The month of May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It is when many people, schools, and organizations become more intentional in appreciating Asian Americans and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, peoples. It is common to see events that celebrate AAPI cultures during this month — the dances, the music, the food, the languages, the traditional clothing!
If we are truly sincere in our efforts to recognize the Asian and Pacific Islander heritage of our country, however, we must go beyond feel-good celebrations. A deeper understanding of AAPI experiences may be especially relevant to Alaska, as approximately 10% of Alaskans are of AAPI heritage, higher than the national average (6%). Thus, in an effort to facilitate this deep dive, I present five things to know about AAPIs that may help debunk stereotypes, shed light on their unique struggles and present a more accurate and nuanced framework for understanding AAPI history and modern reality.
1. Asian does not only mean Chinese, Korean, or Japanese.
When people think of Asian Americans, the image that most likely enters their minds is that of a Chinese, Korean or Japanese person. The experiences, cultures and voices of these three groups — what folks collectively call “East Asians” — tend to dominate the Asian American narrative. East Asians’ perspectives are automatically seen as the default representative of the Asian American community. This “Asian equals East Asian” assumption, however, is problematic because East Asians do not even compose the majority of the Asian American population. Census data shows that Chinese, Koreans and Japanese combine to make up only around 40% of the Asian American population.
In contrast, three other Asian groups that tend to be overshadowed and forgotten when it comes to Asian American discussions — Filipinos, Indians, and Vietnamese — combine to make up 50% of the Asian American population. This is especially true in Alaska, where Filipinos alone compose half of the Asian American community! Despite these facts, however, the voices of non-East Asians tend to be overshadowed and forgotten when we think about and consider Asian American experiences.
2. Recognize Pacific Islanders, too.
Speaking of being overshadowed and forgotten, people also often fail to consider and recognize Pacific Islander peoples, who are forced to be a part of this overly broad AAPI racial category. While it is true that Asian American groups differ substantially from each other, this is especially the case for Pacific Islander peoples; they differ so much from Asian Americans in terms of languages, cultures, histories and modern day experiences! Thus, Pacific Islander perspectives are often unheard and disregarded.
This is especially relevant in Alaska, where our Pacific Islander population (2%) is five times higher than the national average (0.4%), and where Pacific Islander peoples may be facing very different issues than Asian Americans. For example, a study published by the UAA Justice Center in 2013 found that Pacific Islanders in Anchorage commonly experience racism from police (13.7%), while trying to rent housing (16.9%), from state or local government employees (19.3%), in health care settings (27.3%), while trying to buy a house (27.3%), while at school (34.6%), while at work (51.4%), and while shopping (54.5%). Although Asian Americans also commonly face racism in these areas, Pacific Islanders face noticeably higher frequencies of racism across the board, suggesting that Pacific Islanders are perceived and treated differently — and thus have different experiences and issues — than Asian Americans.
3. AAPIs must be part of the immigration conversation.
Immigration is a hot topic right now, and the national immigration conversation tends to focus on our Mexican and Latinx relatives. However, it is important to know that approximately 40% of all immigrants to the U.S. come from Asia or the Pacific Islands. It’s also important to know that the fastest growing racial group in the U.S. are Asians, largely because of immigration. Indeed, for every year since 2010, more Asian immigrants have arrived in the U.S. than Latinx immigrants. In fact, Asians are projected to surpass Latinxs and become the largest immigrant group in the U.S. by 2055.
Further, when it comes to unauthorized immigration, Asians are also the fastest growing group of undocumented immigrants in the country. In Alaska, Asian Americans make up the third-largest racial group in the state (8% of population) after whites and Alaska Natives. Pacific Islanders have also become the fastest-growing group in Alaska, largely because of immigration. Further, unlike most other states where the largest immigrant group are Mexicans, the largest immigrant group in Alaska — documented and undocumented — are Filipinos. Also, although many Samoans are allowed to migrate to the U.S. because they are U.S. nationals, the fact that they are not U.S. citizens means that they are denied rights that may protect or benefit them, such as voting, running for office, applying for certain government jobs or serving on a jury. Thus, their status in the U.S. brings up unique challenges and nuance to the immigration debate. Despite these facts, however, Asian American and Pacific Islander perspectives are often absent in our efforts to understand and resolve the issues in our immigration system.
4. Many AAPIs really are from here.
When we meet new people, it’s common practice to be asked the question “Where are you from?” For some folks, this question can be answered briefly and definitively. People may say “I’m from California.” Or “I’m from New York.” Or “I was born here.” Then it’s done. For AAPIs, however, there seems to always be a follow-up question: “Where are you really from?” Regardless of whether this is well-intentioned, the message it conveys to many AAPIs is that they must not really be from the place in the U.S. that they said they were from — or even born in. Indeed, studies have shown that there is a persistent stereotype that all AAPIs are immigrants or foreign. Although a large percentage of AAPIs are indeed immigrants, it is important to remember that a large chunk of AAPIs (approximately 40%) are not immigrants at all. In fact, many of them and their families have been in the U.S. for many generations! In Alaska for example, the first Filipino set foot on these lands in the late 1700s, and large numbers of Filipinos have been coming here since the early 1900s. The same thing can be said about Samoans, who have been coming to the U.S. for work since the early 1900s.
So when you ask an AAPI person where they are from and they tell you they’re from California, Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Louisiana, New York, Virginia, D.C., New Jersey, Illinois, Texas, etc. — believe them. They really are from here, and they are probably just as American as you are.
5. Many AAPIs are here because the U.S. was there.
Finally, it is important to know that AAPIs are not born with a gene that naturally makes them move to the U.S. There is no such thing as a “I have to leave everything I love — my family, my friends, my culture, everything I am familiar with — to come to the United States” instinct that is automatically activated among AAPI peoples. Although we may love salmon, AAPIs are not like salmon. So something happened that made it necessary for so many AAPIs to leave their homelands. Something happened that made it necessary for so many AAPIs to leave their loved ones. Something happened that made AAPIs think that life in the U.S. is better. Something happened that made AAPIs want — or need — to move to the U.S. And what happened was U.S. colonialism and imperialism. From the unjust annexation of Hawaii in 1893, the colonization of the Philippines and Guam in 1898, the incorporation of Western Samoa in 1900, to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War during the 1950s-1970s, there are many historical examples of how the U.S. has meddled with Asian and Pacific Islands affairs and how such involvements continue to culturally, economically and politically benefit the U.S. today. For generations now, the U.S. has been benefiting from the exploitation of Asian and Pacific Islander peoples and their resources. This history and modern reality — as painful as it may be — must be acknowledged if we are genuine in our attempts to recognize the Asian and Pacific Islander heritage of our country.
E.J.R. David, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, has produced four books, most recent of which is “We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet: Letters to My Filipino-Athabascan Family.”
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