Multiracial Population Grows, Giving Birth to New Hapa Identity
The author and her family, photo by Jocelyn Lai
When the results of the 2010 Census came in, the numbers of people identifying themselves as “Multiracial” grew by 50% from the 2000 Census, the first time that people could check more than one box for race. It confirmed what I already suspected, having given birth to two of those multiracial individuals myself.
At a recent birthday party for my friend’s son, I looked around the yard and noticed that almost every single child in attendance was mixed race. And by mixed race, I mean Hapa: a Hawaiian term that’s now come to indicate anyone of Asian multiracial makeup.
As the numbers of multiracial individuals grows, society’s ideas of what “race” is will have to change. The New York Times recently ran a series, “Race Remixed”, focusing on the changing racial demographics, from Ivy League universities to the deep South.
Even in this day and age, there are still challenges to being multiracial, even in the most diverse metropolitan areas. Several weeks ago, my husband and I were volunteering with a group of elementary school aged children. A seven-year old girl looked at me, and then at my husband, and asked, “Are you married to him?”
After a pause, she looked at my brown-haired son, and asked, “And he’s your kid?”
I nodded again.
“Hmm. When a dark skinned woman is married to a light skinned man, it looks different,” she mused, as she continued drawing.
I shot my husband an indignant look, and he gave me the it’s-not-a-big-deal look. But that interchange has gotten under my skin.
This is the world my sons will have to navigate as they grow older.
By the time my kids reach adulthood, there will hopefully be many more support communities for them. In the last decade, Kip Fulbeck’s books “Part Asian, 100% Hapa” and “Mixed:Portraits of Multiracial Kids” have given voice to the discussion of identity among Asian multiracial people. College campuses have been seeing new student groups focusing on mixed-race, such as the Harvard HAPA student association , which recently put on its third annual conference. Tinu Diver of “Yes We’re Together” wrote up this great recap of the event.
U.C. Berkeley also held an academic conference, Hapa Japan, this spring. Event organizer, Professor Duncan Ryu Williams, says, “Hapa-ness will be an ever-multiplying reality as mixed kids also start marrying other mixed kids and having their own children.” People of Japanese mixed-race descent are also encouraged to sign up for the Hapa Japan database, to help academic research in this topic, They are especially interested in reaching out to Hapa individuals in their 60s or 70s to talk about their experiences during World War II and prior to the nationwide legalization of interracial marriage.
When I had the opportunity to review the documentary “One Big Hapa Family”, by Japanese-Canadian filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns, I decided to watch it with my eight-year old son. The film, which has been making its way around the film festival circuit -- as well as the aforementioned Hapa conferences-- features interviews with four generations of Japanese-Canadians (a group with a 95% intermarriage rate) combined with charming original animation. For the first time, I had to talked to him about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the fact that people of different races were at one time not allowed to marry. I’m glad my son and I had that discussion, because if there’s one thing the documentary made clear, it is the widespread longing of mixed-race youth to have dialogue with their families about their identities.
Besides challenging society’s perceptions, there are also some serious medical issues facing the growing Hapa population. Multiracial people face much more difficult odds of finding a bone marrow donor, since ethnically specific combinations provide the highest chances for a match. The need is especially high for Asian-African and Asian-Hispanic patients, according to Athena Asklipiadis of Mixed Marrow, a nonprofit organization set up to raise awareness and register multiracial bone marrow donors.
This an exciting time to be to be blogging about changing ideas of racial and ethnic identity. By the time the next U.S. Census rolls around in 2020, my kids will almost be old enough to fill out their own forms. I’ll be watching to see what changes the next decade brings.