The Evolution of "Hapa"
By: Melissa Slaughter
When I was a freshman in high school, my mom turned to me and said, “Your grandfather says your Hapa. It’s Hawaiian. The whole word is Hapa-Haole. Half-Asian, half-white.” At that point in my adolescence, I was deep in an identity crisis, playing around with different labels: biracial, Asian-American, Japanese-American, halfsie, hafu, ainoko.
Hapa became the first word that fully encompassed how I felt. My mom had been reminding me for years that I wasn’t Asian because I was born in the U.S. But my schoolmates had been passively reminding me for years that my Japanese middle name and my Asian hair disqualified me from looking “American.” Hapa was a word from my own Nisei grandfather, an American citizen of Japanese descent born in Hawaii. Until college, the only people I knew from Hawaii were my Japanese family members. Upon arriving for my freshman year at the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico, I met a haole girl from Hawaii. She called me Hapa.
Living on the West Coast later on only solidified my chosen label. Because of its proximity, the city of Seattle has somewhat of a relationship with Hawaii. My Seattle Asian-American friends were familiar with the word Hapa from their February jaunts to the islands. More and more, the word “Hapa” became baked into my identity, and a feeling of wholeness began setting in.
What I hated about most other identifying words (biracial, double, hafu) was that they all seemed so binary. They were asking me to be 100% of two things. However, I don’t speak Japanese, and I still don’t look “traditionally American.” So, how can I be 100% of any of those things? “Hapa” was a word that seemed to envelope a whole identity. It was an identity unto itself, not limited to or expanded by my two cultural backgrounds. “Hapa” encompasses my experiences as a mixed-race American, experiences that neither my father nor my mother understood. It lets me stand apart, and it lets me stand strong. It celebrates my differences instead of dividing them.
That being said, it’s important to recognize that this word, passed to me from my grandfather, isn’t really my word. I’m not Native Hawaiian. I don’t speak Hawaiian. I’ve never been to Hawaii. I’ve read the Hawiian history of annexation and Princess Lili’Kaiulani. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more sensitive to its roots.
However, at the same time, I saw a community forming around the term. The mixed-race demographic is the fastest growing population in the U.S., and it’s one of the leading reasons why the U.S. will be a minority-majority country in my lifetime. With all this change in demographics and the exploration of the mixed race community, we started Hapa Mag. And we made it a point to involve the roots of the word into our mission. Hapa is a Native Hawaiian word. It’s not American, it’s not an Continental Asian. It has its own history, politics, hurt, and reclamation.
This past summer, Alex and I got the chance to speak at the Consortium of Asian Theatres, Actors, and Artists. Among the keynote speakers and performers, there was a contingency of Hawaiian artists. We sought out and spoke with a few people about our use of the word, and we made an important decision: we have to update our mission.
There were a few key changes we must address:
- Hapa is a Native Hawaiian word. Not a Pidgin word, which we initially wrote. We were wrong and we apologize.
- Hapa means half, or portion. It’s not exclusively a word associated with race or identity.
- This is an ongoing discussion. Words and their meanings change as demographics shift and reclamation occurs, which means over time our current definition of Hapa will adjust and evolve. We look forward to continuing the discussion.
So please take a moment to look at our updated mission, and think about what the word “Hapa” means to you. Message us your thoughts, and keep the conversation going.
Melissa has lived in all four time zones in the contiguous United States. A former actor in Seattle, WA, Melissa now resides in NYC as a content creator. She is the producer of the We're Not All Ninjas podcast, which she also hosts with fellow Hapa Mag writer, Alex Chester. Melissa also writes for online blogs Nerdophiles and The Nerds of Color. Find her @NotAllNinjasPod.