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.”

The Political Incorporation of Chinese Migrants

This week in North Philly Notes, Amy Liu, author of The Language of Political Incorporation, recounts lessons she learned studying how Chinese migrants are treated in Europe.

Central-Eastern Europe is not an oft-discussed migration destination. Yet, places such as Hungary are some of the most popular European countries for Chinese migrants. Likewise, the Chinese constitute one of the largest migrant populations—not just in Hungary, but in all of Europe. To better understand the Chinese in Europe, I surveyed over 2500 Chinese migrants in Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Portugal, Romania, and Serbia. I find that while the vast majority still held on to their Chinese passports (Beijing forbids dual citizenship), there is substantial variation in the migrant networks. Some are from parts of southern China with large migrant populations in Europe. These southern Chinese communities have a distinct vernacular that ensures their insularity—not just from the local Europeans but from other Chinese.

Everyone else is resigned to larger, all-inclusive Chinese networks. The diversity of these networks requires Mandarin Chinese—the Chinese lingua franca—to be the operating vernacular. The use of this lingua franca means the average Chinese migrant engages regularly with other Chinese persons from different backgrounds. They also interact with the locals more frequently—whether it is because the locals had learned Mandarin or because the Chinese migrant had learned the local European language. This repeated, regularized diversity in interactions translates into a differential: The Chinese in lingua franca networks were on average more trusting of authorities (6 percentage point differential) and civically engaged (7 percentage point differential) than their co-nationals in insular networks.

The surveys were conducted over a five-year period—all before the COVID outbreak. For over a year now, the pandemic has put the Chinese—those in China proper and its migrant/diaspora population globally—on display. As we begin to return to some post-pandemic normalcy, here are two lessons the Chinese in Europe can teach us.

First, what drives higher incorporation levels among the Chinese in the lingua franca networks (i.e., diversity) is also what undermines it when there is a crisis. When I was doing surveys in Romania, the tax authorities launched a four-month raid of Chinatown. It was part of a larger, national campaign to collect unpaid taxes. Responses to these raids—seen very much as an ethnic attack—varied by networks. Those in the insular networks bunkered down and weathered the storm. Conversely, those in the inclusive networks finger-pointed and demarcated new group boundaries. There was sudden suspicion of anyone and everyone that was different. And here is the irony: Those most hurt by the raids were those who trusted and engaged more before; and conversely, those who had been insular were left relatively unscathed. The troubling implication is that anti-Asian hate crimes—while they do not discriminate against passport color or the generation number—affects those who were better integrated in the U.S. And this makes bouncing back after the crisis subsides even harder.

Second, political rhetoric—even the empty rhetoric—matters. During my research, Hungary—led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party—pursued aggressive nationalist rhetoric. And policies matched the rhetoric (e.g. the border fence). Yet, during this time, Chinese migrant attitudes towards the Hungarian authorities remained consistently high (86% in 2014; 95% in 2018). The interviews corroborated these numbers. Interestingly, even at the height of targeting the Muslims and refugees, Fidesz reached out to leaders in the Chinese community to emphasize the Chinese were not the targets of the xenophobic policies. Similarly, text analysis of Hungarian language newspapers across the political spectrum showed when the Chinese are talked about, it is rarely negative. Even as COVID broke out in Hungary, Orbán refrained from associating the Chinese with the virus. This is in stark contrast to his American counterpart. What the former U.S. president did to link COVID with the Chinese cannot be undone. As the Asian-American community tries to make sense of what happened last month in Atlanta, the Biden administration must exercise caution in what it says and how it says it.

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