Why language matters
Honoring Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

First celebrated as a week-long observance in 1978, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month honors the lives, cultures, histories, and lasting contributions of Asian Americans, Desi Americans and Pacific Islanders who have been part of the American story since its inception. AAPI Heritage Month falls in May each year to honor two important dates in Asian American history: the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the U.S. transcontinental railroad by Chinese immigrants on May 10, 1869. Filipino laborers, East Indian slaves and indentured servants, and Chinese merchants were among some of the first Asian people to arrive in colonial America as early as the 1700s. These individuals and communities brought with them rich and diverse languages, cultures, faith traditions and histories. Understanding that Asian Americans have been a vital part of the nation since its founding is one of the ways we begin to combat racism, xenophobia, and anti-Asian violence that has spiked exponentially since 2020.

What are AAPI and APIDA?

In 2016, former President Barack Obama eliminated the term “Oriental” in federal law deeming it culturally inaccurate and insensitive. The term reflected a long and violent history of stereotyping Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners—always “alien,” “other” or “exotic” and never belonging to the nation. These stereotypes led to travel bans like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, as well as the forced internment of thousands of Japanese Americans in U.S. concentration camps during World War II. The legacy of these stereotypes is still seen through acts of bigotry, discrimination and microaggressions against Asian Americans that continue to this day.   

The term “Asian American” was first used in 1968 by two graduate students Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee as a way to better represent their community and its struggles. The term “AAPI” became an official category in the U.S. Census in the 1990s. People who identify as AAPI can trace their ancestry to the continent of Asia and the Pacific Island regions of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. The term also includes several generations, meaning that it can apply to a Chinese American born in Los Angeles whose great-great-grandfather helped build the transcontinental railroad as much as it can apply to a recent immigrant from Beijing.  

A newer term, “Asian Pacific Islander Desi American” (APIDA) aims to more visibly include people of South Asian descent from countries such as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan, among others. Both AAPI and APIDA reflect the incredibly rich diversity within this racial and ethnic category. The APIDA community encompasses countries and regions across Asia, hundreds of languages and cultural heritages, faiths, multiracial/multiethnic identities, as well as complex global histories that span centuries.

Anti-Asian violence and COVID-19

The year 2020 saw a significant increase in violence, harassment and race-based  discrimination against the APIDA community. This escalation, however, was not new and fits into a troubling pattern of anti-Asian violence based on xenophobia and racism. The violence is also part of a scapegoating tactic that countries often resort to in times of crisis and is specifically aimed at marginalized communities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, China became a target for fear and blame as reports linked the novel virus to the city of Wuhan. As a result, Asian Americans, regardless of background, were subject to discrimination, abuse, terror and violence. Asian American women and elders were especially impacted. The AAPI Equity Alliance, Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University launched the Stop AAPI Hate coalition on March 19, 2020. This coalition continues to respond to and assist in tracking incidents against Asian Americans. 

How do I learn more? 

  • Visit the Rochester Public Library and explore nonfiction, fiction, poetry and films by Asian Americans.
  • Minnesota has a rich and unique Asian American history. Support local AAPI businesses and organizations. 
  • Look for intersections and connections: Explore more about how Asian American activists like Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs modeled intersectional allyship. You can also check out the “Secret History of South Asian and African American Solidarity” (blackdesisecrethistory.org) to learn more about Desi Americans and the Black community. 
  • Practice using inclusive language in everyday communications.

About Author

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Nicole "Cole" Nfonoyim-Hara is a writer, freelance journalist, and media host for PBS and Mayo Clinic Press. She is the founder of Griot Arts, an arts hub with an art gallery and bookstore in downtown Rochester.

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