The power of appropriation: 'Hapa' in the multiracial Asian community
For the longest time, a book called "Part Asian, 100% Hapa" sat unopened on my living room table. The cover was adorned with a portrait of a part-Japanese man staring directly into the camera. Despite the curious image, it lay there for years — that is, until middle school, when I began to question my Asian identity.
All through elementary school, I had only white friends, forging a space of other-ization I eventually had to accept and normalize within myself. While at Lake Oswego Junior High, however, I was suddenly surrounded by more people of color (still very few) who came from the two other neighboring public elementary schools. For the first time, I had Asian friends — all of whose parents were first-generation immigrants. I felt affirmed, but also isolated in the sense that I wasn't "complete." I was still only "part" Asian.
Finally, I asked my dad about the coffee table book, and he explained that it was a collection of interviews of self-identifying "hapa" people — those who were part-Asian, like me. It felt euphoric to open it and find dozens of people who looked like me. Seeing myself in the eyes, lip-bows, noses, eyebrows and skin-tones of all of those people, young and old, was a gateway to accepting my identity.
Since learning the true meaning of "hapa," however, I now feel conflicted about self-identifying with it, as it's a reflection of linguistic imperialism and Indigenous erasure. The book defines "hapa" as anyone who is "part" Asian or Pacific Islander, but omits the history of the term. In reality, "hapa" means "half," "part," or "mixed" in the Hawaiian language of ?Olelo Hawai?i (oh-lay-low huhv-eye-ee), but has been adopted by non-Kanaka Maoli/Indigenous Hawaiian people (eg., East Asian people) to mean someone of part-Asian heritage since 1992 with the establishment of the Hapa Issues Forum student activist group at UC Berkeley. The specific appropriation of Indigenous language in such a way that ignores unique cultural backgrounds and identities is wrong.
Simply put, linguistic imperialism is a lasting legacy of East Asian imperialism (Japanese imperialism) and works to perpetuate settler colonialism. Due to the assimilative and genocidal work of Christian missionaries, boarding schools and Child Protection Services & adoption agencies, most Kanaka Maoli people are "hapa" in that they are no longer mono-racial/mono-ethnic — no longer only ethnically Indigenous. Thus, while Asian Americans and multiracial Asian people should be able to use language that fits their identities according to their own definitions and feelings, that does not authorize them to employ their political and racialized power to further alienate and oppress Indigenous people. Further, the language crafted by and for Indigenous people cannot be turned into an "umbrella term" to somehow "include" them in the discussion that they started, even if Asian people feel similar frustration and dysphoria over their multiracial identities.
At this time in my life, I'm comfortable discussing my identity as a multiracial Japanese person without using the word "hapa." In truth, the term has only ever been something I was affirmed by, rather than something I deeply internalized. Likely, that made it easier for me to stop using it, but I still wonder what other terms were misappropriated and are now used in popular culture.
"Hapa" is just one reminder that, even if we ourselves are intersectional members of marginalized groups, we must consider how we can begin the process of decolonizing our language, keeping in mind the history and the communities affected by our appropriation and actively speaking out against it. Hapa is just one example of how appropriation, and more-specifically linguistic imperialism, can further harm and divide marginalized people. At the same time, it's also a reminder of how other terms, mostly taken from African American Vernacular English or Indigenous languages, have been appropriated into the American "mainstream," and how we can each work to decolonize our language by avoiding using those terms and educating others on the history of their theft and consumption.
Cameron Iizuka is a columnist for Respond to Racism's youth social justice column, wherein she writes about integrating anti-racism (and other tools for dismantling white supremacy) into day-to-day life. She currently attends Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts on a gap year in between attending Columbia University next fall, but lived in Lake Oswego for her entire childhood and adolescence. She hopes to study sociology (with emphasis on social justice policy) and English.
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