The Problem with “AAPI”

This week in North Philly Notes, Erin Suzuki, author of Ocean Passages, explains the importance of distinguishing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Over the past year, the dramatic increase in anti-Asian violence and hate crimes across the United States have drawn public attention to long-standing histories of anti-Asian racism in this country. On social media, the hashtag #StopAAPIHate circulated widely in the wake of reports about increasing numbers of both verbal and physical attacks on Asian Americans in 2020 and 2021, as both mainstream outlets and political figures insisted on racializing the novel coronavirus as both the “Chinese virus” and the “kung flu.” Yet as the term “AAPI” (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) moves out of academic and policy circles and into the mainstream of public discourse, it’s also important to know what the term means, where it comes from, and—when used casually or uncritically—how it can work to exclude despite its gestures to inclusivity. 

While many assume that AAPI is the proper or more politically correct way of referring to the Asian American community, the secondary inclusion of “Pacific Islanders” within and alongside the larger category of “Asian American” has a long and contested history. Adopted by Asian American activists and academics during the 1970s and 1980s and governmentally sanctioned as a census category in 1990 and 2000, the category of “Asian Pacific Islander” conflated two already internally diverse groups into a single massive category of people who account for over 60 percent of the world’s population. Although this naming ideally calls for an intersectional politics, a sense of solidarity, and mutual support between a range of communities who have differently suffered from racist policies and stereotypes in the United States, in everyday practice the term “AAPI/API” is most often used as shorthand primarily for Asian American—and more specifically East Asian American—communities. As a consequence, many Pacific Islanders find themselves swept up into discussions that do not directly affect their communities (at best), or that ignore or bury their concerns (at worst). 

The problems of the “AAPI” designation have only become more pronounced in the past year, partly because the kinds of racial violence that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders experience often take very different forms. As a friend of mine commented, “People aren’t out there punching Samoan grandmas—they wouldn’t dare.” But on the flip side, issues that disproportionately affect Pacific Islander communities are rarely identified as AAPI concerns. For example, during the COVID-19 epidemic, the Pacific Islander population in the United States have suffered from the highest rates of COVID transmission and death per capita of any racial group, yet the CDC’s practice of aggregating that data within the larger category of “Asian or Pacific Islander” obscured these numbers, meaning that the necessary resources were not always set aside or ramped up to address this very specific need. In this case, the inclusion of Pacific Islanders within the larger category of Asian Americanness in fact excluded communities in need from both the public eye and from receiving levels of assistance that should have been mobilized to help. 

As I discuss in Ocean Passages (and as Indigenous Pacific scholars have argued for many, many years), this harmful process of “exclusion through inclusion” has a long and complex history rooted in the ways that many Pacific states—including Hawai‘i, Guam, American Sāmoa, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia—were forcibly “included” into the political jurisdiction of the United States as the nation sought to wage war and engage in trade with Asia. In this sense, histories of anti-Asian racialization have a material, if often overlooked, connection to the colonization of the Pacific Islands. The dispossession and erasure of Native peoples’ claims to their ancestral lands and seas enabled many of the transpacific passages and military interventions that brought Asians into American space. If we want to mobilize against the myriad forms of interpersonal and institutional violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, we must also engage with how the ongoing colonization of Pacific states continue to differently shape perceptions of and policies towards Pacific Islander and Asian American communities. We cannot allow “PI” to operate as a mere afterthought or addendum to “AA.”

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