Excursus on “Hapa”; or the Fate of Identity

Excursus on “Hapa”; or the Fate of Identity

Asian American Literature: Discourses & Pedagogies
Volume 3 (2012): Special Issue: Mixed Heritage Asian American Literature
11 pages

Nicole Myoshi Rabin
University of Hawai‘i, Manoa

When I was growing up the license plate on my mom’s Dodge minivan read: R3HAPAS. My mom explained to my sister, brother, and me that a Hapa was someone like us—part Asian. And, when I was a kid it made me feel special, gave me a sense of pride-in-difference, to be named in that way because in the predominately Jewish part of Los Angeles where I grew up, we were the only three Hapas I knew. In that community, it also offered me a shelter, something “identifiable” and nameable, to combat the questions about my identity. More than twenty years later, from the vantage point of a self-conscious multiracial individual and student of literature and cultural studies at the University of Hawai’i, I have come to separate myself from that license plate. Thinking back to the text of the plate, I see now that the letters—the possessive “R”—were more about my parents than they were about my siblings or me. For my parents, an interracial couple whose own parents refused to attend their wedding, Hapa was a term of empowerment, pride, creation—it embodied their (our) family. For my mother, it also symbolized a link to her memories of summers in Hawai’i. And while my brother and sister still identify as Hapa, and my family and friends identify me that way, I see that hunk of metal on my mother’s car not as my own, but as naming an identity I took on in the past, as her identity for me.

This story of the license plate summarizes some of the contradictions and tensions of the term Hapa. For many people, including my family members and me when I was younger, Hapa is, as Wei Ming Dariotis claims, “a word of power.” It gives individuals a term for a mixed race identity and access to a community of others who claim the same. But Hapa is also a term fraught with contradictions. It is a term that in some ways depends on and produces the very notions it hopes to subvert. It is this space of contradiction that I want to explore through this article. This examination of the term Hapa is crucial at this particular moment in Asian American Literature because there has been a recent rise in the number of conferences, panels, autobiographies, theoretical texts, and various other projects dealing with mixed heritage Asian Americans. May-lee Chai’s Hapa Girl: A Memoir (2007), Kip Fulbeck’s Part Asian 100% Hapa (2006), Theresa Williams-Leon and Cynthia L. Nakashima’s The Sum of Our Parts (2001), and Rudy P. Guevarra, Jr.’s Dissertation Mexipino: A History of Multiethnic Identity and the Formations of the Mexican and Filipino Communities of San Diego, 1900-1965 (2007) [now a published book] are just a few examples of the literary/cultural productions concentrated on mixed heritage Asian Americans. There have been panels focused on mixed heritage Asian Americans at the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, Asian American Association, and American Studies Association over the past few years. And, in Spring 2012 the Transnational Mixed Asians in Between Spaces (TMABS) hosted a symposium at the University of California, Berkeley. These examples demonstrate the growing interest in the Asian American community with issues of mixed heritage. As this concern continues to manifest within our culture, especially within our literature, examinations of terms like Hapa that are used to identify mixed heritage Asian Americans becomes increasingly important…

…Not only is the (self-) recognition of Hapa, as an identity, a means of reproducing the hegemony of monoraces through language; but it also works to reproduce racial hierarchy and stabilize and limit notions of racial identity. In her discussion on the legalization of gay marriage, Judith Butler makes an interesting point about recognition. She concludes that in the matter of recognition, there exists a sort of dilemma. On the one hand, to be outside the realm of recognition is to be disenfranchised in various ways. On the other hand, to become recognized can “lead to new and invidious forms of social hierarchy,” foreclosures, and support for the extension of state power (115). Although Butler is making her point about the foreclosure of the sexual field, the definition of the family and kinship, etc., her notion of the dilemma of recognition holds lessons for multiracial activists, scholars, and other individuals in a similar pursuit. In many ways, Hapa offers recognition (perhaps not state sanctioned) that works against a sense of disenfranchisement as a marginal racial identity in a society where racial identity has come to be one of the major ways in which we are identified and participate in public life. But some scholars, like Rainier Spencer in Reproducing Race, argue that some multiracial individuals, like Hapas, in their move for (self-) recognition are moving towards a position of “honorary whiteness” (108), leading to a “new form” of social hierarchy. In this argument (a version of hybrid vigor), the identification as Hapa works to separate the multiracial individual from his/her constituent “parts” and elevate him/her to a place above the lower-caste monoracial group. Although Spencer’s term, “honorary whiteness” suggests the presumption that Hapa refers to individuals of a white-Asian racial mixture who “elevate” above the monoracial category of Asian, his argument can be extended to non-white/Asian mixes as well. Spencer suggests that taking on a multiracial identity in some ways allows an individual to separate/elevate himself/herself from the racial group that he/she considers of lower privilege—whether that is Black, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American—as he/she moves toward whiteness, which remains positioned at the top. In this way, the term “honorary whiteness” in relation to Hapas can encompass other variations of mixedness beyond the Asian/white dialectic. And, although Spencer argues that the racial hierarchy is firmly rooted with African Americans on the bottom, I would add that the hierarchy might actually shift in specific contexts for particular individuals. In any case, whether or not “racial” elevation is the intention of the Hapa-identifying-individual, it is a concern that should be recognized and understood so that the multiracial individual can avoid becoming complicit in a racial hierarchy that continues to privilege whiteness…

…Finally, Hapa can work to uphold notions of race and racial essentialism. Multiracial scholars, as well as other race theorists, have long argued about the social construction of race and racial identity. In many Mixed Race Studies contexts, multiracial individuals are said to depict the instability of race and racial categories because of their inability, or determination not, to fit into the monoracial categories. By creating Hapaness as an oppositional category/identity, demanding to be recognized as such, or claiming membership to such a group, Hapas are in some ways (re)stabilizing racial identity in an alternate form. Spencer argues against “the [multiracial] movement’s loud proclamations inveighing against biological race while simultaneously and quite explicitly advocating for federal recognition of a new biological racial identity” (102). He goes on to argue that the construction of a multiracial community/identity “creates new racial subjects while conforming to the preexisting U.S. racial order” (239). While not all Hapa, or other multiracial, groups are advocating for state recognition, Spencer makes an interesting point about the reliance on a biological definition of race and the dependence upon the current racial schema. Even as we consciously recognize race as a socio-historic construction, the definition of Hapa as someone of part Asian descent implies its reliance upon a certain form of biological race, or ethnicity, and its adherence to the current racial order (in this case its dependence on the racial category of Asian/Pacific Islander)…

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