Long throughout our nation's history, the contributions of Asians, Asian Americans, and those from the Pacific Islands have influenced our culture, our society, and our democracy. All the while, members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, diaspora have faced xenophobia, racism, and systemic barriers that have placed them at social disadvantages. Today, over 16.6 million people who identify within the AAPI diaspora live in the United States.
America has long held a "whites-only" lens in our ability to understand and articulate what it means to be American, and this has placed many AAPI communities into the confines of the "model minority myth," a racist social standard of understanding how AAPI people should behave in both social and organizational settings.
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! To celebrate, we encourage you to take the time to pause, learn, and reflect as we honor these communities and the unique cultures regarded within them.
What is AAPI Month?
In 1992, Congress passed Public Law 102-540, declaring May "Asian/Pacific Month," a month of recognition, celebration, and cultural exchange for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across the United States.
The month of May commemorates the immigration of the first Japanese citizen to the United States on May 7, 1843. It marks the anniversary of the transcontinental railroad's completion on May 10, 1869, whose completion was due to the labor of an estimated 12,000-15,000 Chinese engineers and builders.
The celebration of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders encompasses all of the Asian continent and the Pacific Islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia), and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, and Easter Island).
The AAPI community of countries, identities, and cultures is a diaspora, or a shared group of people and lineages united by a common origin in a particular geographic region. A diaspora's members do not necessarily permanently reside in that specific location, or identify with that region as their birthplace. In viewing a diaspora as transnational, we can understand the role of migration in our shared history. The term diaspora helps us appreciate geography in the physical sense and through anthropological and cultural lenses.
This month's naming and appropriate terminology can vary, grow, and develop. Many have called the month various titles, from Asian Pacific American Month, to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, to the recent White House official statement on National Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. There is an intersection here: in the various ways in which we name, understand, celebrate, and honor Asian, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander cultures, we therein can begin to understand further the lasting impacts of imperialism and colonialism across all of Asia and the Pacific Islands, and the world.
As one recognizes AANHPI Month and its history in the United States of America and the broader Western sense, it is critical to understand that these communities have long faced racist adversities in our society.
America's Racism Towards the AAPI Diaspora Throughout History
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have faced scrutiny under the lens of the law since our nation's inception. Still, it was primarily the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that enacted the exile and exclusion of Chinese peoples into legislative motion. After years of Chinese laborers building the transcontinental railroad, social and political tensions motivated Congress to pass the act. After renegotiating preexisting treaties with China, the law prevented migration to the United States from China. The law created an indefinite limit on how Chinese citizens could travel to, from, and migrate within the United States, and was not repealed until 1943.
The annexation of Hawaii in 1898 expanded America's imperial reach further into the Pacific. There is a growing movement recognizing Hawaiian sovereignty, with many viewing the overthrowing of Queen Lili'uokalani to be an illegal act of imperialism and annexation, rooted in white supremacists' beliefs that consider Hawaii's rich geography and culture as a line of revenue for the federal government. This movement has led many to recognize Native Hawaiians in their recognition of Asian and Pacific Islanders.
Queen Lil'uokalani, the last sovereign monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii.
Another troublesome point of American history regarding our country's relationship with the AAPI community comes with the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII. In February of 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Across California, Washington, Oregon, and Arizona, families and individuals were placed into camps with deplorable conditions, barbed wires, and intimidating towers, all to resemble what many might consider a prison. Families lost ties to cultural connections, and the impacts of this horrific act on the part of the United States can still be felt today in many Japanese American and AAPI communities. It wasn't until December of 1944 that the supreme court ruled this action unfair and unconstitutional – for nearly two years, civil and human rights were debated over for an identity group while they remained locked away in the masses. During this period, an estimated $3.64 billion in 2022 funds disappeared from the American economy because of these citizens' internment.
A Family arriving at a Japanese Internment Camp
Forty years following the internment of Japanese Americans, the judicial system failed the AAPI community again when the killers of Vincent Chin went without consequences for their hate-fueled murder of the 27-year-old. In 1982, two men brutally beat Chin to death outside a bar, admittedly because he was Asian. At the time, many Americans blamed Japanese people for the "failing of the auto industry," and Chin's murderers singlehandedly accused him, a Chinese American, of the fall of the job market. The two men received three years' probation and a fine of $3,000 plus court costs. Chin's murder highlights the American judicial system's lack of respect for crimes targeting AAPI community members, which lasted well into the 21st century.
Lily Chin is holding a photograph of her son, Vincent, who was murdered by two white men in 1982.
After the 9/11 attacks, islamophobia and Anti-Asian sentiments continued to rise; from racial profiling on city streets and in airports to harassment and bullying, Muslim Americans alarmingly faced attacks and discrimination. Many people, both then and now, view Muslims as "foreigners," even though an estimated 42% of Muslim Americans were born in the United States. There is an overlap here: this understanding of the Muslim identity to be a foreign one motivates xenophobic, Islamophobic attacks and sentiments that are dominant in many social spaces today. A recent poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 53% of Americans have unfavorable views toward Islam; this is due, in large part, to Islamophobic narratives pushed through media and entertainment outlets.
Onwards into today, Anti-Asian sentiments and violence have reached a dangerous boiling point. The 2021 Atlanta shooting that killed six Asian American women and the massive influx of hate crimes committed against AAPI people due to COVID-related bias all indicate that Anti-Asian ideology still exists.
AAPI Leaders to Celebrate
When learning troublesome histories, it can be easy to assume that the identity group centered, in this case, AAPI individuals, all live disadvantaged, disconcerting lives. But, as in any sense of self-education, it is essential to remember that groups who have faced systemic oppression also have thrived culturally and intellectually because they have had no other choice.
Before you continue reading, take a moment to explore just a few of the fantastic AAPI leaders and activists from yesterday and today!
- Chien-Shiung Wu, "First Lady of Physics"
- Larry Itilong, American Labor Organizer
- Grace Lee Boggs, Activist, and Author
- Tammy Duckworth, the first person born in Thailand to be elected to Congress.
- Kamala Harris, First Asian American Vice President
- Steve Chen, Engineer and Co-Founder of YouTube
- Celeste Ng, Chinese American Essayist and Author
Dismantling the "Model Minority Myth"
Considering all the atrocities Asian Americans have faced, one might wonder why our society has attempted vigorously to confine and label Asian people within the anglicized concept of the "model minority." This myth illustrates Asian people to be quiet, subservient, dutiful, and highly motivated. This idea associates several positive biases with those who identify within the AAPI community, such as being good at math or familiar with technology. While these biases might be "positive" in nature, they can still lead to harmful, inappropriate behaviors by allies, peers, and leaders. Many Asians and Asian Americans vehemently oppose the idea that they are "the model minority." This myth also creates further barriers for many AAPI community members, as they are assumed by many to already "have what it takes" to succeed, despite systemic inequities being ever-present.
It is essential to know that the model minority myth is a tool of white supremacy meant to create a divide between racial groups. This method of interpersonal tension crafted through a social medium such as a collection of stereotypes intends to help empower one racial group to signal another: "I'm closer to whiteness." But the damning reality of this tool is that it furthers white supremacist ideals of racial hierarchy, with distinct personality traits associated with someone because of their physiological characteristics. This is a theme of white supremacy that negatively impacts us all.
What You Can Do: Today.
As inclusive individuals, it is essential to remember that allyship is a combination of our:
Be mindful of the language you use.
Some might be hesitant to say anything except for Asian when referring to this community, while others are comfortable saying Asian American or AAPI. When referring to any identity group, in any sense or for any reason, it is crucial to speak with intentionality and clarity. The AAPI diaspora physically encompasses a significant fraction of the globe, with members of various races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions calling its borders home. If you're referencing a specific country, specifically name it. Be explicit in your communication if you're discussing a particular language or religion.
The stumbling of sentences and fumbling of words can often come when attempting to be hyper-inclusive in our vocabulary. We can name and center the specific identities within this vast, culturally rich, diverse diaspora through our language. Also, don't ask someone you perceive to be Asian "where they're from" as a conversation starter. Just don't.
Activate your allyship.
From an actionable standpoint, there are more than a few ways to demonstrate allyship inclusive of the AAPI community:
- Speak up and out when witnessing instances of anti-Asian sentiment.
- Challenge people who assume something about an AAPI individual that aligns with the "model minority myth."
- Seek out intercultural engagement opportunities that allow you to enjoy and learn from the diverse, unique cultures represented within the AAPI diaspora.
- Surround yourself with media content that centers on those who identify as AAPI.
- Learn about the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. To begin, we recommend PBS' "Asian American" docuseries!
- Explore AAPI-centering organizations to support.
Challenge your preexisting beliefs.
Open yourself to the possibilities that unlearning can present to you – changing your mind and realizing what you once knew to be demonstrably false can be both uncomfortable and undoubtedly integral to growth on the part of allyship and inclusivity.
As we continue to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, remember what we here at Raven Solomon Enterprises reinforce during every cultural heritage season; let us commit to centering and advocating for AAPI voices all year round, and not just during May. AANHPI communities continue to face xenophobia, racism, and systemic inequities. These barriers intersect to disadvantage not only AANHPI communities but also every other marginalized group; may an intersectional lens guide your journeys of inclusivity ahead.
Check out these incredible Asian, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander creators, influencers, and activists!
Raven Solomon Enterprises is a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion education and consulting firm that aims to help organizations integrate DEI through exploration, motivation, and activation. Through a myriad of services (including Keynote Speaking, DEI Learning and Development, Strategic Advisory, and Leadership Coaching), RSE helps organizations make spaces more inclusive.
Ryan McKeel serves as the Content and Community Manager for Raven Solomon Enterprises. With an M.Ed. from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Ryan brings 5+ years of program management, community development, and social justice education, advocacy, and outreach experience to the RSE team.