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Let’s Talk About the Meaning of the Word ‘Hapa’—and Who Gets to Use It

Hawaiian woman wearing a lei.

The Los Angeles City Council will be hosting “HAPA Day” on May 19, within the larger context of AAPI Heritage Month. On that day, they’ll discuss the “prevalence and modern evolution of HAPA Americans (Americans of partial Asian or Pacific Islander descent).” The wording of their announcement also vaguely implies a larger goal of making this a citywide holiday, although it’s unclear.

The conversation around the word “hapa” has long merited a wider discussion, and not just within the smaller subgroups of mixed-Asians and mixed-Hawaiians. I find that most Asians I’ve met know the word (and being that it’s a Hawaiian word, all Hawaiians I’ve met know it), yet to non-Asians & non-Hawaiians, it’s still something of a novel concept. And since the world is ever-globalizing at faster rates, more people ought to be clued into this discussion.

So, let’s talk about it. What does “hapa” mean? Why do non-Hawaiians use it, despite it being a Hawaiian word in origin? And who should be able to use it, and why?

What (and who) is hapa?

Both Wikipedia and loosely define a “hapa” person as someone who is mixed with some sort of Asian heritage. In my experience as a born-and-raised Californian, most people have approached the word with this definition, too. Not every mixed Asian used this term, but the ones that did claimed it quite casually.

However, the origins of hapa have never extended to mainlanders. Hapa, at its core, just means “half,” adapted from Christian missionary schools in the 1800s to bridge language gaps. It was later applied to children with both Native Hawaiian and foreign (“haole”) parents, combined to create the phrase “hapa haole.” While some still use the larger phrase, many often shorten it strictly to hapa.

And while the origins of the word are rooted in colonialism, many maintain that the word’s origins never held a negative context, because within Native Hawaiian culture, if you could trace your roots back to Hawaii somehow, you were Hawaiian, plain and simple. The negative connotations came later, when foreigners began to uproot Hawaiian life: the impact of the Missionaries (who have historically hurt almost everything they touched), the introduction of mass farming to Hawaii’s intricate ecosystems and the tangible ramifications down the line, and of course, the bull-horning of the U.S. Government, which used blood-quantum laws to limit land-holding eligibility for Native Hawaiians.

So, today, you might get different answers regarding whether or not hapa is a “good or bad” word in a specifically Hawaiian context. My old radio mentor, a hapa-haole herself, always used the word fondly, yet she still recounted instances of prejudice growing up. But these days, it would seem that the more pressing dilemma at hand is the reclamation of the word by Native Hawaiians, for Native Hawaiians.

Accidental(?) appropriation

Hapa first started to gain widespread usage by mainland mixed-Asians in the ’90s, when collegiate student groups (most notably U.C. Berkeley’s Hapa Issues Forum) began use the term as a major identifier. Mixed-Asians hadn’t heard the term before, yet it became something of a call home—a word they thought was “just for them,” finally providing them an identity that was their own, no longer needing to pick a lane.

In an immensely thoughtful and insightful essay for NPR’s “Code Switch,” journalist Akemi Johnson describes her experience with the word as such:

Sunset in Waikiki: Tourists sipping mai tais crowded the beachside hotel bar. When the server spotted my friend and me, he seemed to relax. “Ah,” he said, smiling. “Two hapa girls.”

He asked if we were from Hawaii. We weren’t. We both have lived in Honolulu — my friend lives there now — but hail from California. It didn’t matter. In that moment, he recognized our mixed racial backgrounds and used “hapa” like a secret handshake, suggesting we were aligned with him: insiders and not tourists.

Like many multiracial Asian-Americans, I identify as hapa, a Hawaiian word for “part” that has spread beyond the islands to describe anyone who’s part Asian or Pacific Islander. When I first learned the term in college, wearing it felt thrilling in a tempered way, like trying on a beautiful gown I couldn’t afford. Hapa seemed like the identity of lucky mixed-race people far away, people who’d grown up in Hawaii as the norm, without “Chink” taunts, mangled name pronunciations, or questions about what they were.

Over time, as more and more people called me hapa, I let myself embrace the word. It’s a term that explains who I am and connects me to others in an instant. It’s a term that creates a sense of community around similar life experiences and questions of identity.

Akemi Johnson, “Who Gets To Be ‘Hapa’?”

For many of us, hapa was a secret handshake, a source of comfort in an otherwise undefined existence. Hapa provided validity to our heritage and made us feel like we didn’t need to try so hard to be one way or another. We didn’t have to be the “right kind of Asian,” and we didn’t have to feel weird about “not being so totally white.” We could just say we were hapa and leave it at that. No more trying to be any sort of way, no more trying to explain who we were; with a name to our face, we could just be who we were at our cores.

However, this is still appropriation, however well-intentioned. Even a founder of a Hapa Issues Forum branch has gone on-record denouncing the usage by anyone other than Native Hawaiians:

“To have this symbolic word used by Asians, particularly by Japanese Americans, as though it is their own, seems to symbolically mirror the way Native Hawaiian land was first taken by European Americans, and is now owned by European Americans, Japanese and Japanese Americans and other Asian American ethnic groups that numerically and economically dominate Native Hawaiians in their own land.”

Wei Ming Dariotis, “Hapa: The Word of Power”

It’s a situation that’s tragically embedded in the traumas of colonization, on multiple fronts. The most wounded party is, of course, the Hawaiian hapas, who have every right to reclaim all that was taken from them, including the word itself. And, while I am now critical of using the word in any context that doesn’t involve Hawaiians, I cannot help but continue to feel sympathy for mainland mixed-Asians, who only sought the word in the first place because of societal racial isolation.

Race, as a construct, is still a relatively modern concept, and it’s designed to keep certain peoples in power, and other peoples disempowered. As such, mixed-race people have always occupied an awkward borderline that leaves a lot of room for alienation and confusion. Mixed-Asians, in particular, occupy a strange place due to the specific sort of alienation that Asian Americans face.

Therefore, from my perspective, it was only natural that we clung onto a word that seemed, on a surface-level, to describe us without dehumanizing us. Nonetheless, it was never our word to use, and we need to accept that.

The value of a word

“Hapa” is rooted in Hawaiian culture and history. It is a part of the heritage of thousands of Hawaiian people, and it will always mean more to them than it will to anyone else. And while some Hawaiians might not have problems with mainlanders using the term (as Johnson noted), ultimately the usage of the term by mainlanders is still appropriation, an act of continued colonial harm. Many Hawaiians have spoken out against this co-opting, and even if only a few people did, their reasons are strong enough.

And I will be completely and utterly candid here: It took me a long time to remove the word from my vocabulary. In California especially, this word was prevalently used to describe kids like me. Throughout my schooling, from middle school to college, I and the other mixed kids would naturally ask each other that golden question: “You’re hapa too, right?” Realizing that something I’d always considered to be a core part of my identity was never mine to begin with was a startling awakening, and the reckoning that followed was a strange, humbling experience.

However, even so, I always knew that the right thing to do was to shed the word and find my own. And the thing is, there are a lot of words people can choose from that aren’t hapa. The term “Blasian” is still widely used for Black/Asian mixed people, and now, I’ve even noticed the younger generation taking a liking to the term “Wasian” for White/Asian people. Mixed-Japanese people are known as “haafu,” although that term comes with its own baggage, while people of my mother’s generation widely used the term “Eurasian” (and many still do).

Ultimately, it’s a matter of finding what works best for you. I, for one, am not entirely comfortable with any of these terms for myself, so I’ve defaulted to just calling myself Mixed, and it feels more snug than hapa ever did, because it’s a word that does belong to me. If anything, in my adult life, it feels especially apt, because most of my friends have been Mixed in general. I would almost say I relate more to the Mixed American experience than a strictly Asian American experience, and that’s for me to own, just like hapa is for Hawaiians to own.

When it comes to race, words aren’t just words: They hold tangible meaning that we need to honor and respect. This year, for a variety of reasons, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Portland, Oregon, and I’ve come to realize it’s a major town for Hawaiians on the mainland—which means there are lots of hapas. And there are lots of hapa-owned businesses with hapa names. (My favorite is the sustainable soap store “Mama & Hapa’s,” which brightens my spirits every time I walk in.) Seeing the word used rightly, by people who claim it, embody it, and own it, is some kinda magic.

I hope all mixed-Asians can find their own kind of magic, too, without needing to take from others.

(featured image: Maridav/Getty Images)

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Madeline (she/her) is a staff writer with a focus on AANHPI and mixed-race representation. She enjoys covering a wide variety of topics, but her primary beats are music and gaming. Her journey into digital media began in college, primarily regarding audio: in 2018, she started producing her own music, which helped her secure a radio show and co-produce a local history podcast through 2019 and 2020. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz summa cum laude, her focus shifted to digital writing, where she's happy to say her History degree has certainly come in handy! When she's not working, she enjoys taking long walks, playing the guitar, and writing her own little stories (which may or may not ever see the light of day).