Editor’s Note: This article expands on a 2022 story that explained the history of the term “Asian American.”
Asian American. APA. APIDA. AAPI. AANHPI.
There are a lot of terms and acronyms to describe this population of more than 24 million people with roots in East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Hawaii, Samoa, Guam, Fiji, Tonga, Marshall Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands and other Pacific islands.
It comprises scores of ethnic groups with distinct histories, cuisines, languages and cultures. It includes recent immigrants, those who have been in the US for generations and those who have endured centuries of colonization.
Though these terms are widely used on the internet, in the media, in universities and by government agencies, some of the people they’re meant to describe don’t fully identify with any of them.
So where did these terms come from? Why do some people feel ambivalent about them? And why do they continue to stick? Here’s what to know.
How the term Asian American came to be
To unpack terms such as AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander), it helps to break them down.
The US government currently defines Asian Americans as those “having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent.” It uses the separate category of “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander” to describe those “having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.”
Though Asians have been in the Americas since before the US existed, greater numbers of Asian immigrants began arriving on these shores around the mid-19th century. These early immigrants primarily came from China, Japan and the Philippines. Smaller numbers of Koreans and South Asians arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Most worked in industrial sectors such as mining, agriculture and railroad construction – often for lower pay than US-born and European workers.
Though these groups were each subject to harsh labor conditions and discrimination, they didn’t initially see themselves as connected and tended to identify with their specific ethnic group, Daryl Maeda, a professor of ethnic studies at University of Colorado Boulder told CNN last year.
That changed in the late 1960s when Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, two graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, formed the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) – believed to be the first use of the term Asian American.
Inspired by the racial pride and self-determination of the Black Power movement, Ichioka, Gee and others of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Korean descent came together under a pan-Asian banner around their opposition to the Vietnam War.
“We figured that if we rallied behind our own banner, behind an Asian American banner, we would have an effect on the larger public,” Ichioka said, as documented in a book by UC San Diego ethnic studies professor Yến Lê Espiritu.
“Asian American” was a radical term at that time. It rejected slurs such as “Oriental,” which had been commonly used by politicians and in the media, as well as stereotypes that characterized these groups as passive.
It was also used to build political solidarity. The Asian American Political Alliance joined forces with social movements led by Black organizers and other people of color. As the newly formed Asian American movement spread across the US, activists united under the umbrella term to protest issues in their own communities, as in the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin.
The term Asian American gradually caught on over the next few decades, but it was complicated by the demographic change that followed the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. More South and Southeast Asians entered the country in the decades that followed – and they didn’t necessarily share the same interests or experiences as the Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Filipino Americans who came together under the Asian American umbrella.
Where the term AAPI comes from
By the 1980s, the Asian American umbrella had expanded further to include communities from Oceania.
In 1978, Congress passed a resolution to establish an “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week,” which eventually became “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.” Pacific Islanders and Hawaiians were also grouped with Asians on the US Census from 1960 to 1990, with an “Asian or Pacific Islander” category appearing on the 1990 questionnaire, according to Pew Research Center.
In 1997, the federal Office of Management and Budget, which devises the racial categories used on the census and other federal data, split “Asian or Pacific Islander” into two separate categories: “Asian” and “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.” The changes took effect on the 2000 Census.
Still, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders continue to be grouped together in other contexts, from the Congressional Asian Pacific Caucus to Asian Pacific American studies departments at universities. Today, the AAPI label is used widely by media outlets and political advocacy organizations.
Some feel the terms are too broad
As the umbrella has widened, some have criticized the terms “Asian American” and “AAPI” as inadequate.
Some South Asians and Southeast Asians have argued that Asian American is seen as synonymous with East Asian, therefore obscuring their own realities and experiences. Many Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders similarly feel that their distinct histories and challenges are erased under the AAPI umbrella. (Additionally, many people with roots in Central Asia and the Middle East don’t identify with either term, despite having origins in the continent of Asia.)
As a result, acronyms such as AANHPI (Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders) and APIDA (Asian Pacific Islander Desi American) have emerged to explicitly include certain groups.
Estella Owoimaha-Church, executive director of the organization Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC), said such labels are especially limiting when it comes to data. Grouping Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders with Asian Americans hides the disparities that the former two communities face when it comes to education, health care, criminal justice and other areas, she said. That, in turn, affects the resources that those communities are afforded.
Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders aren’t alone in calling for data disaggregation, Owoimaha-Church added. Asian American advocacy organizations have also lobbied for more detailed data collection to better understand health and economic disparities experienced by particularly vulnerable subgroups.
On a personal level, Owoimaha-Church said she identifies more closely with umbrella terms such as Pasifika, Oceania and Pacific Islander. But she does use the term AAPI in many instances, though she said it’s largely out of necessity.
“The term is here, so we work around it,” she told CNN. “But I think everyone working within the umbrella also recognizes that it there’s some good and some bad. The bad is that too many of our communities go unseen.”
There’s still power in these labels
Despite the limitations of labels such as AAPI and AANHPI, Owoimaha-Church isn’t ready to do away with them entirely. These terms are embedded into institutional systems and structures, and they provide a means for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders to access resources, she said.
These identities are also inherently political. Terms such as Asian American and AAPI emerged to unite different groups against oppression. Communities came together in the face of discrimination against South Asians after 9/11, and more recently to combat the surge of racism and violence experienced by East Asians during the pandemic. Coalitions of Asian American and Pacific Islander groups continue to come together around shared political priorities.
“There’s always power in numbers,” Owoimaha-Church added. “There’s so many examples in our histories of solidarity that can’t be ignored or forgotten.”
Even so, Owoimaha-Church said that the wider community needs to be cautious about when and how they use umbrella terms such as AAPI. At times, they’re deployed even when the issues or experiences in question more narrowly affect Asian Americans, or East Asians.
There’s plenty that unites these communities, and over the past few years, there have been more conversations about how to be inclusive of everyone under the AAPI umbrella while also acknowledging differences. But as Maeda told CNN last year, “With any social movement, people need to be bought in.” So if there are people who don’t feel represented in labels such as AAPI, it’s worth listening to why.