Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage month is upon us!
Image Source: Visual Communications Photographic Archive
The history of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) identity in the United States is a complicated one. The term AAPI initially emerged as a means of fostering solidarity and political mobilization among diverse communities within the United States. Its origins can be traced back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, during a period of social and political activism known as the Asian American Movement.
The Asian American Movement emerged as a response to various forms of racial discrimination, systemic inequalities, and the Vietnam War. It aimed to unite Asian Americans from different ethnic backgrounds and empower them to address common issues, challenge stereotypes, and advocate for civil rights. The movement sought to combat the perception of Asians as a foreign and perpetual "other" in American society. During this time, the term "Asian American" gained prominence as a self-identifying political and cultural label. Asian American activists and intellectuals, such as Yuji Ichioka and Richard Aoki, played pivotal roles in shaping and popularizing the term. They recognized the power of collective identity and the potential for coalition-building across diverse Asian ethnic groups.
In the early 1970s, the Asian American Movement expanded its focus to include Pacific Islanders, recognizing shared struggles against racism, colonialism and social injustice. The inclusion of Pacific Islanders reflected the movement's commitment to solidarity and the recognition that their experiences intersected with those of Asian Americans.
AAPI emerged as a way to encompass both Asian American and Pacific Islander communities within a broader umbrella. This term acknowledged the diverse ethnicities, languages, cultures and histories within these communities while highlighting their shared experiences of marginalization and the need for collective action.
The Diversity Within
And yet, the term "AAPI" has faced criticism in recent years for its tendency to flatten and oversimplify the diverse range of identities and experiences within the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. While the term was originally intended to foster solidarity and collective action, AAPI communities in the United States have long been victims of a pervasive myth that renders them as a monolithic group. This misleading notion overlooks the immense diversity of experiences and histories within the AAPI population.
The perception of a singular "Asian American" identity obscures the kaleidoscope of ethnicities and cultures that comprise the AAPI communities.
Given the multitude of ethnic and racial groups within the AAPI community, it raises the question of whether a single umbrella label is still appropriate. While there may be shared experiences related to immigration or racism, the AAPI category now encompasses more than 20 distinct ethnic and racial groups and subgroups. These groups have diverse languages, cultures, and histories, making it challenging to find a unifying thread. How much in common does a first generation Bangladeshi immigrant really have with, say, a native Hawaiian, beyond the fact that they would both check the “Asian American” box on a government survey?
We can’t talk about the discrepancies within the AAPI community without talking about (and dispelling) the model minority myth. The model minority myth is a stereotype that portrays Asian Americans as universally successful, high-achieving and well-adjusted. It emerged in the 1960s as a way to contrast Asian Americans with other minority groups and downplay the existence of racial inequality. It is a gross oversimplification that overlooks the diverse challenges and disparities within AAPI communities and places immense pressure on individuals to conform to an idealized image of success.
Moreover, It can contribute to the marginalization of those who don't fit the stereotype, and the dismissal of racial discrimination. For example, Indian American and Taiwanese American households are some of the highest earning groups within AAPI, whereas Burmese Americans are one of the lowest earning groups. There is a difference of almost $100,000 in the average household income between these groups. The model minority myth selectively highlights the successes and achievements of certain AAPI groups while ignoring the systemic challenges, disparities and barriers that exist within others. It fails to recognize the significant variations in socioeconomic status, educational attainment and employment outcomes among different ethnic groups.
So where do we go from here?
Challenging the homogenization of AAPI communities involves recognizing the complexity of our experiences and advocating for policies that address our diverse needs. A crucial first step to understanding these unique experiences is disaggregating the data within the AAPI category. Rather than treating AAPI as a monolithic category, disaggregating data involves analyzing and reporting information separately for various ethnic subgroups. This approach provides a more accurate representation of the disparities, challenges and successes experienced by specific AAPI communities.
By disaggregating data, researchers, policymakers and community advocates can gain insights into the socioeconomic, educational, healthcare, and other disparities that exist within different ethnic groups. It helps identify areas where targeted interventions and resources are necessary to address specific needs. By highlighting the diverse range of experiences and outcomes within AAPI communities, it brings attention to the individuals and groups that may face significant barriers or are marginalized within broader narratives.
In the face of ongoing challenges such as discrimination, xenophobia, and social disparities, the term AAPI continues to enable community empowerment, policy advocacy, and the promotion of cultural pride. It helps amplify the voices and experiences of Asian American and Pacific Islander individuals, fostering greater visibility and understanding within society. And there has definitely been progress since the 1960s. I mean, Everything Everywhere All At Once just swept the Oscars, and AAPI representation in media and politics has increased in recent years. But our issues loom larger than Hollywood; they are woven into the fabric of American history and society. While representation is important for visibility and empowerment, it is crucial to address the multidimensional challenges that AAPI communities face beyond representation alone. Advocacy efforts should encompass economic justice, healthcare equity, education access, immigration reform, cultural competency, and intersectional concerns to promote the well-being and empowerment of all AAPI individuals.
Vrithi Takkalapalli is a first year biochemistry and English major, and an online writer for Rowdy Magazine. She loves Thai tea, the NYT crossword, and all things pop culture.