All mixed up
August 25, 2016 11:23 AM   Subscribe

What do we call people of multiple backgrounds? Leah Donnella writes about the complexities of naming yourself and being named by others. She also links to Evoking the Mulatto, a project to explore black mixed identity in the 21st century.

NPRs Code Switch series has previously covered my personally chosen identifying term: Hapa.
posted by cubby (10 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Neat, thanks for the post! It's probably clear that hapa is a Hawai'ian borrowing of English half, but just in case: it is.
posted by languagehat at 12:13 PM on August 25, 2016

I learned "hapa" from my Japanese-American in-laws, whose family filtered to the US via Hawaii a long time ago. It's a nice positive word and I'm happy to use it to describe my daughter who I love very much.
posted by w0mbat at 1:52 PM on August 25, 2016

When I identify as Heinz 57 or all American Mutt almost everybody gets what I mean.
posted by ridgerunner at 2:26 PM on August 25, 2016

This is a topic I have a lot of opinions about!

My mom is from Hawaii, but I was born and raised in California, and the first time I heard the word "hapa" was when I was fourteen or so, at my pediatrician's office. The doctor asked me "Oh, are you hapa?" I asked, "What's hapa?" She said, "It's the Hawaiian word for a half-Asian person. I'm hapa, too!" (I thought she was white.) I thought, "There's a word for me!"

I trained myself out of using the word in college, when I took classes from the fantastic Wei Ming Dariotis, who wrote this essay on her discovery, embrace, and eventual rejection of the word. At that time (and for many years before and after), if you googled the word "hapa," one of the first results was a website called "Real Hapas" run by a native Hawaiian who accused "California Asians" of stealing and colonizing the word. (It's gone now.) Wei Ming talks about this in detail in her essay. I don't begrudge others using it, and the controversy seems to have died down, but I have gotten out of the habit myself.

One thing about the mixed-race experience is that we are a minority who, almost by definition, is raised by parents who are not like us. (There are second-generation mixed people and so on, who at least share the experience of being mixed with one or both parents, if not their exact ethnic makeup, and I once knew a half Japanese, half white girl who was the child of two half Japanese, half white parents. But generally speaking.) And parents of mixed-race children often have strong opinions about how their children should identify. They may have faced microaggressions (or just aggressions) based on being in an interracial relationship, and of course they have skin in the game because of their kids. But then you have situations like in the article, where the author's mother taught her that "mixed" was a slur. Essentially, we're given our first descriptions of ourselves by people who don't themselves fit that description. When "Mixed Me" (Taye Diggs' picture book, mentioned in the article) came out, Diggs was going around telling interviewers that his son was not black or white, he was mixed, and that made me a little mad. From what I can tell mixed-race identities seem to be constructed somewhat differently in black communities versus the Asian ones I'm used to, and there's this whole thing about how you have to choose whether you're black or biracial (remember all the handwringing about which one Obama was?), and I accept that I don't fully get that, but to me it's uncool to cut your kid off from both their possible ethnic identities. "Mixed" is itself an identity, but it should be inclusive of one's other identities. I mean, that's the whole point.

I've always believed strongly that mixed people - everyone, really, but especially mixed people - should be able to describe themselves with whatever words they choose. "Biracial" is an example of a term that makes me uncomfortable for language reasons ("bi" meaning "two" is not exactly inclusive, and I dislike the inherent assumption about what those two races are), and I will correct someone if they use it about me, but it's standard usage among people who are half black and half white, and who the hell am I to tell them they can't use it to describe themselves?

So the next time you find yourself rolling your eyes at people who insist on shouting from the mountaintops that they're a quarter this, half that, a dash of the other, keep in mind that for decades, they had very limited options.

Are there people who roll their eyes at this, really? I will fucking fight them. Idiots. This is, like, the core thing about being mixed-race: I get challenged when I say I am Asian and I get challenged when I say I am white and I get challenged when I say I am both. It's oddly kind of freeing, because in that situation, what else are you going to do, other than exactly what you feel like doing?
posted by sunset in snow country at 3:20 PM on August 25, 2016 [16 favorites]

Thanks for that essay on hapa, sunset. I have some thinking to do about my relationship to native Hawaiian culture. I've got lots of family on Maui, many of whom have names drawn from native Hawaiian, despite our family roots being pretty much Filipino, Chinese, and Spanish. Modern-day Hawaiian culture seems to be such a melting pot -- with Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and native traditions all thrown together. It's easy to forget that that mixing involved a very real and violent erasure of native Hawaiian language/culture/voices.

But the culture I learned from my mom, aunties, uncles, and cousins is distinctly unique to Hawaii -- it's not Filipino, even though it slants that way. And my dad is a white guy from Michigan, and I was born and raised in Texas. So hapa haole in its somewhat perjorative sense is really the perfect word for me -- I'm a guy who can pass for a Hawaii-born Filipino until I open my mouth, and then its pretty clear that I'm from the mainland.

It can be amazing to find a word that seems to work just right to describe yourself (I bought bumper stickers that say HAPA and put them on my ukulele case even). But when we look harder at the histories of those words it seems like there is always something more complicated and somewhat problematic about them that should not be forgotten.

So thats why I really liked this writing on mixed race, cause it helped me think more about words we have available, with reminders about those complicating histories, without putting any judgement on what words people ultimately choose for themselves
posted by cubby at 6:04 PM on August 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

None of us are one hundred percent anything. It's so damn silly.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 6:51 PM on August 25, 2016

There is no word for me.
posted by zennie at 6:54 PM on August 25, 2016

My last semester in high school I was getting ready to go off to accepted students' day at the college I had been accepted to. I got a call from the college, more specifically from the Students of Color group on campus and they asked me if I wanted to do an overnight with their group while I was visiting the school.

I was very, very confused.

My father's father was from Havana. His mother was Irish, his father, Cuban. My father's mother is of German descent. My mother's family, on the other hand, is about as white as they come. I knew my father could grow a mean mustache, tanned deeply in the summer, and I knew I had some hispanic heritage, but growing up in suburban Chicago I never once thought that I qualified as a person of color.

So I told the kind student on the phone that I was pretty sure there was a mistake, and that I didn't think I was a student of color. They were just as confused as I was, and we laughed it off, ending the call. I then went into the family room to tell my parents what a crazy thing had just happened, and boy, wasn't that a weird mix up. They sort of looked at each other and then gently broke the news to me that yes, I was a student of color, even if I didn't know it.

Now, fifteen years after that call, it makes sense. The story of how when my mother and father got married my mom had to carry around their marriage license to prove that they were married. Why my mother was so rattled when a border guard asked her if the children in the backseat were hers when we were coming back from a trip to Canada.

Race is a weird thing, and I can't say I've ever really got a handle on it. But stuff like Code Switch sure helps.
posted by clockbound at 7:15 PM on August 25, 2016 [10 favorites]

I always remember the term 'octoroon' from one of the James Bond novels, which apparently denotes a person who is one-eighth black.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 1:32 AM on August 26, 2016

I always remember the term 'octoroon' from one of the James Bond novels, which apparently denotes a person who is one-eighth black.

There's also "quadroon" (quarter black). They come from hypodescent, the practice of calling out the "inferior" race -- it's not good enough to be 7/8 "proper white" if you have even one great-grandparent who wasn't (see also "one-drop rule").
posted by Etrigan at 5:52 AM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

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