated term) or ‘race mixing’ (a term used by white supremacists).”

Alice Yoon gives a West Coast perspective. “Living in L.A., there’s quite a lot of hapa kids here,” she says. “My son’s preschool has at least three, and it’s a small preschool. His particular class is about half white, half other. It’s interesting that my husband is pretty much a result of a lot of Western Europe and half-Polish, but he’s always going to be called white. He’s more of a ‘mutt’ than I am.”

Sandra Mizumoto Posey has the last word. “Ultimately, I think *we* choose how we want to identify and be identified,” she says. “I like hapa. It was always affectionate in usage and gave me something to claim when neither white nor Asian seemed to completely fit me. It was only around other hapas that I felt like I belonged somewhere.”

Many thanks to everyone who joined the discussion! What do YOU think about these terms? If you’re mixed race, how do you describe your identity?

Gil Asakawa is a member of the Pacific Citizen Editorial Board and the author of “Being Japanese American.” He blogs about Japanese and Asian American issues at www.nikkeiview.com, and he’s on Facebook, Twitter and lots of other social media. He is the 2014 Asian American Journalists Assn. AARP Social Media Fellow.

3 Responses to What Are Words Worth: Hapa, Hafu or Mixed-Race?

  1. Jhiga says:

    Hello!
    I always think of HAPA as being part Asian.
    MIXED invites the term “MIXED UP”, and being part African-American, in the U.S. where “one drop makes you whole”, I don’t care to offer any ammunition.
    I say MULTIRACIAL when I’m referring to race, and MULTIETHNIC when referring to culture.
    When I think I’ll be understood, I refer to myself as BLENDED since I don’t identify racially anywhere, and really don’t belong anywhere. I feel most comfortable with people like me…but there are very few of us, and identifying multiracially is not politically correct here.

    • Billybob9 says:

      We get together and ignore PC. Our table at a large gathering at a restaurant will have half a dozen East Asian and South Asian heritages in the blood ties quotient along with persons of Northern, Western and Southern European ancestry bringing in another dozen ethnicities.

      That’s just one family group ~ seriously. There’s things going on people don’t know about!

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