What It Means to Be Hapa

Ken Tanabe, photo by Willie Davis

Today’s guest post is by Ken Tanabe, founder of Loving Day, a global movement for a new holiday to celebrate the anniversary of Loving v. Virginia.  Loving Day’s mission is to fight racial prejudice through education and to build multicultural community.  Ken will lead a conversation about what it means to be hapa with artist Kip Fulbeck on Thursday, December 8, 6:30p.m. at the Museum of Chinese in America.  This event is part of the Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations series, exploring mixed-heritage families, race, ethnicity, culture, and identity, infused with historical perspective.

The word “hapa” comes from Hawaii, a historical hot spot for interracial marriage, and the birthplace of the first multiethnic US President. It most commonly refers to people whose multiethnic heritage includes Asian ancestry. The hapa identity is an especially vibrant part of a growing movement towards multiethnic identity and community.

Being hapa wasn’t always a good thing. Interracial marriage was illegal in many states for most of US history, including marriage between whites and Asians. This made hapa children illegitimate in many places. Punishments for the parents of hapas could be anything from denial of a legal marriage to jail time and fines. These laws (and the social attitudes that formed them) made it clear that hapas should not expect a warm welcome into the world. Interracial marriage bans were not lifted until 1967 through a landmark Supreme Court decision aptly named Loving v. Virginia (now celebrated as Loving Day).

Celebrating Loving Day in New York, photo by Michael Kirby

In 2011, hapas are everywhere from census forms to celebrity A-lists. The hapa identity is growing fast in academia, the community, and the arts. UC Berkeley hosted the first Hapa Japan Conference this year with a focus on Japanese hapa identity. At Harvard, the third annual SWAYA (So… What Are You Anyway?) conference on mixed-race issues was hosted by Harvard Hapa, one of many active hapa student groups nationwide. A great documentary film entitled One Big Hapa Family was shown on PBS and has been traveling the festival circuit, including the first annual Hapa-Palooza festival in Vancouver.

Part Asian, 100% Hapa by Kip Fulbeck

Kip Fulbeck is arguably the most visible artist in the hapa community. He’s especially well known for The Hapa Project, which includes the book Part Asian, 100% Hapa, a traveling photo exhibition, presentations, and online communities. Fulbeck’s work has inspired many other artists to explore the hapa identity through photography and other media. This visibility has an important effect: for many, Fulbeck’s work is their introduction to the hapa identity and the first step on a path to exploring multiethnic identity.


The Hapa Project
Thursday, December 8, 2011 at 6:30pm 

RSVP Required: programs@mocanyc.org
Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA)
215 Centre Street, Manhattan
Directions to MOCA

Sady Sullivan

About Sady Sullivan

Sady Sullivan is Director of Oral History at the Brooklyn Historical Society.
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2 Responses to What It Means to Be Hapa

  1. Greg says:

    I will probably feel a lot of backlash for posting this but I’ve dealt with as much discrimination from within this community as outside of it, including the artist Kip Fulbeck himself. To me, this is a very sad statement because I grew up in a very polarized Detroit and experienced some very horrific discrimination. I have given up on searching for any type of acceptance from any collective group of people due to this. I began to slip into very self-destructive behavior until I withdraw myself from this search. I don’t find it is something to be celebrated when it continues the same cycle that our parents fought through. I feel as though creating these new categories has lead to creating a new type of elitism, which many of us and family have tried to do away with. I want to be a part of this discussion but the ones in the past have brought nothing but more anguish to me.

  2. Todd says:

    So psyched for this program. Thanks for the awesome blog post too, Ken. I may be unbiased since Ken and I went to high school together. We were even on the staff of the literary magazine together.*

    Strangely, it wasn’t really my doing that BHS connected with him on this project. Mad props to Sady Sullivan, our wonderfully forward-thinking Oral History Director for organizing one of the most exciting and thought-provoking series we’ve had in the 3+ years I’ve worked here.

    *CHIPS – http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/schools/bcchs/academics/english/chips.aspx

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