Unpacking the “AAPI” Umbrella

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

With growing news coverage of the surge in anti-Asian hate, there’s one term that we’ve seen over and over again: AAPI. The acronym, which stands for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, is an all-encompassing one, a way to identify millions of people with varying cultural traditions. There is now a growing number of AAPI organizations and it’s a term commonly found in mainstream media.

In a previous article, “Confronting the Surge in Anti-Asian American Violence”, which discussed the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes across the nation, I included a note about why I made the conscious choice to avoid using the term ‘AAPI’ in favor of the term Asian American, which was more specific for the subject of that article. I am hopeful that other writers, including Asian American writers, will do the same.

Amid the popularization of the term ‘AAPI’, is a renewed concern about lumping disparate communities together, as it can minimize or diminish the issues important to each. This is especially true for the Pacific Islander, or Pasifika, community, which faces unique struggles and experiences in the US. A close friend of mine, who identifies as both Asian American and Pasifika, was unfamiliar with the term until recently and was unsure when I first asked her how she felt about it. “It’s confusing to lump together, say, Chinese Americans and Hawaiians,” she told me, “Why do that?”

And I couldn’t answer her question. Even separated, the terms “Asian American” and “Pacific Islander” each cover an array of demographics and cultural differences. Both groups have had unique experiences and relationships to this country that remain largely unrecognized by the average American, which only perpetuates stereotypes and generalizations. I want to suggest that we consider retiring the broad use of the AAPI term, and instead, try our best to specify and humanize both communities.

A complicated history of terminology

The term “Asian American” was coined in 1968 by Yuji Ichioka, Emma Gee, and other student activists. It started as a political move, a way to resist US imperialism in Southeast Asia and to fight against discrimination that Asian Americans face in the US. Although the grouping of “Asian Americans” is sometimes criticized today, it originally served as a symbol of unity and equality, a way to bring people of different backgrounds together for a common cause. People could find community under the Asian American umbrella.

In the 1980s, the term “Asian Pacific Islander,” which would later become AAPI, was first used by the US Census Bureau. Only in 2000 did “Asian” and “Pacific Islander” became two separate racial categories. With a history of critiques by scholars and activists, many argue that the API or AAPI terms do not reflect the unique experiences of Pacific Islanders. So, why are we still grouping them together?

The answer is unclear. Some organizations use the AAPI term and yet do little to no work with the Pacific Islander community, centering instead on Asian Americans. Most articles written on the surge of Asian American hate this year included the term AAPI, even though the attacks are mainly focused on the Asian community. On the websites of AAPI organizations, it’s common to see switching between the terms “AAPI,” and simply “Asian American.” Pacific Islanders are generally left out of the conversation, even though they’ve found themselves grouped in anyway.

One major setback of using the AAPI categorization is that it can be misleading. Many issues plaguing the Pacific Islander community are hidden by stereotypes like the ‘model minority’ myth, which ultimately only covers East Asians (and is still hurtful to the Asian American community, as explained in our earlier article). Poverty, health, and education data are completely different between the two groups, but the data is very rarely separated. For example, during the pandemic, Pacific Islanders have had some of the highest infection rates of COVID-19 across the country, but this fact is largely hidden because the CDC and other government agencies tend to aggregate Pacific Islanders with the Asian demographic.

An unknown history

Within the past decade, we’ve seen an uptick in Asian American coverage and representation, which is a step in the right direction. However, there is still very little coverage of Pacific Islander issues, such as sovereignty and decolonization, in mainstream media and few instances of accurate representation. The history of both communities is largely unknown by most Americans, which only contributes to the feeling of “otherness.”

Take Hawaiʻi for example. Many people still don’t know the dark history of how Hawaiʻi became the 50th state through the colonization and illegal annexation by Americans. The last Hawaiian ruler, Queen Liliʻuokalani was imprisoned in her own home and forced to abdicate. Under American rule, Hawaiʻi saw an increased military presence (including weapons testing) and oppression of their own culture, including their language. And that’s just scratching the surface of Hawaiʻi’s tumultuous and complicated history with the US.

Other Pacific Islands have similar experiences with colonization. The Marshall Islands were used by the U.S. for nuclear weapons testing after World War II, resulting in generational, residual effects for residents, such as radiation sickness and cancer. In American Samoa, colonization led to a dramatic change in diet, resulting in high rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, which persists to this day.

Today, Pacific Islanders still experience the effects of colonization. They’re continuously priced out of their homelands, as their islands are increasingly commodified and used as tourist attractions. In 2019, the US Census Bureau reported that 14.8 percent of Pacific Islanders are living at the poverty level, as compared to 9 percent of non-Hispanic whites. There is also extraordinarily little to no Pacific Islander representation in local, state, and federal government. Since Guam and American Samoa are US territories, similar to Puerto Rico, residents don’t even get to vote for president or have voting representatives in Congress.

How are we to address the issues plaguing the “AAPI community” if we don’t even understand the particular history and damage that has been done to Pacific Islanders?

Together but separate

There is no denying that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been united in many ways. However, there are many ways in which the communities are separate and, sometimes, at odds.

The two communities tend to borrow many cultural aspects, especially in a place like Hawaiʻi, where Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have lived beside one another for a very long time. And in many instances, that’s been a good thing. Pidgin creole in Hawaiʻi is a mixture of languages, from Hawaiian, Japanese, Filipino, and more, created as a way for immigrants of varying backgrounds to communicate with one another. The mixing of cultures has created food (like poke, as we know it), art, traditions, and more.

But problems sometimes arise when outsiders adopt and appropriate a culture without understanding the history or meaning behind them. One example of this is the term “hapa,” a Hawaiian word that was originally used to describe someone who is part Native Hawaiian. The word has been adopted by Asian Americans (especially by Japanese Americans) to describe those who are half-Asian and half-white, even though that isn’t the original use of the term. There are those in the Pasifika community who are frustrated with the misuse of the word, especially considering that, after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the Hawaiian language was banned in schools.

This is not to say that we aren’t all in this fight together. It is still more vital than ever for both Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans to stand with and stand up for each other. However, we need to recognize that there is tension and miscommunication between the communities as well.

Asian-focused organizations should make room for Pasifika-led and focused organizations. By doing so, it will also better center and refocus the meaningful work that has been done for and within the Asian American community.

As humanists, we need to stand with both the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and respect them enough to understand that they are separate and unique. We must honor our humanist values of empathy and global awareness by striving to better educate ourselves and others about the issues facing our fellow Americans. It’s time we think harder about the important issues masked by the term AAPI.