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Understanding Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

The origins of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and what to consider when celebrating.

By Mia Mercer ‘23

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have played a key role in American history since the first Chinese immigrants arrived in the U.S. in the 1850s following the California Gold Rush. That’s why May is recognized as Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month

To learn more about the origins of AAPI Heritage Month and the importance of understanding the different cultures celebrated in this month-long celebration, we talked to Vanita Reddy, a professor in the Department of English at Texas A&M University who researches the intersections of race, sexuality, and gender in global contexts. This interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, explores the importance of this month and provides suggestions to become more aware of AAPI. 

What are the origins of AAPI Heritage Month?
AAPI month originated with Congress in 1978. Then-president Jimmy Carter started a week-long celebration in the first week of May, and over the next decade, presidents passed annual proclamations sort of renewing the idea that we need to celebrate Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for this week-long period. 

Then in 1990, Congress passed a law that expanded the observance of this week into a month-long event, and in 1992 Congress passed a law that designated the whole month of May as AAPI Heritage Month. 

Chinese and Japanese immigrants kind of became the reason for AAPI month, and sometimes they tend to be over-represented in Asian American studies. When we think about who is an Asian American, our minds might go to Chinese and Japanese Americans first and that’s very tied to this history of the law. 

Why do we celebrate AAPI in the month of May?
The month of May was chosen to commemorate the first immigration of the Japanese to the U.S. on May 7, 1843, and also to mark the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. So the May dates are significant for celebrating AAPI Heritage Month. The Chinese immigrants were critical to the infrastructure of the US.

Why is it important to recognize AAPI Heritage Month?
One thing we should be critical of as scholars and activists is the fact that AAPI Heritage Month is a state-endorsed month. This month is an act of Congress that’s meant to commemorate. On one hand, we might take pride in the fact that the U.S. state wants to recognize us as a racial group; on the other hand, we need to be skeptical of any kind of state-endorsed project like this and consider what the underlying motives for these projects might be. 

Like other celebrations of cultural contributions by different racialized groups, AAPI Heritage Month is are often difficult to separate from multiculturalism and from our desire to be more multicultural. Most of us are taught that to be multicultural is a good thing, something we should aspire to. So we need to understand what multiculturalism is and what’s wrong with multiculturalism. 

What is multiculturalism?
I would define multiculturalism as recognizing, celebrating, and maintaining difference as a response to the state-sanctioned separation of races and the violence of racial management. 

How does multiculturalism affect AAPI Heritage Month?
Multiculturalism does three things: One, it is the politics of recognition which is saying, “We see you as a non-White racial other.” The second thing it does is celebrate differences, which is saying, “We celebrate your traditions as a non-White racial other.” Third, multiculturalism tolerates this difference, saying, “I tolerate you because of those traditions and the way that they add value to making our society more diverse.” So recognizing, celebrating difference, and tolerating difference are the three things that multiculturalism does. 

Multiculturalism tried to address the problem of racial separation and racial violence by becoming a state-sanctioned institutionalized practice, specifically at the university level. In the 1960s and 70s, there were a lot of student-led protests that were called the “Pan Ethnic Third World Strikes.” This happened at San Francisco State University (SFSU), which was part of the larger national civil rights struggle. These strikes at SFSU were fighting against a generally accepted practice of monoculturalism, and students and professors said they don’t want to just learn about White culture as what counts as American history. Now, multiculturalism is not the political project that the anti-racist protestors had in mind, but it’s one of the outcomes of the critique of monoculturalism. 

Not only was multiculturalism accepted, but we are now in a moment where it becomes endorsed by the state through things like Black History Month and now AAPI Heritage Month. 

Multiculturalism can often function to manage racial differences but not address racism. Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month is important insofar as it recognizes and celebrates the ways that Asian Americans have contributed in central ways to the building of the U.S. nation, such as in the use of Chinese labor to build the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century, and it’s important insofar as it can address the way that anti-Asian violence had also been central to the building of the U.S. nation, such as in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (the first race-based exclusion law passed in the U.S.). But sometimes we can celebrate cultural differences without addressing racial violence.  Even the term multiculturalism can function to turn racial difference into cultural difference so that we don’t have to talk about race or racial violence. As Black History Month in February, AAPI Heritage Month often looks like celebrating Asian and Asian-American cultural differences rather than fighting for Asian-American racial justice, and that can often blind us from ongoing racial injustice.

Unlike Black History Month, AAPI Heritage Month uses the word “heritage” instead of “history.” How does that affect the celebration of this month, if at all?
I’m really struck by how this month is called, “AAPI Heritage Month” and not “AAPI History Month,” because it cements this idea that Asian Americans have this heritage but not a history in this country — which is problematic. 

It overlooks the very real way that Asian immigrants are integral to American history. There are a lot of historical contributions that Asian immigrants have made to the U.S. that really need to be recognized by everyone. 

The term “heritage” is particularly problematic for Asians precisely because of the way that Asian immigrants have been rendered perpetual foreigners in the U.S. That just reproduces this whole idea that Asians aren’t really Americans, because they only lay claim to a heritage rather than making everyone see how AAPI history is something we all should be concerned about. 

We should not only celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage, but we should also want to transform the questions of heritage into one of history. That way, we are all answerable to these histories and heritages, and actually engaging with these histories in ways that hold us all accountable.

Why is it important to differentiate between different cultures and ethnicities rather than group them all together?
The multiculturalism that emerged from the civil rights movement was never the goal of civil rights. The goal of civil rights was to have anti-racist politics, not multicultural politics. It wasn’t meant to appreciate difference; it was meant to combat racial injustice. So state-endorsed multiculturalism became one of the unexpected consequences of civil rights. One thing that came out of that is identity politics, which a lot of ethnic groups become really invested in.

So we not only have the separation of different racial groups, like African American, Latinx, and Asian American, but we also have this separation of different ethnic groups within those racial categories. Within the racial category, “Asian American” is ethnic groups like Vietnamese Americans, Chinese Americans, South Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders. Asian American is a racial category that becomes a strategic coalition in the sense that it allows these different ethnic groups to gain rights and recognition from the state by laying claim to this racial identity. 

But we also can’t forget that Asian American is a state-produced racial category. Government documents like the census force us to check that box even if we don’t think of ourselves as Asian Americans. For example, a lot of Arab Americans often don’t think of themselves as Asian Americans. AAPI as a category is a fragile, even if politically useful, political coalition. All Asians have very different relationships to the U.S.; that’s one of the reasons it is important to recognize the difference. 

And then we have the Pacific Islander designation which is a really contentious designation within Asian American studies because of the way that Pacific Islanders actually often have more in common with indigenous populations than they do with Asian American ones. Specifically in Hawaii, a lot of people who identify as Pacific Islanders are often at the bottom rung economically and socially compared to their wealthier Chinese and Japanese counterparts who control most of the Hawaiian economy and have had more access to resources and wealth. There are these interethnic tensions in places like Hawaii which has a strong Pacific Islander population who would rather be understood as native or indigenous and not as Asian American.

So for all of these reasons, it’s important to recognize the difference between the ethnic groups of Asian American not only for the different historical relationships that these groups have to the U.S. but also for the kind of class and other stratifications that happen within the category and the different migration histories. 

How can individuals recognize/celebrate this month respectfully?
If we could ensure that AAPI Heritage Month is both a recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander historical contributions to this nation and violence against this group, then I think we get closer to addressing the question. It’s important to not just focus on cultural contributions that we can turn into a spectacle to be safely consumed or into commodity practices like yoga, for example.

It’s great to recognize and celebrate yoga as a contribution to South Asian culture in the U.S. and I think it’s fine to do those things as long as we are also advocating for immigration reform and fighting against Islamophobia. Months like AAPI Heritage Month should ask more of us than they often do in terms of addressing racism and violence. 

As an English professor, are there any particular books, poems, short stories, or other literary works you’d recommend reading in honor of AAPI month?
Fae Ng’s ‘Bone – a novel about the history of San Francisco Chinatown, what working-class Chinese American lives look like in the space of Chinatown and it touches on the early history of Chinese Immigrants to the U.S. 

The Sympathizer – a Viet Nguyen book and 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner about the Vietnam War told by a communist sympathizer who’s an unreliable narrator. Most of what we know about the Vietnam War in the U.S. is told by White war veterans. This book describes the history of the Vietnam War as if it was written from the Vietnamese perspective. 

The Pagoda – a book by Patricia Powell, a Jamaican woman who writes about Chinese and Black laborers in the Caribbean. Many Chinese indentured laborers were taken to the Caribbean to replace Black slave labor and this book highlights Chinese and Black intermarriage and racial tensions in places like the Caribbean.

Mississippi Masala – a film about an Indian family from Uganda that comes to a predominantly Black town in Mississippi. It’s a film with an all-Asian, all-Black cast that focuses on cross-racial struggles and what it means to be Asian American in a predominantly Black southern city. Even though most people often think of the U.S. South as a Black and White color line, this film shows us that Asian Americans were included in the southern demographic. It also introduces us to this whole history of Asians in Africa.