Happily Hapa

A drawing of a person who is both white and Asian


By Malia Mackey, Minerva Strategies—


As a half-Japanese, half-white person who looks “kinda Asian,” my identity has long been the subject of questions. Now I’m using the practice of answering others’ questions to help people craft their stories.


Thinking about my identity story started in a high school history class, when a teacher asked us a question: “When were you first aware of your identity?”


My first instinct was to look around at the obviously not-white students and wait to hear about a time they were discriminated against. Instead, to my surprise, I answered immediately: “I remember going to my best friend Jennifer’s house in kindergarten and being confused because her parents looked the same.”


They were both white, and at the time I thought people who were the same race must be related. I now chuckle at my five-year-old self for flipping the ever-offensive “all Asian people look the same” script.


My mom is probably full-Japanese (she was adopted), from Hawaii and my dad is white, making me and my sister “hapa”, or “half” in Hawaiian. We learned to embrace this endearing term to describe ourselves as the too-white-to-be-Asian, and too-Asian-to-be-white kids.


I’m used to people approaching me, pausing, and with a squint of concentration saying something like, “What’s your background?”


Confused, I’ve replied, “Infectious disease biology research?”


“No like, what are you?”


“Uhhh…” By now I’m catching on.


“What’s your ethnicity?” People typically aren’t insulting, but often ask in a way that suggests that hearing where my ancestors are from might explain all that they need to know about me.


Sometimes, I’ll ask them to guess out of curiosity, making a game out of something I could otherwise be upset about. In my less restrained moments, I’ll roll my eyes. (HINT: if you’re using this as a pick-up line, just stop.) Of course, they’re not asking about the white half—which I can trace back to Ireland. It’s the Asian half that we’re “pretty sure” is full Japanese.


Sometimes the fact that half of my family is in Hawaii will come up. If the other person hasn’t been able to pinpoint my ethnicity, this will lead to: “Oh, so you’re Hawaiian!” Well, technically, no. My mom was born and raised in Hawaii, and that’s where her family is and where our food comes from…but I still can’t call myself Hawaiian.


In some ways, I owe people confused about my identity a debt of gratitude. In their own—varyingly sensitive—ways, they forced me to think deeply about my origin story and in turn boosted by my pride in where I come from. Over time, I started to streamline my story and through practice and repetition, I got good at succinctly giving an answer with varying degrees of detail depending on my audience. Of course, some audiences only got an eye-roll in response…but for the most part I love talking about my family.


At Minerva, storytelling is an exciting part of my job. Knowing how to articulate my story is important because we often communicate about the lives of the people our clients serve—often people of color and others who are marginalized in our society and around the world. People’s authentic stories are important for everyone to hear. We tease out their narratives, staying true to their story, not following how others may think it should be told. We ask questions to understand, not categorize.


We carefully choose how to tell a story in a way that resonates most with each of our clients’ audiences. From elevator pitches to tweets, we condense the information to keep it captivating and accurate. When it comes to opinion pieces, blog posts, and speeches, we have more room to flesh out our subject, including anecdotes, motivation, and nuance.


In all these pieces, I get to ask in-depth questions and help people piece together their stories, like my high school teacher did for me.


About The Author

Minerva Strategies

Minerva Strategies

The Minerva team has decades of experience working with nonprofits, foundations, and values-driven companies. Minerva also partners with experts—trusted designers, web developers, global communications professionals, and others—who share our excitement for creating positive social change. Through these partnerships, we can build a team that is tailored to your needs. Learn more about who we are or what we do.