The month of May brings warmer weather and millions of posts under the Asian American Pacific Islander hashtag across all social media platforms. It is AAPI Heritage Month, a time for every Asian American and Pacific Islander to celebrate their respective cultures. AAPI commemoration was first officially recognized in 1978 as just one week in May, and the celebration didn’t expand into a month and didn’t become annual until 1990. At the same time, the U.S. Census Bureau was using the Asian Pacific Islander label they had used starting in the 1980s. However, while the Census Bureau separated the two groups in the year 2000, the label has continued to persist in colloquial use and in names such as AAPI Heritage Month. From celebrities to “woke” corporations and Instagram activist accounts, everyone has started using the AAPI label, yet the term never felt right to me.
As the word AAPI has risen in popularity in recent months, I began to wonder if people really had Pacific Islanders’ interests in mind when they used the AAPI label. I grew up in Hawaii, and as I met more people from mainland America, I realized just how little people know about the Pacific Islands. Most of my mainland American friends didn’t even know the three regions composing the Pacific Islands, yet all of a sudden, it seemed like everyone was discussing violence against Asian Americans AND Pacific Islanders. As I read article after article with AAPI in the headline, I noticed that I found nearly no quotes from Pacific Islanders. I waded through a flood of Asian-focused writing until I found articles specifically centering Pacific Islanders’ opinions on the AAPI label.
The AAPI label continues to spread online without people understanding its flaws. Despite comprising half the acronym, Pacific Islanders, composed of Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian ethnic groups, are often left out of the discussion surrounding AAPI issues. In reality, AAPI in most contexts just means Asian, more specifically East Asian, yet tacks on Pacific Islanders like an afterthought. While AAPI and Asian American seem like innocuous and interchangeable terms to us non-Pacific Islanders, our carelessness with the label harms the Pacific Islander community we claim to want to uplift.
In an attempt to be inclusive, the use of the AAPI can end up causing more harm than good. Pacific Islanders are often drowned out by the comparatively large influx of Asian American voices. As a result, the issues and needs of Asian Americans are projected onto Pacific Islander Americans, misrepresenting the actual struggles Pacific Islanders face. For example, according to research compiled by APM Research Lab, Pacific Islander Americans are facing COVID-19 infection rates nearly two times higher than Asian Americans. Furthermore, at the time of the study back in March of this year, only 11 states actually recorded infection and death rates for Pacific Islanders in their own distinct category. By April 20, states had disaggregated their COVID-19 data, revealing that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders had the highest infection rates in 17 states. Grouping together Asians and Pacific Islanders in this way conceals the health disparities that plague the Pacific Islander American population. Even before the pandemic, Pacific Islanders have always faced disparities in access to higher education, health insurance and cancer prevention. The aggregation of data between Asian and Pacific Islander American populations conceals the inner complexities of economic status, educational attainment and other issues that vary greatly between different ethnic groups. When we use the AAPI label to describe an abstract, monolithic identity, it only silences the voices of minorities within the Asian American Pacific Islander category.
As I scrolled through the AAPI hashtag on Twitter, I saw many panel discussions, reading lists and movie recommendations in honor of AAPI Heritage Month, led by Asians but often included very few (or completely disregarded) Pacific Islander people or works. The keyword search on Twitter for just the term “Pacific Islander” mostly yields tweets about Asians, drowning out posts from Pacific Islanders being highlighted. The misguided attempt to include and uplift Pacific Islander voices has instead unfortunately exacerbated the problem. “AAPI” and “Asian American” are not synonymous; if you mean to address Asians, then just say Asian. Our language needs to be precise in order to understand and meet the needs of marginalized groups. The AAPI label attempts to cover nearly the entire largest continent and every civilization in the largest ocean in the world—about 50 different ethnicities—but this simple four letter acronym cannot accurately capture the wide breadth of culture, history and human experience that it tries to encompass.
MiC Columnist Andrew Nakamura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org