I was recently asked to check out Naomi Takata Shepherd’s clothing line and website, 6 Degrees of Hapa. Loving all things multicultural, I was excited to peruse and learn more about this lovely lady; but then I thought, “what is Hapa?” My favorite restaurant in college was named “Hapa”. I went to a university with many Hawaiians and I heard the word mentioned from time-to-time. I had a vague understanding of the word, but I wanted to learn more about the history and usage of this expression.
Hapa is a Hawaiian pidgin word that literally means “half” – hapalua. It began as a derogatory term to describe mixed-race children that resulted from the union of local Hawaiian women and the newly-arrived plantation workers from Japan, China, the Philipines, and Vietnam. Hapa went from being a disparaging name for those mixed with native Hawaiian and anything else. Because these Hapas continued to mix with each other, they integrated into local Hawaiian culture and became “kama’aina”, or local. After the influx of mainland whites after World War 2, a different population came about – half “kama’aina”, half white (haole). This mixed race population was then called “hapa haole”, or Hapa, for short. Eventually, with all of the mixing with mixing, Hapa started to mean any mix. The word Hapa was carried over from Hawaii to mainland USA, but here, it means half-Asian/Hawaiian/Pacific-Islander. To the new generation, it is no longer a derogatory term, and the label is worn proudly. I welcome anyone to add to the history of the term Hapa and their personal feelings about it in the comments below, as I am definitely not an expert.
This brings me back to Naomi Takata Shepherd. Naomi’s mother is Japanese-American and her father is an all-American mix of different European heritages. She decided to identify as Hapa after she learned of the term at age 11. She never felt quite right identifying herself as half-this and half-that, but she felt very comfortable being whole Hapa. Seeing the Hapa population underrepresented in our culture led her to begin her clothing line, 6 Degrees of Hapa. And don’t think you have to be Hapa to wear the clothing that features pictures of Spam Musubi, Waves, Shaved Ice and other Hapa paraphernalia. The reason for the “6 Degrees” is that we all know someone who is Hapa and the line was created to promote cultural diversity.
One particularly noble words of wisdom about being mixed-race from Ms. Takata Shepherd:
“People will try to put you in a box because they may not be used to being around people who have diverse backgrounds. You don’t have to settle for what they decide you are. Your identity is up to you.”
If you are interested in learning more about Naomi Takata Shepherd and shop her line, please visit her online store.
You can also read Naomi's posts as Swirl Nation Blog contributor here.
To learn more about the Hapa community, one of our other contributors, Alex Chester has a great blog called Me So Hapa.