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Multiracial/Hapa Asian Americans

Asian Americans of mixed racial ancestry have been referred to as multiracial, mixed-race, biracial, "Hapa" (a native Hawaiian term that originally meant half Hawaiian), and Amerasian, among others. Their presence in not only the Asian American community but also in mainstream American society has a long history. However, the political, demographic, and cultural implications of their increasing numbers have only recently emerged for both Asian Americans and non-Asians alike.


The Evolution of Racial Identity Among Asians

The origin of mixed-race or multiracial Asian Americans can be traced back to the early period of Asian immigration to the U.S. in the mid-1700s, with large scale migrations common by the mid-1800s. Because the vast majority of these early Asian immigrants were men (mostly from the Philippines or China), in many instances, if they wanted to be in the company of women, these early Asian immigrants had little choice but to socialize with non-Asian women. Eventually, the children from these interracial unions became the first multiracial Asian Americans, especially in Hawai'i where Chinese-Native Hawaiian intermarriages were common.

Eventually, as the numbers of immigrants from Asia began to swell in the mid- and late-1800s, the native White population increasingly began to view their presence in the U.S. with hostility. Objections were raised concerning perceived economic competition with native U.S. workers that Asian immigrants supposedly posed, along with doubts over whether Asians were cultural and racially compatible with mainstream American society.

The pursuit of Hapa-ness © Thinkstock.com

This nativist and xenophobic backlash, popularly characterized as the "anti-Chinese movement," eventually led to several pieces of legislation at the local, state, and federal levels, culminating with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. These laws restricted the rights and activities of first, Chinese immigrants, then later broadened to include virtually all subsequent immigrants from Asia. Included in these restrictive laws were anti-miscegenation provisions that prevented Asians from marrying Whites.

These anti-miscegenation laws were first passed in the 1600s to prevent freed Black slaves from marrying Whites. Later versions added persons of Asian origin or ancestry to the list of groups forbidden to marry Whites. While early examples of such anti-miscegenation laws singled out those of "Mongoloid" origin specifically, they were later amended to include Filipinos (who claimed that they were of "Malay" origin) and Asian Indians (who characterized themselves as "Aryan" in origin).

One noteworthy exception was the War Brides Act of 1945 that allowed American GIs to marry and bring over wives from Japan, China, the Philippines, and Korea. Several thousands of Asian women immigrated to the U.S. as war brides and their offspring became the first notable cohort of multiracial Asian Americans. Anti-miscegenation laws were finally declared unconstitutional in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court Loving v. Virginia case.

Interracial marriages involving Asian Americans and their multiracial offspring started to increase significantly following the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965. This Act replaced the restrictive National Origins quota system that had been in place for the past four decades and which effectively limited the number of Asian immigrants to a token few each year.

In its place, the 1965 Immigration Act was structured around provisions that favored the immigration of family members, relatives, and professional workers. Eventually, these provisions substantially increased the numbers of Asian immigrants coming to the U.S., which in turn significantly increased the marriage pool, or the numbers of potential marriage partners, for Asians and non-Asians alike.

The end of the Viet Nam War also played an important role in increasing the numbers and visibility of multiracial Asian Americans, in this case "Amerasians" -- the children of Vietnamese mothers and American GIs who served in Viet Nam. After the fall of Saigon in and the reunification of Viet Nam in 1975, several thousand Amerasians were left behind as all remaining American personnel were evacuated. After enduring systematic discrimination and hostility back in Viet Nam as direct legacies of the U.S.'s involvement in the war, the Vietnamese Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1988 allowed approximately 25,000 Amerasians and their immediate relatives to immigrate to the U.S.


Characteristics and Demographics of Multiracials

Efforts to get an accurate national count of multiracial Asian Americans have been stymied in previous censuses since respondents could not choose more than one racial/ethnic identity. However, for the 2000 Census, the Census Bureau reversed its policy and allowed respondents to identify with more than one "race," finally allowing researchers to get a reliable count of the number of multiracial Asian Americans in the U.S.

According to the 2000 census, (Table 1 of "The Asian Population: 2000" report), out of the 281,421,906 people living in the U.S., 10,242,998 of them identified themselves as entirely of Asian race (3.6%). Additionally, there were 1,655,830 people who identified themselves as being part Asian and part one or more other races (as noted in the Methodology explanation, the Census Bureau considers Hispanics/Latinos to be an ethnic, rather than a racial, group). The following table breaks down the distributions of Asian Americans who identify with more than one race.

Number of Multiracial Asians by Racial/Ethnic Combinations, 2000
  Number % of all Multiracial Asians
Asian and Other Race(s) 1,655,830 100%
Asian and White 868,395 52.4%
Asian and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander 138,802 8.4%
Asian and Black/African American 106,782 6.4%
Asian and Some Other Race 249,108 15.0%
All Other Combinations, incl. Other Asian 292,743 17.7%
 
All Asians Alone or with Other Races 11,898,828 4.2% of Total U.S. Population

As we can see, by far the largest group of multiracial Asians are those who are half Asian and half White. Historically, many of these mixed-race Asians have also been called "Amerasians." These include older multiracial Asian Americans who are the children of war brides and U.S. military personnel stationed in countries such as Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea, along with those who are the result of more recent non-military interracial marriages involving Asian Americans.

The Hapa Issues Forum quotes a recent Congressional Record report that indicated "between 1968 and 1989, children born to parents of different races increased from 1% of total births to 3.4%." The 2000 Census further shows that 30.7% of those who identify as at least part Japanese are multiracial, the highest proportion among the six largest Asian American ethnic groups. Next are Filipinos (21.8% of whom are multiracial), Chinese (15.4%), Korean (12.3%), Asian Indian (11.6%), and Vietnamese (8.3%).

Overall, the Census Bureau reports that there are about 1.8 million Americans who identify has half-Asian and half one or more other races. Of these, 52% are half -Asian and half-White. If we include all multiracial Asian Americans as their own "ethnic" group, they would be the fourth-largest group, comprising 8% of the entire Asian American population. Multiracial Asian Americans would also be the fastest-growing group as well.

In fact, demographers predict that by the year 2020, almost 20% of all Asian Americans will be multiracial and that figure will climb to 36% by the year 2050. In other words, as intermarriages involving Asians increase, multiracial Asians are becoming a more prominent group within the Asian American community, and within mainstream American society in general.


All Mixed Up?

Traditionally, multiracial Asian Americans, like many other multiracial individuals, have been looked upon with curiosity and/or suspicion by the both sides of their ancestry and the rest of society. In the past, the racist "one drop rule" dictated that anyone who even had any trace of non-White ancestry (i.e., a single drop of non-White blood) was "colored" and therefore non-White. To a certain extent today, many Americans still see multiracial Asian Americans as "half-breeds" and don't consider them to be truly White, Black, etc. or even truly American.

On the other hand, many in the conventional Asian American community also do not consider multiracial Asian Americans to be truly "Asian" and rather, see them as "whitewashed." Politically, many worry that the Asian American community will lose government funding if people who previously identified themselves as solely Asian now identify themselves as multiracial. In other words, many multiracial Asian Americans still face distrust and even hostility from both their Asian and non-Asian sides.

Diversity © Salon.com

Sociologists argue that one of the defining characteristics of the U.S. racial/ethnic landscape is the tendency for Americans, White and non-White alike, to prefer a sense of clarity when it comes to racial/ethnic identity. In situations where the racial/ethnic background of a person cannot be immediately identified, many Americans become uncomfortable with this cultural ambiguity. This may help to explain the traditional emphasis on prohibiting the "mixing" of different races, a motivation that continues to drive many neo-Nazi or White supremacist ideologies.

As a result of these cultural dynamics, many (although certainly not all) multiracial Asian Americans encounter difficulties in establishing their own ethnic identity as they try to fit into both the Asian American community and mainstream American society. As many multiracial Asian American writers have described, as they grow up, they are frequently caught between both sides of their racial/ethnic background. Frequently this involves feeling alienated, marginalized, and that they do not legitimately belong in either community, Asian or non-Asian.


Moving Forward and Forging A New Identity

However, recent research suggests that, rather than trying to fit themselves into just an Asian identity or just a White identity, multiracial Asian Americans report the most happiness and the least stress when they create their own unique racial/ethnic identities that combine all of their ancestries. In other words, instead of trying to "pass" as a member of a single racial group, they may be better off when they actively create their own definition of fitting in that is based on synthesizing their unique and multiple characteristics. In doing so, multiracial Asian Americans develop a sense of ownership and pride in their new identity, rather than trying to seek acceptance into the preexisting racial groups.

As it turns out, monoethnic Asian Americans have been doing something like this for many generations, as they reconcile and negotiate their own identities as both Asian and American. In this sense, we might say that multiracial Americans are now going through the same process that Asian Americans have been going through for years. In other words, monoethnic Asian Americans and multiracial Americans share a common process of actively shaping their identities through combining elements from diverse cultures can help these communities connect with one other and bridge cultural differences.

As the incidence of interracial marriage and by implication, numbers of multiracial Asian Americans continues to increase, multiracial Asian Americans have the opportunity to both assert their own unique experiences and characteristics while also participating in the larger Asian American community and mainstream American society in general. In the process of doing so, multiracial Asian Americans are likely to play a central role in the demographic, political, and cultural evolution of a diversifying American society.



Author Citation

Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Multiracial/Hapa Asian Americans" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/multiracial.shtml> ().


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