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Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Dear Colleagues, 

This May, as we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, consider the heterogeneity of the peoples and cultures that comprise this overarching category—Asian American and Pacific Islander. 

An article in Vox magazine, “The Inadequacy of the term ‘Asian American’” by Li Zhou, discusses the rationale for the emergence of Asian American as a category that encompasses several different ethnic groups, as well as the reason that Pacific Islander was added to this overarching label.  She explains that this umbrella category was established in 1968 as part of the radical politics of students at UC Berkeley (Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka) who argued for the increased political viability of people of Asian descent fighting for social justice. Modeled after Black Power activism, this was intended to organize disparate Asian groups into a formidable protest block. In the 1980s, this demographic category was expanded to include populations with roots in the Pacific Islands, due to similarities in the experience of colonialism, due to increasing populations of people of Asian descent who populated the Pacific Islands, and to increase the political power of Pacific Islanders in their fight for social justice.  Although we may collect data on AAPI students and employees as a single demographic unit, consider how diverse this group actually is, as noted in Zhou’s article. 

 “Asian Americans comprise roughly 50 ethnic groups, who speak upward of 100 languages including Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, Taiwanese Americans, Filipino Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Korean Americans, Japanese Americans, Pakistani Americans, Cambodian Americans, Hmong Americans, Thai Americans, Laotian Americans, Bangladeshi Americans, Burmese Americans, Nepalese Americans, Indonesian Americans, Sri Lankan Americans, Malaysian Americans, Bhutanese Americans, and Mongolian Americans — and that’s just some of the diversity that exists.” 

Pacific Islanders as a group include Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Tokelauan, Tahitian, Tongan, Guamanian, Chamorro, Mariana Islander, Saipanese, Palauan, Yapese, Chuukese, Pohnpeian, Kosraean, Marshallese, I-Kiribati, Fijian, Papua New Guinean, Solomon Islander, and Ni-Vanuatu people.” 

While there were initial rationales for grouping together people with very different histories, cultures, experiences, and social locations, there are also significant challenges.  Particular ethnic groups are marginalized in comparison to other ethnic groups, this umbrella category homogenizes those who fall under this category, the unique challenges of particular groups are lost in analyses that are conducted at the macro level of the AAPI category, the larger group is stereotyped and pitted against other ethno-racial groups, even though particular groups under the AAPI category may have more in common with a different ethnic group not included in the AAPI umbrella that may be advocating for sovereignty or fighting colorism. Zhou’s article is very illuminating and you can read the full text.

People of Asian American and Pacific Islander ancestry have made significant contributions to our society, in the past and in the present, and the following link takes you a list of ten influential activists.

One of the people identified on this list is the Hawaiian scholar and activist, Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask, who passed away last year.  Dr. Trask was born into a family of Hawaiian activists and from a very young age, was encouraged to critically examine society from a legal and political lens.  She was a leader in the Hawaiian movement for sovereignty and established the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii. Below is a link to an excerpt of her 1992 presentation on a panel addressing Racism and 1st Amendment Rights.  In this excerpt, Dr. Trask begins by rooting the lineage and origins of the Hawaiian people in the Hawaiian belief system and then presents the early history of American imperialism in Hawaii from a native point of view

Similar to Dr. Trask’s reorienting of history from a native perspective and centering the worldview and experience of the Hawaiian people, at Napa Valley College, your colleagues have organized several events and lectures that present knowledge from the perspective of the ethnic groups that we honor this month.

Dr. Patricia van Leeuwaarde Moonsammy
Senior Director, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion