At a surface level, the Asian/Pacific Islander American community is often seen as socioeconomically successful and having similar immigration and family histories, usually fitting into the “model minority” narrative. However, in the large APID/A community where some groups are overrepresented and others are underrepresented, some say issues of diversity and equity can be hidden with aggregated data. 

Mary Lai Rose, a Program Manager at the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and a Staff Co-Chair for the University’s APID/A Knowledge Community, said a lack of separated data hinders underrepresented groups from getting necessary resources and attention from the University of Michigan. 

“The groups that we know are underrepresented are all the ones that are not East Asian and are not South Asian, and even within South Asian there’s so much diversity,” Rose said. “People who come from lower income backgrounds within the APID/A community, Southeast Asian groups who have refugee histories, Pacific Islanders who have histories of colonization … the bottom line is that we are a very diverse group and I don’t know if the broader community and the University understands that and this is one way for us to help increase that understanding.” 

Groups like the APID/A (Asian Pacific Islander Desi /Americans) Knowledge Community, the United Asian American Organizations and Students in A/PIA Studies are pushing the University to disaggregate A/PIA data to better understand the demographics and diverse issues of subgroups within the A/PIA community at the University. When Asian American, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander data is disaggregated, it can make all the difference in allocating resources and representing subgroups within the A/PIA community, according to these groups.

Rose noted the disaggregation of A/PIA data is necessary to better understand more than ethnic diversity within the community. She said the data can help the University better allocate resources and outreach to subgroups of the community. 

“Our community is very diverse,” Rose said. “Because we fall under that one racial category, there are assumptions made about how monolithic or what a model minority this group is, but it’s actually very diverse … and it’s not just in terms of ethnicity and language. It’s also immigration histories, it’s citizenship, socioeconomic status.”

The APID/A Knowledge Community is a project funded by the National Center for Institutional Diversity with four goals: Examine institutional data on APID/A faculty, staff and students; evaluate the quality and collection of this data; make recommendations to improve data collection; and engage with the University community about these APID/A findings. The label “APID/A” was adopted to be more inclusive of the Desi community, Rose said.

Melissa Borja, an assistant professor of American Culture, said the disaggregation of APID/A data plays an important role in addressing needs of specific groups who are underrepresented in the APID/A community already. While many Asian Americans do suffer in terms of income, socioeconomic status and level of education, Borja said, these issues are masked by only having generalized data which shows higher than average education and income status for Asian Americans.

“We need to acknowledge that using a big category like ‘Asian American’ can really mask the fact that Hmong Americans, Cambodian Americans, Vietnamese Americans, they came to the United States in very different circumstances as refugees,” Borja said. “And as a result have had a very different experience economically in the United States. More recent immigrants from other countries, like Nepal and Burma, for example, have pretty high rates of poverty, and so having disaggregated data can help us be more responsive to the needs of particular communities.”

In a statement to The Daily, Robert Sellers, vice provost for Equity and Inclusion and chief diversity officer, said the University follows federal guidelines when it comes to collecting race and ethnicity data. 

“The university primarily collects and uses race/ethnicity data for reporting purposes and the federal government provides specific guidelines as to how the data is collected,” the statement reads. “The university has collected such data as part of our climate surveys. This data has disaggregated categories for race/ethnicity which will allow individuals to explore findings by subgroup. The data is available on university diversity, equity and inclusion website.” 

The 2016 DEI Climate Surveys sort all staff, faculty and students who are Asian/Asian American into one category and notably this category does not include the word “Pacific Islander.” While there are Native American and Native Alaskan categories, Pacific Islander is not one and there was no mention of Pacific Islanders throughout the report.

When summarizing findings, the overall results from the Asian/Asian American category are discussed, but are not broken down into different ethnic categories which could individually have different results. 

According to Borja, the term “Asian American” was invented in the 1960s as an act of coalition building, but has since continued to be used and changed to be more inclusive of more communities. At the same time, she said, using the broad term “Asian American” has managed to conceal disparities between different subgroups and deeper issues about equity and inclusion. 

“In a specific University context, disaggregating the data can matter for curriculum, for programming, for resource allocation,” Borja said. “In general, it’s important for all of us to remember the instability of the category of ‘Asian American’ and the diversity within Asian America … I think disaggregating the data has significance in terms of policy and resource allocation, but also in terms of helping us understand who are Asian Americans in the first place, and reimagining who belongs to this particular community.”

According to a report from the Pew Research Center, the United States Asian population has seen a 72 percent increase from 2000 to 2015, which is the fastest growth of any major ethnic or racial group. The A/PIA group is highly diverse; while there is no one dominant country-of-origin, the largest groups are of Chinese (24 percent of U.S. Asian population), Indian (20 percent) and Filipino (19 percent) origin. While U.S. Asians overall do well economically, eight of the 19 Asian groups Pew analyzed actually had poverty rates higher than the U.S. average. 

In Michigan, the A/PIA population has grown 71 percent since 2000. Around 15 percent of Asian Americans in Michigan live in poverty while 22 percent of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander live in poverty. 

As a professor, Borja said having more specific data on students can help her better design course material around the experiences and needs of her students.

“If I’m going to teach an Asian American history course, it’s useful for me to know if I’m going to have a large population of Cambodian Americans in my class or Arab Americans in my class,” Borja said. “Also, in terms of resources available to particular students, if we know that a large proportion of students are going to come to class from refugee backgrounds or low income families, I might make sure that when I, for example, have to teach a class online suddenly, I’m not going to assume that everyone has a laptop and good internet.” 

LSA junior Anna Dang, who is a member of UAAO and is an A/PIA Studies minor, echoed Borja’s sentiments. She added the umbrella term of A/PIA is too general a label for most Asian and Pacific Islander Americans to use as an identity. 

“Asia is an arbitrary group and it was a collection of people in a larger geographical area that were grouped together when Europe decided to colonize,” Dang said. “‘PI’ was added to the A/PIA label because of instances in history where the label was thought of as a political coalition. When we’re trying to come up with ways to address our identities, then you’re going to have to address that in a less arbitrary way.” 

For Pacific Islanders and Pacific Islander Americans at the University, having more information about the numbers of PI students on campus and being able to get more University resources could greatly improve their college experience. LSA senior Anahera Nin moved to Michigan from New Zealand for college and struggled finding other Pacific Islander students to connect with.

“I felt really lonely on this campus, I didn’t have a space at all,” Nin said. “I didn’t know any PIs at this school and still don’t and I think this can be resolved if we are able to collect this data and basically have it to find other people in our communities.” 

Susan Najita, an associate professor of A/PIA studies, said disaggregating data could offer greater clarity on the number of Pacific Islander/Pacific Islander American students on campus year to year, which would help with student outreach. She emphasized Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander American students often have trouble meeting each other during college, with no events or resources for connecting. 

“Because they’re kind of dwarfed by the large number of Asian Americans, it’s assumed that there are not that many of them,” Najita said. “I heard that at the University of Michigan, there are many more Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders on campus than might be expected. But we don’t actually have any numbers on it, we’ve never historically been able to get those numbers and I don’t know why that is.” 

The disaggregation of A/PIA data may not come easily, sources said. In addition to needing labor and money to add more checkboxes to surveys and forms, Borja said a challenge with asking people to check off more specific ethnicity boxes is assuming they want to claim certain labels which have complex and emotional backgrounds. 

“Whether we’re talking about a big category like Asian American or more specific category like Cambodian American, they are all historically produced,” Borja said. “They’re all politically contentious in their own way. They’re all mediated by histories, legal institutions, political institutions, and people have complex feelings about it. So I think this big focus on counting people is important but we have to remember that what people choose to claim is also very, very dynamic.” 

Dang sees the disaggregation of A/PIA data as a long term goal, likely having multiple reiterations. While she believes the first round of more specified data will help, she said there will need to be many more rounds of recommendations and data analysis to help address needs of different A/PIA groups.

“Data disaggregation is important because it shows that the initial numbers that we have been using to measure Asian Americans aren’t necessarily accurate,” Dang said. “But it still is data and it still is reducing us down to numbers. Even within our ethnic groups, there are differences. Once we get our first disaggregation it’s just going to have to keep going. It’s a long journey.”

Reporter Sonia Lee can be reached at

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