4 important aspects to know about Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

4 important aspects to know about Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

By Gabby Cushman

Highlighting a community of many cultures that often get overlooked or minimized

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! Not only does this month-long celebration allow us to highlight the contributions and achievements of AAPI communities, but it also brings attention to the needs of these communities as well. Allies can take AANHPI Heritage Month as an opportunity to learn more about this large and culturally diverse group. That’s why we’re going to take a look at four facts in honor of AANHPI Heritage Month, which include the history of this celebration and specific issues that affect the AAPI community. Use this blog as a starting point for educating your young learners throughout the month!

Why does AANHPI Heritage Month happen in May? The origins of the month-long celebration.

AANHPI Heritage Month actually started as only a week! President Jimmy Carter signed into law in 1978 a designated week in May to celebrate the AAPI community. It was then President George H. W. Bush in 1990 who extended this week until a full month, and President Obama later changed the name to “Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month” in 2009. As recently as 2021, the Biden administration proclaimed the month to be “Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month,” giving Native Hawaiian communities specific mention for their unique history with the United States. May was originally chosen for this celebration because it was when the first Japanese people immigrated to the United States. May 10th, 1869 was also Golden Spike Day, which was the day the transcontinental railroad was completed, mostly built by Chinese laborers. It’s important to note that AANHPI Heritage Month exists today due to the work of the civil rights movement from the 70s, which made way for Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month as well.

Is the term “AAPI” actually inclusive? Many activists don’t think so.

The term “Asian American” was created by activists in the 1960s to unite different communities of Asian descent to create a stronger protesting group, inspired by the Black Power movement. Despite these well-intentioned origins, the term has been criticized for ignoring the huge amount of diversity in these communities, often centering East Asians and overlooking other ethnic groups from getting the support they need. In the 1980s-1990s, the term was then broadened to Asian American and Pacific Islander to be inclusive to Pacific Islanders who did not resonate with being labeled “American.” Pacific Islanders are people whose heritage is connected to the island nations in the Pacific Ocean, located in the geographic region of Oceania. This classification can include people from Samoa, Tahiti, Fiji, Guam, and more. Native Hawaiians are technically considered Pacific Islanders as well, but the U.S. government has started to include Native Hawaiians within the “AANHPI” acronym to intentionally center their unique experiences, especially since the U.S. colonized their native land. As you can probably see after this lengthy explanation, although the terms “AAPI” and “AANHPI” are meant to be inclusive, they reduce nearly 50 different ethnic groups and over 100 languages into one umbrella term. 

The outdated idea of the “model minority” is just another way to cover up racism.

The “model minority” is a myth completely created from Asian stereotypes. It involves the characterization of Asian Americans as a polite & law-abiding group with a hard-working immigrant mentality that helps them achieve higher levels of success than other marginalized groups in the U.S. Not only does this eliminate individual differences amongst Asian Americans, as well as turn the huge amount of diversity within these cultures into a monolith, but it also attempts to erase racism against Asian Americans by presenting them as benefitting from the American Dream. The myth additionally harms other marginalized groups by perpetuating that if other groups worked as hard as Asian Americans, they would see similar success, completely dismissing the systemic oppression all marginalized groups have faced in the United States. 

The rise in Asian hate during the COVID-19 pandemic is only the most recent instance of the AAPI community being targeted by specific discrimination and bigotry.

We’ve talked a lot on the blog about systemic oppression that affects many marginalized groups in the U.S. However, it’s important to highlight specific issues Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders face to better support this community. East Asians have been targeted throughout American history, such as with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Japanese Internment Camps during World War II. After the tragic events of 9/11, Muslim Asians and South Asians as a whole experienced an increase in racist and xenophobic attacks. Indigenous Hawaiian communities have struggled with displacement over the years due to the U.S. making room for both their military and the overload of tourists that visit yearly. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw Asian hate and violence towards Asian Americans on the rise due to the virus inaccurately being labeled an “Asian virus” in the U.S. Although this month allows us to give time to these issues and figure out ways to support the AAPI community, we should be giving attention to these issues all year round.

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