Monday, July 2, 2012

Are You Hapa? (Pulling Out the Race Card)

I rarely, if ever, get racial on this blog.  It's a conscious choice, and one that actually hampers a lot of what I write since race, culture and identity play huge parts in my everyday conversations.  Nate (an Ethnic Studies major) and I (a major in "Identity Construction" for lack of a better description) discuss these issues all the time and, in fact, they were one of the things we bonded over when we began dating.  To our friends, these issues are central themes in our lives, in our world views, in our discussions with one another.  They're critical in my workplace, in my part of the country, in everything.

Added to all this, I grew up in a very multicultural part of the world where one of the first questions you'll probably be asked when meeting someone is, "What are you?"  To this, I would answer: Portuguese, Native Hawaiian, Filipino, Spanish and French.  And to top it all off, from ages 12-18, I attended (and boarded at) a private school that required all admitted students to prove our Native Hawaiian ancestry -- and please don't get me started on how this admissions policy is racially discriminatory, because this is what I focused on in law school and I will argue about it until I'm blue in the face.

So in summary: I take race, ethnicity and culture pretty friggin' seriously.

But I choose not to really write about them because I know these can be contentious, if not alienating, topics.  And the last thing I want to do is alienate people, or start arguments in the comments section of this blog.

However.  I've got a cold today, and this cold has put me in a frustrated and argumentative mood.  And I don't know exactly how this word came up in conversation today, but it did, and I want to address it.

So, let's talk about the word hapa.

Some of you may have heard of the word before, either in your travels to Hawaii (and/or your talks with people from Hawaii), or in your interactions with Asian-Americans -- particularly those on the West Coast.  In recent years, it's become fairly popular for mixed or half Asian people to identify themselves as hapa.

Hapa is a Native Hawaiian word that, by definition (Pukui/Elbert Hawaiian Dictionary), means: 1. Portion, fragment, part; to be a portion, less.  2. Of mixed blood; person of mixed blood.  Please note that hapa does not, and has not ever, meant: Half Asian Part Asian.

That's definition.  In practice -- in Hawaii, and in my experience -- the word is usually used to describe people who are half Native Hawaiian and, usually, half White.  To this end, you'll often hear the term hapa haole, which really does mean "half white."  In all my years in Hawaii, with all the conversations I've ever had, and given all the time I spent at a Native Hawaiian school, never have I ever heard the word used to describe someone who is Asian and something else that isn't Hawaiian.  It just isn't done.  I've also never heard the word used to describe someone who is simply mixed -- mainly because almost everyone in Hawaii is mixed, so having a specific term for that would be pretty pointless.

Now, I'm not saying I corner the market on defining Native Hawaiian words.  I'm also not saying that using the term to describe half or mixed peoples is incorrect by definition.  But I do think it's important not to separate a language from it's culture.  And in Hawaii's culture, the word hapa does not mean half Asian and half something else, especially to the exclusion of other races/ethnicities.

I recently read an article from a woman and scholar who uses the term to describe herself (she is half or part Asian).  In this piece, she defends her use of the word when some of her commenters from Hawaii take issue with it.  In particular, she first calls it an "adoption" of the word.  Now, a couple of things here: 1) "Adoption" implies that the word was orphaned.  It wasn't.  We still use it.  And, 2) don't call something an "adoption" when what it really is is an appropriation.  The Asian American community has taken a word from another culture -- a word that, generally, has not referred to Asian Americans -- and has redefined it for their purposes and to identify themselves, even to the exclusion of the Native Hawaiian community.  That's appropriation and, let me tell you, Indigenous peoples are pretty sick of it.

To this, however, the author states (somewhat disrespectfully, in my opinion): "Using a word that evolved because of a colonialist experience seems fitting, so perhaps it isn’t a misappropriation at all. Of course, the Hawaiians will disagree, and I wish them well in their quest to reclaim all that is theirs and theirs alone."  To this, I would say that she's right, I do disagree with her colonization of my language -- just like I disagree with the United States' colonization of Hawaii (and yeah, you better believe I'm putting her in the same category) -- and I will continue to try and reclaim a word that she has stolen from me.

I'm not trying to be divisive here, I'm really not.  I have nothing against the Asian American community at all.  But, at the same time, I feel that as a community that has been oppressed, they should know better.

After all, this is language.  And without language a culture dies.
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