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Akemi Johnson hails from California, but when she learned the Hawaiian word “hapa,” she immediately felt connected to the community it represents.

Writer Akemi Johnson wrote an illuminating piece for NPR’s Code Switch on the common acceptance and pride in using the Hawaiian word ‘hapa’ when self identifying herself. She was introduced to the word in college, as a means of acceptance and recognizing her mixed ethnic background, especially her Asian side. She even described an incident when she was vacationing in Waikiki with another haps friend and the waiter approached them and seemed relaxed that they were “hapa girls” as in he let his guard down. It was, as she described, “like a secret handshake suggesting we were aligned with him: insiders and not tourists.”

Johnson writes more about how multi-racial Asian Americans have taken great pride in embracing the hapa term:

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. It’s what my fiancé and I call ourselves, and how we think of the children we might have: second-generation hapas.

But as the term grows in popularity, so does the debate over the use of the term ‘hapa’ as people argue that it is, in fact, a racial slur that should be retired, comparing to to outdated racist terms like ‘half breed’ or ‘mulatto.’

Many Native Hawaiian scholars have said the opposite, but they also say that it’s also not used in the correct context either. More from Johnson:

Several scholars told me it’s a misconception that hapa has derogatory roots. The word entered the Hawaiian language in the early 1800s, with the arrival of Christian missionaries who instituted a Hawaiian alphabet and developed curriculum for schools. Hapa is a transliteration of the English word “half,” but quickly came to mean “part,” combining with numbers to make fractions. (For example, hapalua is half. Hapaha is one-fourth.) Hapa haole — part foreigner — came to mean a mix of Hawaiian and other, whether describing a mixed-race person, a fusion song, a bilingual Bible, or pidgin language itself.

This original use was not negative, said Kealalokahi Losch, a professor of Hawaiian studies and Pacific Island studies at Kapi’olani Community College. “The reason [hapa] feels good is because it’s always felt good,” he told me. Losch has been one of the few to study the earliest recorded uses of the term, buried in Hawaiian-language newspapers, and found no evidence that it began as derogatory. Because the Hawaiian kingdom was more concerned with genealogy than race, he explained, if you could trace your lineage to a Hawaiian ancestor, you were Hawaiian. Mixed Hawaiian did not mean less Hawaiian.

Any use of hapa as a slur originated with outsiders, Losch said. That includes New England missionaries, Asian plantation workers and the U.S. government, which instituted blood quantum laws to limit eligibility for Hawaiian homestead lands. On the continental U.S., some members of Japanese-American communities employed hapa to make those who were mixed “feel like they were not really, truly Japanese or Japanese-American,” said Duncan Williams, a professor of religion and East Asian languages and cultures at the University of Southern California. He said this history may have led some to believe the word is offensive.

‘Hapa haole’— emanating part Hawaiian, part other — always has been positive. It’s a rich heritage that lives on in Hawaii, especially with Native Hawaiian descendants who recognize that they have the bloodline of the indigenous people of the Islands. Many also take issue with non-Hawaiian mixed race people taking the term, equating it to identity theft and the widespread use of haps is a form of cultural appropriation.

The desire to “take back” the word hapa, for many Native Hawaiians is linked to the current Hawaiian cultural renaissance and sovereignty movement. Self governance and reparations from the U.S. government are one of many issues that define the movement, as well as keeping the integrity of Hawaiian culture ranging from Hawaiian language immersion programs, agricultural sustainability and also, one day, self-governance.

However, with the term ‘hapa,’ there are varied opinions with the use of it. More from Johnson:

Linguist and consultant Keao NeSmith told me he was shocked the first time he heard hapa outside of a Native Hawaiian context. NeSmith, who grew up on Kauai, learned more about the wider use of hapa when interviewed for a PRI podcast last year. Hearing the episode, his family and friends were shocked, too. “It’s a new concept to many of us locals here in Hawaii to call Asian-Caucasian mixes ‘hapa’ like that,” NeSmith said. “Not that it’s a bad thing.”

NeSmith cited the mixed nature of language and culture in Hawaii as one reason the use doesn’t bother him. “We borrow Portuguese terms all the time, Japanese terms all the time, English terms all the time,” he said. He called it hypocritical for a local person to protest someone using a Hawaiian word when “it’s perfectly fine for us to do that and steal from other cultures and ethnicities.”

Johnson end her essay that the term ‘hapa’ is a loaded word that has meaning to various groups, but yet also brings a sense of belonging and identity, especially in a world where “whiteness” is considered normalized:

Since then, hapa has become a meaningful part of who I am. But now I understand this frustrates and offends others. Now, when I think of hapa, I think about the history of Hawaii and identity theft. I think about helping obscure a group of people by swapping my story for theirs.

Hapa is a word I don’t think I should use anymore. But I also don’t know how I will let it go.

To read the rest of Akemi Johnson’s essay, head over to NPR’s Code Switch: Who Gets To Be ‘Hapa’?

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