The Problem With Using the Word ‘Hapa’ For Mixed Asians

If you happen to be a product of more than one ancestry, specifically White European and Asian, it’s likely that you’ve come across the word “hapa” at least once.

The word has become a loaded term to date. Deconstructing it would take us more than a thousand years into the past, but the effort is well worth it to finally shed light on how it came to existence.

It Comes From English, But It Was For Math

First, it must be noted that “hapa,” a Hawaiian word, is loaned from the English language, according to the University of Hawaii.

This is seconded by Hawaiian linguist Keao NeSmith, who told the Public Radio International that the term has been used since the 1800s:

“The word ‘hapa’ derives from English. It’s the Hawaiian pronunciation of the English word ‘half.’”

In 1820, Christian missionaries arrived in Hawaii from Boston.

After publishing the Bible in the local language, one of the first tasks they had was to establish schools. To accomplish this, they had to produce materials for students for different subjects.

Interestingly, it was coming across mathematics that the word “hapa” came to existence:

“‘Hapa’ is a result of the attempt to develop math curriculum,” NeSmith said, explaining that its initial use was predominantly in the mathematical context for “half.”

On “Hapa Haole

Soon enough, the word was used to denote half of anything — including people.

According to NeSmith, “haole,” which comes after “hapa” in the original compound term, had already been in the Hawaiian language to describe people “from anywhere else.”

He acknowledged that “haole” is more often used to refer to White people, but pointed that it originally meant anyone from anywhere outside of Hawaii.

“Hapa haole originally meant someone who is mixed of ethnic Hawaiian and also these other foreigners,” he said, though most who came happened to be White.

NeSmith also identifies as a hapa, as his father was from Texas and his mother was from Hawaii:

“Through the 1800s, even in our laws and such, whenever referencing foreigners, etcetera, the word ‘haole’ was not necessarily just White people.

“For those who speak Hawaiian like myself, native speakers, ‘haole’ runs the whole range, like you can talk about the word ‘foreigner,’ [which] is a very mundane word in English, but when you’re mad and you spit out the word ‘foreigner’ with a particular angst in it, then suddenly it’s pejorative.”

Why Half-Asians Can Call Themselves “Hapa”

Stressing the absence of pejorative connotation, NeSmith also noted that “hapa haole” had a favorable association from the late 1800s to the World War II, when Hawaii was romanticized as an ideal destination with exotic people and culture.

“It’s not so much the word itself — it’s the association people put on it that makes it positive or negative” he said.

As such, he has no problem with people of other mixed heritage — such as half-Asians and half-Whites — calling themselves “hapa.” He was surprised the first time he heard a half-Asian, half-White woman say she was “hapa,” but was not offended at all.

“I guess whether someone is offended is purely individualistic,” he said. “[It’s cool] that we [Hawaiians] have that influence on the rest of the world, that Hawaiians would have that kind of external influence, which I had not expected or anticipated or even knew.”

Jonathan Okamura, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, acknowledges that “hapa” is used to describe people who are half-White and half-Asian-American.

He said that locals in Hawaii “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.”

Why Half-Asians Cannot Call Themselves “Hapa”

But of course, others can disagree. One of them is middle school teacher Piikea Kalakau, who feels “frustrated” about it.

In an interview with the National Public Radio, she stressed that “hapa” means part Native Hawaiian and not part Asian.

“I am personally frustrated with the world misusing this word,” she said, convinced that its widespread use constitutes cultural appropriation. “I wouldn’t use a Japanese word or a Filipino word to describe myself because it doesn’t fit.”

Kalakau believes that correcting the term’s definition is part of a larger Native Hawaiian “movement to take back our culture.”

The debate on whoever can use “hapa” to describe themselves continues. But if there’s one thing we can learn from its etymology, it’s that it has, ultimately, become a relative term that means differently to different people.

Do you identify as “hapa”? Why or why not? We’d love to hear your thoughts about it!

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