On "Hapa" And Cultural Appropriation
Image by Kip Fulbeck.
I'm not interested in participating in RaceFail '09 in any way, and I don't want to compound the folly by inscribing yet another diatribe about cultural appropriation when everyone is running around screaming, with their fingers stuck in their ears. But I do think that the Asian Women Blog Carnival is a good opportunity to kill a few birds: my thinking on a particular close-to-home topic, which will also offer a cautionary tale to the clueless, the allies, and the POC alike.
For those of you just joining us, "hapa" is a word currently used by many/most politically conscious Asian Americans to refer to mixed-race or multiracial Asians. The word is Hawai'an, and is actually part of the term "hapa haole," meaning literally "part foreigner," but connoting people who are half or part Hawai'ian and half or part white. Hawai'ians still use "haole" to refer to whites.
Sounds like a politically correct word, and it has been a "word of power," as Wei Ming Dariotis puts it (see below). But, it turns out, it's a strange example of cultural appropriation: cultural appropriation by Asian Americans, against native Hawai'ians, for the purpose of empowering Asian American multiracials in a context in which we have been historically disenfranchised. This isn't what we usually refer to as "cultural appropriation," but I think it's illuminating, and may help some white Americans who are resisting being labeled "appropriators" to understand what's at stake.
I want to talk about what the word means to people who use it -- especially to me -- and why the word might be problematic and ripe for retirement. This is about using words to express disadvantage and marginalization ... and it's about your words disadvantaging and marginalizing others. It's about walking your talk and why that isn't as easy as it sounds.
Before I discuss the word and its problems, here are some points of necessary information (I hope I don't need to say this, but these points are from my personal perspective and experience, and have to do with my own opinions and understanding, not universal truth):
- Why multiracials need their own word: Multiracial organizing only really started in a big way in the late eighties, when Generation X was coming of age. Gen X is also known as the "multiracial baby boom," the result of a boomlet in interracial relationships following the Civil Rights Movement, related Chicano and Asian American movements, and the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, which reversed centuries of anti-race-mixing laws. On the Asian side, the multiracial boom also followed the Immigration Act of 1965, which substantially increased the flow of Asian immigrants into the US.
Also, multiracial African Americans were a much larger group than multiracial Asian Americans, and the history and nature of their issues was and remains very different. During the first twenty years of constructing a "Multiracial Movement," a great deal of the work was simply sharing and discussion. Because As Am multiracials were numerically overwhelmed by Af Am multiracials in the organizations, and felt as if their issues were less urgent, they often felt that they didn't have enough space to talk about Asian-specific issues in general multiracial organizations. On the other side of the question, multiracial Asians were finding themselves under the gun in their Asian communities, being invalidated or outright told that they were a threat to the racial and cultural purity of their communities.
For all of these reasons, multiracial Asian Americans needed, for a time, to differentiate themselves from other multiracials to discuss their particular issues, and to create a power base for themselves to use in their Asian communities to reclaim membership and a stake. A word for specifically Asian multiracials was essential to this effort.
- Asian and Pacific Islander American organizing: In the eighties and nineties, Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans were grouped together officially, and so pan-Asian organizations were actually pan-API (Asian Pacific Islander) and made a greater or lesser point of reaching out to Pacific Islander communities and being inclusive in that way. In the 2000s, though, the two categories -- Asian and Pacific Islander -- have been split off from one another and the urgency in pan-Asian organizations around including Pacific Islanders has dropped off to a certain extent. (For example, Hyphen magazine, which I co-founded, was established in 2002 as specifically Asian American and not API, because the other founders felt that our entirely Asian staff couldn't do justice to Pacific Islander issues. I dissented but was overruled, and they were, as always in such cases, partially correct: we couldn't do Pacific Islander issues justice if we weren't going to do them justice ... and we didn't.)
(An example: Last year the de Young Museum in San Francisco had a Pacific Islander artist from New Zealand in residence and produced a performance evening including two Pacific Islander artists from the Bay Area. Ten years ago, such an event could and did turn out substantial numbers from the Asian American arts-loving crowd. This event, though taking place at a major venue, didn't turn out any Asians that I saw, besides myself, and I only went to support my friends whom I hadn't seen in a while.)
- How hapa got here: As I understand it, "hapa" as a general term for Asians and Pacific Islanders of mixed heritage was being used in Hawai'i before the Second World War, and might have made its way to the mainland as a result of Japanese Americans from both Hawai'i and the mainland fighting together in the war. In any case, on the continental US, the word was first used in the Japanese American community, and stayed there until the late eighties or early nineties when mixed race Asian Americans of all ethnicities started organizing around a mixed race identity together, and needed a general word that could refer to everybody, which had no bad connotations for Asian Americans.
- Previous terms used are:
- "Eurasian": which arose in European colonies in Asia to refer to the children of mostly white European men and native Asian women through a variety of types of sexual liaisons, from rape and prostitution to marriage. The word has always had a disreputable cast, a negative connotation that suggests that the Asian mother is a prostitute or easy woman, and the child is a bastard. Eurasian women tend to be viewed by both whites and Asians as sexually available, and Eurasian men as untrustworthy. Tragic mulattism ensues.
- "Amerasian": arose to refer specifically to the children of soldiers in Asian wars of the latter half of the twentieth century. I'm not sure if it was being used post-Korean War, but it was definitely what the children of Vietnam War soldiers were called. The term has occasionally been applied to multiracial Asian Americans from some other context, but never really stuck or gained any mainstream recognition as such. It also has an unsavory, prostitute/GI connotation, and a tragic mulatto implication, given the dire political situation of Amerasian children in their country of origin at wars' ends.
- "Multiracial": has no real negative political connotations, but is also not specific enough, as I explained above.
- "Cablinasian," "Blackanese," "Korgentinian," and the like: There's definitely a value in the Multiracial Movement that holds personal descriptors -- i.e. personally invented descriptors -- in high esteem. Therefore: Tiger Woods' famous "Cablinasian," or the fairly common (among Black and Japanese multiracials) "Blackanese," or the very specific "Korgentinian," which I got from former Hapa Issues Forum Director Sheila Chung, who is Korean and Argentinian. However, unlike "multiracial," these are all too specific. They're great used on an individual basis, but you can't build a movement or group identity around them.
- Do we need "hapa" now?: in 2007 Hapa Issues Forum, the main organization collecting hapa-centered clubs and associations together, officially closed its doors. It had been latent for three years. There were a number of reasons for this, the first being that the generation that started HIF, my generation, were now on the doorstep of middle age, marrying, having kids, and generally backing away mightily from nonprofit volunteerism. It happens. Another reason, though, was the the next generation of organizers, who always came up through student associations, were no longer organizing under "hapa"; they were now organizing under general multiraciality. This meant that they would transition (if at all) from general mixed race orgs in college to general mixed race orgs out in the world, of which there are many.
Okay, do you feel caught up? I feel caught up.
So, I've just spent a lot of bullet points explaining why the word "hapa" has been so important -- to Asian America, to the Multiracial Movement, and to multiracial Asian American organizing. I've also hinted at how Asian American organizing may have gotten in the way of Pacific Islander organizing.
Okay, now read this article by Dr. Wei Ming Dariotis, a specialist in Asian Americans of mixed heritage. In it, she talks about how the word "hapa" has been her "word of power," how it freed her to identify herself in a powerful way, and also to find a community of free choice rather than a community of shame:
... Increasingly, many Native Hawaiian people object not only to the way the word has been changed in its grammatical usage, but also to how it is applied to anyone of mixed Asian and or Pacific Islander heritage, when it implies Native Hawaiian mixed heritage. This is not merely a question of trying to hold on to word that like many words encountered in the English language has been adopted, assimilated, or appropriated. This is a question of power. Who has the power or right to use language?
She goes on to point out that Asians are not native to Hawai'i but rather settlers. Although they were exploited and mistreated on Hawai'i and the mainland, their settlement was a choice, and their subsequent success came through supporting and bolstering European/American hegemony on Hawai'i. Let me repeat that: Asian American success on Hawai'i came through Asian American collusion in the colonization of Hawai'i.
So this admittedly symbolic usage of "hapa" by Asian Americans feels to many native Hawai'ians like the appropriation of land and culture perpetrated by all Hawai'ian settlers and colonizers. Further, that mixed race Asian Americans appropriated a word to find their own power is an item of their own blissful ignorance ... and privilege. As Dariotis points out in her article, Asian Americans appropriated "hapa" because it had no negative connotations for Asian Americans. But that was because the word arose out of a colonizing situation between Europeans and native Hawai'ians. The fact that Asian Americans saw no negative connotations in the word had to do with the fact thatn in this colonizing situation, Asian Americans played a helping role on the side of the colonizers. That's about as ironic as it gets.
When I first read Wei Ming's article, I was just as resistant as she said she was to giving up the word "hapa." It had a similar meaning to me as it did to her. I had experienced some pretty bad bullying as a child based largely on my racial identity (if you want to get the flavor of it, read this; it's pretty much exactly my experience, except that I'm Chinese and my parents were both on the spot), and like many multiracial and monoracial As Ams, I grew up isolated from "people like me." Having a word that identified me accurately, and conferred power on me instead of taking it away was more important than I can explain to anyone who has always had the right to name themselves without question (ask me sometime about how bullies use names to take away your dignity and self esteem, how any word can be turned into something that hurts you.)
Wei Ming's article first appeared on Hyphen magazine's website (I can't find it there now) in late 2007 and I rejected the argument out of hand. "What do they expect us to use then, huh?" I thought. "We have no other word, and the meaning has already changed. It's too late. Besides, a lot of Hawai'ian words, and a lot of Asian words, too, have been incorporated into English without anyone's explicit permission. These words honor the contributions of Hawai'ian and Asian cultures in the American mainstream. Plus, this word is being used to give non-whites power. Don't these hysterical Hawai'ians get it?" At the time it seemed a pretty unanswerable argument. Yeah.
I didn't think too much about it over the next year or so. But then I got into an argument a couple weeks ago or so with a Korean American friend about US Americans' use of the word "American" to refer to ourselves. Don't get me wrong. I think the argument that all people in the Americas are "American" is pretty obvious and silly. If a Bolivian wanted to refer to herself as "American," she'd be totally within her rights, as far as I was concerned. Of course, that's ridiculous, though. She already has a country name, Bolivia, which she can use to refer to herself, whereas our country name IS "America." "the United States of" is a modifier, and it would be grammatically problematic to call us "Unitedians" or "Statesians" (then everyone else could argue that they're also united or they are also states.) And having other people assign to us the name "USians" is inappropriate and goes against all my principles; people name themselves, and people outside of the group don't get any say in it at all.
But then, on the other hand, the USA declared itself caretaker and patron of the entire Western Hemisphere nearly two centuries ago, without anyone else's say so, and has been running around like it's all agreed ever since: setting up murderous dictators, couping out popularly elected officials, and generally acting like anything in the Americas is ... well ... American, in the sense of "United States of." I don't believe that the original use of "American" to refer to British colonists in the American colonies was at all intended to claim hegemony over the entire hemisphere. No USA citizens intend that our use of the word "American" confers hegemony on us. Not even our government intends that. But the fact remains that we've wreaked might-makes-right havoc on the entire hemisphere, and that we dominate it in such a way that all other countries in the Americas must define themselves in alliance or opposition to us. I mean US.
So the jury is very much out on that issue. On the one hand, it would be ridiculous for me and other bleeding hearts to say "Hey, we'll stop calling ourselves 'American' because we don't want to offend our fellow Americas-ians," when nobody else wants to use the word to refer to themselves. On the other hand, maybe none of us should be using the word as a national signifier, since it belongs to all of us. And on the foot, what do we call ourselves then?
Which brings us back to "hapa," and that debate, which broke back over me in the past week as a result of the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival declaring a hapa theme this year. In this case, it's not a matter of us trying to share a word with Others that we all have equal right to, and that they don't particularly want to use for themselves. In this case, it's a matter of trying to get the power of a name by ignorantly taking the power of a name away from someone else.
See, the history of "hapa" is that it was a term specifically created to refer to the children produced by European/American hegemony in Hawai'i. Without the colonization, you don't need the term "hapa haole." And it's a specifically positive Hawai'ian word for mixed children, a word created to include mixed children into native Hawai'ian society, to find a place for them. You can't have power in a Hawai'ian word for multiracial Hawai'ians if it doesn't exist solely for multiracial Hawai'ians. Having this word appropriated by Asians who settled or were settled on Hawai'i only after it was literally stolen from the Hawai'ian people -- having this word stolen by Asians brought over to work the plantations that the haoles stole Hawai'i to create -- would be pretty damn hard to take, wouldn't it?
What we've done here is stolen the power of the word. Period. This is not like the whole "American" thing where we didn't steal the word, and the power in it now is something that has accumulated with time. This was a straight-up decision that was made in living memory to use this word because there was nothing standing between us and it ... kinda like the decision made in recent times to simply take Hawai'i because there was nothing military standing between us and it.
This is no longer acceptable to me. Yes, it took me over a year of subconscious mulling to get here but I'm here now. I don't want to use the word anymore; its power is gone and its savor has soured for me.
And at the same time, multiracial Asian organizations have re-assimilated (word used advisedly) with general multiracial organizations; mixed race Asians now have an important seat at the table of both Asian America, and Multiracial America. We don't need the word "hapa" anymore, not to organize around, anyway. So maybe we're able to say "let it go" because we don't need it anymore.
But that doesn't make the letting go any less difficult, or any less necessary.
And what, if anything, do we call ourselves now?