May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPIHM). In this article, we'll explore the history and importance of this month, some recent progress in the Asian American and Pacific Islander diaspora, and how far we still have to go to achieve racial equity and justice for all. We'll also offer some tips on how to stay engaged in your community year-round to support greater inclusion.
The History of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month—and Why It Matters
The idea for AAPIHM was born in the mid-1970s when a former Capitol Hill staffer, Jeanie Jew, approached Representative Frank Horton of New York and expressed concern that Asian Americans lacked national recognition for their contributions. Horton brought it to the House floor in 1977, and it was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in the following year. However, the period of recognition was initially limited to just a week. In 1992, AAPIHM was established and would extend through the full month of May each year.
AAPIHM aims to highlight and celebrate the achievements and contributions of the combined 23.4 million Americans whose heritage traces back to the Asian continent, Pacific Islands, Micronesia, and Polynesia. The month of May was selected to commemorate the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to America in May 1843 as well as the completion of the transcontinental railroad in May 1869. Up to 90% of that project's laborers were Chinese immigrants, including Jew's grandfather.
Actively supporting AAPI people and their achievements is of particular importance due to the violence and discrimination the community has historically faced.
From 1790 to 1952, Asian immigrants were defined as racially ineligible for U.S. citizenship and faced harsh immigration restrictions. A series of policies reinforced the exclusion of Asian immigrants from achieving citizenship, including the Nationality Act of 1970, which limited eligibility to "free white persons." In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act categorically barred Chinese immigrants. In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act provided immigration quotas for all countries, though Asian countries specifically were allowed very limited numbers.
The discrimination wasn't limited to immigrants either. Most notably, in response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in WWII, about 120,000 Japanese Americans—two-thirds of whom were U.S.-born citizens—were incarcerated in camps from 1942 to 1945. In 1982, a Chinese-American man named Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two White, laid off auto workers in Detroit who mistook him for a Japanese person, as they blamed Japan for the decline of the auto industry. This incident sparked a push for greater Asian American civil rights.
Where Are We Today?
Here in 2021, in all areas of achievement, AAPI voices have certainly been on the rise.
In sports, figure skater Michelle Kwan is a highly decorated former Olympian, and Tiger Woods is one of the most successful golfers of his generation.
Asian-led and directed movies have been having a heyday in the last few years too. In 2018, "Crazy Rich Asians" starred an all-Asian cast and broke box office records, becoming North America's highest-earning romantic comedy in a decade. The 2020 movie "Minari" featured a Korean American family and earned six Academy Award nominations, winning for best supporting actress. Additionally, Samoan actor Dwayne Johnson and Native Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa are two of the most sought-after leading men and action stars in Hollywood.
U.S. politics has become more diverse and inclusive of Asian Americans over time as well. The 117th Congress currently includes 17 AAPI members, and Vice President Kamala Harris is the first female, first Black, and first Asian American in the role.
Many of these trailblazers may be the first to occupy their positions, but they are paving the way so that they won't be the last. Unfortunately, despite these success stories, many AAPI people still face harsh daily realities.
Injustices Remain: The Long Road Ahead
In March 2020, a coalition of Asian American and Pacific Islander groups called Stop AAPI Hate was launched in response to several violent attacks against elderly Asian Americans across the country. These incidents are thought to have been sparked by misplaced fears surrounding COVID-19, which was first identified in Wuhan, China.
The organization's most recent national report recorded 6,603 incidents in the twelve-month span from March 2020 to March 2021 and serves as a shocking reminder of how far we still have to go to achieve racial equality in the U.S.
Since the mid-20th century, the AAPI community has also combated the "model minority" myth, which posits that Asian Americans—specifically East Asians and those from South Asian countries like India—are naturally high-achieving and have an innate drive to succeed. This stereotype homogenizes a hugely diverse group of people and often overlooks vast disparities between communities in terms of gender, sexuality, disability, class, income, education, immigration status, and employment.
Critics have also pointed out that the stereotype neglects to acknowledge that many of the aforementioned immigration restrictions allowed only skilled laborers, predominantly in STEM fields, setting an extremely high standard for those who wished to enter the U.S. The myth also most often serves as a racial wedge to downplay the struggles of other people of color rather than to uplift AAPI people.
How to Take Action and Stay Engaged
Engaging with diverse communities and groups can help break down barriers and support those who may feel overlooked.
Speaking up if you witness an instance of discrimination or harassment in person can make a huge difference. Hollaback!, a grassroots initiative working to combat street harassment, created a guide on bystander intervention that details how to confront harassment in public spaces. Stop AAPI Hate also continues to collect reports and data on instances of discrimination, harassment, and violence.
Supporting and frequenting Asian-owned small businesses and restaurants can also aid in alleviating financial hardship and make the proprietors feel more welcomed. Similarly, donating to or volunteering with community-led resources, programs, and organizations can also make a big impact.
Consider starting a conversation among your own family and friends, sharing educational resources, or reaching out to check on close friends' well-being, as these can be more personal ways to show that you care.
However you choose to get involved, we all must do our part to stand in solidarity with AAPI people as we continue to work toward a more inclusive, equal future for all.
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