Feb 28, 2021 2 mins, 50 secs

Growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Washington, D.C., photojournalist Daniella Zalcman didn't get to go to school with a single other Vietnamese person — nor anyone, like herself, who was of mixed Vietnamese heritage.

As someone of part-Asian ancestry, she said, it wasn’t until then that she could really share the experience of “what it means to have to navigate your own identity as an American, all of these different cultures that are a part of who you are and matter to you and are important to you, but [are] often at odds with each other.”.

Of those, 20 percent were white and Asian American, while two percent were black and Asian American.

While the majority of multiethnic babies had either one white and one Hispanic parent or two multiracial parents, Pew found 14 percent had one white and one Asian parent, three percent had one Hispanic and one Asian parent, and one percent had one black parent and one Asian parent.

When photographer Kip Fulbeck embarked on what would become the 2006 landmark project “Part Asian, 100% Hapa,” showcasing portraits of multiracial Asian people accompanied by their own answers to an all-too-familiar question — “What are you?” — he was filling a gap he’d felt in his own childhood of growing up part=Chinese.

Actively spending time in a place with a larger hapa population “really blows your mind in two ways,” said Fulbeck, who remembers being targeted while growing up in a white neighborhood.

While the linguist Keao NeSmith, an expert in Hawaiian and Polynesian language, said the use of the word “hapa” in Hawaiian to describe multiracial people dates back to the 1830s, pinpointing the term's jump to the mainland U.S.

“The word’s arrival on the West Coast around 1970 fits with the rise in national awareness of Hawaii that came with several developments” in the preceding decades, Spickard said — from the island’s role in World War II, Hawaii becoming part of the U.S.

As the postwar generation of Asian Americans also began to include a few mixed-race people, the word that people learned in the islands — where, by the 1960s it was being applied not just to people who were mixed haole and Hawaiian but to anyone who was mixed — began to be applied to those mixed people in continental Asian American communities.

Nearly 25 percent of people in Hawaii identified as multiracial.

Most of them, more than 20 percent, actually identified as being of three backgrounds — a combination of white, Asian and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.

NeSmith, who is of Native Hawaiian and European ancestry, said in his experience, “hapa” isn’t a loaded term in Hawaii, where people of mixed background have become an accepted norm over many decades of island immigration and intermarriage.

In a reversal from centuries of mainland American practice, NeSmith adds, in Hawaii, it’s not mixing that seems odd — but is still practiced — among some ethnic groups.

I couldn't ignore someone telling me it felt like identity theft, and I understand the larger issues of colonialism and appropriation that the broad use of the term represents to some people,” said Johnson, author of “Night in the American Village: Women in the Shadow of the US Military Bases in Okinawa.”

These days, she said, “I use a variety of words to describe myself — Japanese American, mixed-race, biracial, half white and half Japanese — depending on the context and my mood


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