The Hapa Project: How multiracial identity crosses oceans

By Alana Folen and Tina Ng

Hawai`i – often overlooked as nothing more than a scenic paradise – recently started to live up to its “melting pot” reputation when a U.S. senator representing Illinois formally announced his presidential candidacy. With personal ties to Hawai`i, Sen. Barack Obama inadvertently put Hawai`i in the spotlight.    

It was his physical appearance that separated Obama from his competitors. Obama is hapa. His father was black and from Kenya; his mother was white and from Kansas. His unique look brought attention to the hapa population in Hawai`i.

Although the growing population of hapa people is beginning to get recognized, their experiences in Hawai`i and the continental United States vary from each individual. The cultural implications of having multiple identities have surfaced and more hapa people have needed to defend who and what they are.

 
Click on these images to hear personal stories of hapa individuals in Hawaii.

 

“Hapa” Hawaii vs. “Multiracial” Mainland

The term hapa originated in Hawai`i from the Hawaiian word for “half.” While the term hapa was originally a derogatory name for people of mixed racial ancestry in Hawai`i, it has since been embraced as a term of pride for people who are racially and ethnically mixed.

The 2000 U.S. Census declared Hawai`i to have the largest percentage of hapas in the United States.  Hawai`i’s sizeable hapa population has contributed to the social acceptance of hapa individuals.
An estimated 21.4 percent of Hawai`i’s 1.2 million population is hapa, with the majority of them being mixed Asian, Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander ancestry.  

Jonathan Okamura, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa, explained that although hapa is a word that describes all people of mixed ancestry, hapa is primarily used to describe people who are half white and half Asian American.

Okamura says that locals who live in Hawai`i “use the term primarily for white and Asian American and this is how they [hapas who live on the mainland] somewhat argue they’ve appropriated that term.”
Hapa is the word Hawai`i residents most often use when referring to people of mixed racial ancestry. But Okamura explained that words like multiracial and biracial are used to describe mixed-race or mixed-ethnicity people on the mainland.

The term hapa is now well accepted in Hawai`i because there is a sense of prestige attached to being hapa. Okamura said hapa men and women are thought to be more physically attractive. However, the sense of prestige is not reflected on the continental United States. 

Okamura added, “This is again very much against the national perspective on the U.S. continent about multiracial individuals.”

The Numbers

The year 2000 was the first time the United States Census counted people of mixed racial ancestry. The Census Bureau said, “The decision to use the instruction ‘mark one or more races’ was reached by the Office of Management and Budget in 1997” after a noticeable increase of children from interracial unions and the importance of measuring diversity in the United States.

The 2000 Census showed that the United States population was 281.4 million people. Of that total, a reported 874,000, or 0.3 percent, claimed to be of Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander descent. 

The Census divides the 874,000 into two categories: those who reported to be only of Pacific Islander descent (399,000) and those who reported to be of Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander as well as one or more races (476,000). 

University of Hawaii at Manoa graduate student, Nicole Fernandez, is of Hawaiian ancestry and represents a small portion of the Native Hawaiian population.  She is of Hawaiian-Portuguese-Chinese-Irish-English ancestry, but in spite of her diverse mix, she said she only recognizes her Hawaiian and Portuguese ancestry.

“The Hawaiian-Portuguese is what dominates me, who I am, my ethnicity,” Fernandez said.  Everything else is just “a small part of what I am.”

The History of Hapa

The 2000 U.S. Census is statistical evidence that recorded the hapa population around the country for the first time. The history of hapas on the continental United States is a story of exclusion, racism, and acceptance, but in Hawaii, hapa individuals have helped shape its distinctive culture.

The hapa community in Hawai`i can be traced back to the period of early Asian immigration to the United States in the 1700s.  Most Asian immigrants were men.  Over the course of time, they were eagerly seeking the company of women and were forced to socialize with non-Asian women. The products of their relationships were hapa children.

In contrast, the Asian immigration to the continental United States saw a surge in the mid- and late-1800s. With the surge, more children were being born from interracial unions. Asian immigrants in the United States was good for economic growth, but their presence was also met with hostility from those who believed they would interrupt mainstream U.S. society.

This xenophobic hostility eventually led to several pieces of legislation that prevented Asians from many things, but most importantly, it prevented them from becoming naturalized citizens of the United States.

The hostility on the mainland also led to the passing of anti-miscegenation laws. Anti-miscegenation laws were first introduced in the 1600s to ban interracial unions between white and black Americans. The laws reappeared in the 1800s during the wave of Asian immigration to prohibit Asians from marrying whites.

It would be decades later that pieces of legislation intended to prevent interracial marriages, such as anti-miscegenation laws, would be regarded as unconstitutional. 

Since the abolishment of anti-miscegenation laws in the United States, Asian war brides who married World War II servicemen were allowed to sponsor family members into the United States. These new developments were influential in the resurgence of intermarriages and hapa Americans.

Although interracial marriages can be traced back to the 1600s, the negative association related to intermarriages is still prevalent today. Okamura explained that there are extensive concerns that hapa children would inherit the negative characteristics from each group.

“There was a belief that when you combine people from two different groups, you increase the chances of the children having the most negative characteristics of both groups,” Okamura said. He said this effect is called “hybrid degeneracy.”

One of the nation’s leading professors of ethnicity and multiethnicity, Paul Spickard, examines the racism behind interracial unions in his article “What Must I Be?  Asian Americans and the Question of Multiethnic Identity.”

He explains that the vicious ideas about multiracial people of Asian descent have emerged historically from white racism.
“White ideas about mixed-race people proceeded from biological ideas propounded by pseudo-scientific racists,” Spickard said.

Possibly the most explicit exploration of hapa racism was conducted by author Cynthia Nakashima. Her essay “Invisible Monster” reinforces the negative criticisms of being hapa – even saying that it is “unnatural” to “mix the races,” and doing so will create humans who are “physically, morally, and mentally weak.” 

As a result of interracial marriages, Nakashima alleges that their children will live their lives “tormented by their genetically divided selves” and “doomed to a life of conflicting cultures and unfulfilled desire to be ‘one or the other.”  

Although hapa is a label that has been accepted by many hapa people in Hawai`i, that word continues to exclude the hapa individuals who live on the continental United States. Okamura describes the problems hapa individuals on the mainland confront in order to seek acceptance from others.

“They want to seek this acceptance, which isn’t so much a problem here in Hawai`i,” Okamura says, “but they seek acceptance especially from Asian Americans because they see themselves as marginalized by the Asian American community as not fully Asian.”

Multiple Identities: “Citizen of nowhere”

Many of those who identify themselves as hapa believe they have “the best of both worlds.”  However, being hapa has also created an identity crisis or “double identity” of sorts.

Author Richard Rodriguez wrote in “Hunger of Memory” that members of ethnic minority groups must choose between private and public identities.

“In order to make satisfactory places for themselves in American society, minorities must either retain the ethnic culture of their youth, family, and community, or they must eschew their ethnicities and adopt the culture, values, and viewpoints of the dominant Anglo-American group,” Rodriguez said.

The concept of “double identity” is something that many hapa people have had to struggle with for centuries. For example, the largest group of hapas in Hawai`i was of Chinese and Hawaiian descent. But being only half Chinese was problematic for them because the Chinese community was reluctant to accept them. They constantly defended themselves against people who tried to define them by their physical appearance.  

As Rodriguez explains, “Regardless of how they construct their own identities, they always find themselves in dialogue with others who would define them from their outside.”

The battle between physical appearance and personal identity was publicly displayed on the continental United States during World War II.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, there was an overwhelming feeling of hostility against people of Japanese descent on the West Coast. The attack marked all people of Japanese descent as a security threat.

The threat of safety combined with racist propaganda against the Japanese culminated in President Roosevelt issuing Executive Order 9066. The Order stripped the rights of Japanese Americans and forced all Japanese Americans on the mainland to be relocated into isolated internment camps across the country.

Sharing the Japanese Americans’ experience were about 700 hapas on the mainland who were also placed in internment camps.

Although persons of full Japanese ancestry were forced to relocate, many had non-Japanese spouses. The spouses were given the choice to either follow their Japanese spouse to internment camps or not to follow. 

The decision to either stay or go was more difficult when their hapa children were involved. Where would they go? Were they more Japanese, in which case they should be relocated? Or were they more American, in which case they could follow their non-Japanese parent?

The outcome of the children’s fate fell upon the father’s ethnicity. If he was Japanese, the child will be relocated. But if the father was white, the child was at liberty to go as he pleased.  

This push-pull effect made life difficult for the hapa children. The separation from a parent was emotionally devastating, but being branded as neither this nor that made them a “citizen of nowhere.”

In the words of Kathleen Tamagawa, who is hapa, she described the state of confusion with the phrase “citizen of nowhere” in her autobiography. Born at the turn of the century, her book follows what she illustrates as her “tortured” life in the United States and Japan. She calls herself a “citizen of nowhere” because of her failed success to find a sense of belonging in Japan.             

The Path to Ethnic Identity

The 1960s saw an influx of Asian Americans marrying non-Asians. The number of Asian Americans who married outside of their ethnic groups and then had children was so large that communities grew to accept them. 

Although the community acceptance has become easier to achieve, hapa individuals have taken different steps on their path to ethnic identity.

Many have come to adopt what is called “situational ethnicity.” This means they adopt one ethnicity when they are among the same ethnic group, and they adopt a different ethnic group when they are among a different ethnic group.

Christina Allen, who is of Filipino and English descent, says she adopts situational ethnicity in many social settings.
“In certain situations, I found myself identifying with either the Filipino or English heritage a little more,” Allen says. She also added that she is overall “proud to be both because it is who I am.”

The path to ethnic identity on the mainland has become smoother with the development of social organizations that help hapa individuals understand and appreciate their mixed ancestries. 

Organizations such as the Hapa Issues Forum on the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University campuses have been credited as positive outreach programs.

American universities are also adding more Asian American Studies programs to their course offerings. This area of study is beginning to include classes based around multiracial and multiethnic identities.

Portrait of a Community Based on Shared Differences

The challenges of hapa individuals are likely to persist into future generations. The ongoing goal within the hapa community is to embrace all people of mixed-racial ancestries. But many still consider the term hapa to be limited to people of Japanese and European descent. 

The aim to build a community based on shared differences is a constant struggle. As a result, the focus has shifted to emphasize the importance of individual identity rather than shared identity.

Wei Ming Dariotis, assistant professor at San Francisco State University, summarizes the goal of the hapa community in her article “A Community Based on Shared Difference.”

She explains that in order to succeed, the hapa community must accept that the path to discovering individual identity can be long and arduous. When the path is clear, the hapa community can create a space to exist, but more importantly, a place that recognizes the similarities and differences of all races.

“The numbers are just numbers, what we do with them is to create meaning,” Dariotis said. “In the case of the hapa community, part of that is creating visibility and creating space in which to exist, through which to be recognized.”

 


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