This is a hilarious video (I think) regarding our ethnic, racial, national, cultural labels. Bishop CD says: “Am I a Hapa? Am I too old to re-frame myself!” Hilarious!! What’s ‘Hapa?’ Why ‘re-frame?’
The term ‘Hapa‘ is a newly-circulating label for mixed-race Asian-Americans and perhaps, nowadays, including all mixed-race and multi-ethnic Asian identities. It is an old Hawaiian term for mixed-race Hawaiian Asians. However, this term is increasingly becoming popular to note this very diverse group. As most of us understand identity in the present, the old categories have become increasingly irrelevant in many ways, as we delve into the politics of identity and the re-positionings of power toward justice. So as we discover terms that are new that circulate, that touch upon ourselves, we may struggle.
Further commentary follows the video!
Miller say’s “I’m too old to re-frame myself!” Heard that!! But in seriousness, we must and we shall……or we cling to the old words that are no longer useful in some ways. However, I feel that all labels, making us into objects, are tools for some kind of jockeying for power, control. Having ‘no identity’ is also a label and stinks of dominant privilege and disconnectedness. So we must re-frame, if not for ourselves, then for others who necessarily suffer because of the bodies that are marked by territory, social class, nation-state hierarchies, gendered norms, sexual orientation secrets and revelations, words that define but never grasp, yet tear our bodies into pieces. Go on Bishop CD Miller! I’m of your generation too! Continual re-frame!! How many frickin’ times do we have to question how others view us, define us and label us? And then what do we do to ourselves? and to our ancestors? What of them? Who were they? How do they live in us and through us today? However, labels will never define us. Labels, however, if we must use them, must be for social justice in this cruel, cold, fiery world full of secrets and displacements, torture and loneliness, ecstasy and understandings. Well….I’m almost too old…….. Bishop CD Miller says often that she is ‘White, Black and Filippino.” My own father says he is African-American, but we are aware of his Cherokee heritage. My mother’s mother was Austrian-Chinese mixed. Between the three of us, we have been through many continents, cultures. But what has been the label? Is there a need? It depends. As Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, and others help us to think into our words and the structures of reality, they also ask us to understand the play of power and justice, disempowerment, ignorance, and the making of objects through labels, through which our world is largely organized.
Hana mi 花見 is a Japanese tradition of ‘flower viewing.’ It is a celebration of the turning of the seasons and the appreciation of nature and the blooming of flowers in Japan. It is still celebrated.
The Hapa Project is an interesting project in Japan and for myself, I must say it is much needed in Japan, in order to be discussed and acknowledged as a reality (Hapa is an originally Hawaiian Islands term for mixed race persons of Japanese and non-Japanese ancestry). In Japan there are problems of historical invisibility and condescension, brought about through several wars, social upheavals, and US and European colonialisms. It is also about nationalism, as it is everywhere, that a ‘purity’ of a nation is designed by elites in order to ‘unify’ and create nations. Every nation-state, pretty much, has done this. Otherwise, there is no reason for a nation. In Japanese discourse, this unity has included a homogenization and purity which allows for racisms coupled with an intense caste-system that exists, that perpetuates economic, social (gender, for instance), cultural, and ethnic hierarchies. Purity has been one of the cornerstones of the return to certain forms of persecution and exclusion of biracial and multiracial Japanese nationals and non-nationals.
There has also been various shifts in the intensity of exclusion, violence, and persecution–both through social interactions in the everyday and the political policy level concerning rights and exclusions. When I was born, biraciality was a scorn and violence was the norm. Many of my Black-Japanese friends committed suicide because of the pressure. Some actually were killed by their parents before the parents killed themselves. Others quietly lived under tremendous pain in certain areas of towns and cities. Many were given up to orphanages where many of them became destitute and turned to robbery and prostitution to survive, where they were scorned for those things that offered survival. But there was nowhere else to go for those “brothers and sisters” of mine. From Japan when I was 7 years old (year 1962), our family moved to the United States. In the US I was called both nigger or Jap as well as gook and mutt, and experienced physical violence as well. However, American society had already begun to shift and many people–classmates and teachers, also came to my aid and protected me. Some years later when our family moved back to Japan for a few years, I was no longer scorned. I was a middle school student and was sought after for my exoticism and Japanese people were more fascinated with me than abusive. I found it relieving and also interesting. At the same time, I was also quite annoyed and bothered. In either case–abuse or fawned over, I was not me, but some representation of their own relation to this body, this mind, this history. And No, not everyone is like that (in case some of the readers were wondering!)
Today, being biracial and multiracial is more accepted in Japan, as it is also in many western countries. But this acceptance does not mean there is no discrimination and violence. Today, many people in the entertainment industries such as music and modeling in the US and Japan and Europe, are mixed race. The Hapa Project in Japan is trying to bring more awareness and discussion to the Japanese people, as well as providing a place for biracial and multiracial Japanese to be together, to create a space where that multiplicity can be lived, freeing that multiplicity from the compulsory singularity of a single-nation, single-culture identity. In many ways, some of the mono-cultural, single cultural identity circles, are jealous of and envious of multi and biracial people in the US, Europe as well as in Japan.
If we look closely, and listen to this great video, reflecting on what is said and not said, and the differences in history and in time from twenty years ago, forty years ago, and even a few years ago, we can also see that most of the people in the Hapa Project are not speaking about the differences and hierarchies in relation to Black-ness. There are no ‘black-Japanese’ present, with voice, in this particular video. I do know that some are a part of the Hapa Project. But it is no surprise that public reaction and response to Black-Japanese biracials, are different from responses to white-mixed Japanese persons. Blackness, as it is in the US, Europe, Korea–is seen as associated in many ways, to be a less-desired position and identity. We can appreciate the body and face and skin-color of a Blasian or Blackanese person, but there is still less of a preference in regards to their actual presence, intimacy with many people. The black-bodied Japanese and East Asians, are associated with rebelliousness, criminality, and un-wanted Asian-ness, while white-bodied mixed Japanese or Asian, are seen as closer to white, and therefore more acceptable. Blackness, in other words, is still a subaltern terrain governed by white supremacy, even as we may enjoy them on television or desire them (us) as sexual objects. Or hate them for the same. Or hate them because we are jealous. It is not only ‘blackness’ that is somewhat invisible and uncomfortable. For example, what of Ainu, Okinawan or Buraku mixed race people in Japan. They are also severely ostracized and demoted in the imagination and in political oppressions in Japan because of their already-demoted status as Japanese persons in Japan before their mixture with non-Japanese-ness. In effect, there is the exclusion from Japanese national identity, as well as Japanese cultural identity. Sometimes it is only one or the other. For others, it is both and it is shown and performed as exclusion, ostracization, demotion, abuse.
The other problem is that we seem to fetishize ‘identity’ and color and culture, but do not think politically about how it works. We need much more ‘real talk’ on the subject of having mixed race friends, but not wanting anything to do with the troubles experienced. Much like the African-American communities in the US, which have basically been driven through to succeed in sports and entertainment, must sacrifice much of their lives and attitudes in order to enter other careers or to even make their own way without the dominant notions of living and thriving in this world. The spaces become smaller for difference. Whether one is liked or not, or whether we like ourselves or not, are important questions but those questions are vacuous in relation to the structures that create those kinds of questions. In one small segment of the video below, one person describes an experience of a mixed-race person questioning which country they belong to: Japan or the US? What culture they belong to? Why does one need that question asked and answered? Even in Japan there are different ethnic groups that don’t remember their difference or have been forced to forget. Nationality is a political construct which might be important in order to access certain things (such as passports and freedom to travel, etc.) but how does this work culturally and historically? Why can we not appreciate ourselves and others for our legacies while we work to struggle against the abusive and unjust elements of our everyday? Why must one choose? There are many reasons, I am sure. It’s just that for me, I was never concerned about my accepting that I have several cultures moving as I move. My biggest worries were other people and countries and policies. I did not want to be ‘included’ with others, I wanted to be myself and it will be different. People who think that everyone should be alike plays into the homogenization project and are predisposed to not accept difference. I say this is a product more of our education and soci0-cultural assimilation and un-thinking rather than intention. This is why I always stress that there needs to be accountability with our leaders in creating our social realities.
In any case, much work needs to be done in decolonizing our imagination towards justice and peace in as much of our spaces as possible, to challenge the hegemony of white supremacy within ourselves and each other and in our policies and organizational structures. For instance, how does white-ness, link with Japanese-ness, in the contexts I have mentioned? What does that link allow and disallow? Who does it cost spiritually and physically, emotionally and economically? Who benefits? How can it not be a constant battle without the topic/reality being swept under the carpet to hide and avoid, festering as a growing pain in society, in all of us?
But as we question, I appreciate the Hapa Project for what it is doing in Japan. I hope that different-bodied–particularly Black, are talked about in relation to the political realities of mixed and non-mixed identity and how subordination and invisibility is not part of any mixed-race project.