Just a Quick Rundown on the Term AAPI, Its History, and Who It Can Represent

Just a Quick Rundown on the Term AAPI, Its History, and Who It Can Represent

The Asian American and Pacific Islander community is diverse and flooding with cultural vibrancy. To call it "big" might be an undersell, actually, because more than 25 million people identified as being AAPI, according to recent census intel. And by 2060, that number is expected to surpass 45 million.

AAPI is the acronym that is typically used to describe this growing population, and it represents a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. While yes, while it’s helpful to have a label that expresses cultural pride and similarities, it’s also not always considerate to lump a bunch of different ethnic groups together—as it can lead to the erasure of specific identities and the experiences that come with them. So keep in mind that, like any racial group, there are nuances around this term.

That being said! May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPIHM), and it’s a time to celebrate and acknowledge the beautiful variety within the AAPI community. As we officially step into this jubilant time of year, it’s only fitting that we deep dive into the term’s history, who can fall under its umbrella, and how you can be a genuine supporter of the AAPI community during this historical month and well beyond.

So which ethnic groups are in the AAPI community?

According to the Asian Pacific Institute for Gender-Based Violence, the group includes “all people of Asian, Asian American, or Pacific Islander ancestry who trace their origins to the countries, states, jurisdictions, and/or the diasporic communities of these geographic regions.”

To break that down even more, there are about 50 (!) individual ethnic groups that are a part of the AAPI community, with people from a slew of different countries and territories, like India, China, Japan, and Hawaii. The Pacific Islander category alone includes Samoans, Guamanian or Chamorro, Fijian, Tongan, or Marshallese peoples and the people of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. That’s a range. And among all those different groups, there are about 100 distinct spoken languages. So don’t get it twisted: Just because they’re all under one identity term marker doesn’t mean they’re all the same.

Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the distinctions between AAPI ethnic groups. “Prior to the 1960s, the word that was used to describe people of Asian descent was ‘orientals.’ [The term ‘AAPI’] is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Asia is the largest continent, with the most number of languages spoken, so it’s challenging when you boil it down to one identity. But I think the intention behind it was to really try and create a unified political power.”

When did we start saying AAPI?

The origin story of this term goes back to the 1960s, which isn’t all that far in the past if we’re taking the United States’s full historical timeline into consideration. In 1968, two college students, Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, were the founders of the Asian American Political Alliance at UC Berkeley, and they birthed the term “Asian American” in order to advocate for the rights of people of Asian descent living in the States.

By the time the ’80s rolled around, the U.S. Census Bureau began to group Asian Americans with Pacific Islanders for data collection. Which, annoying. But by 2000, the government agency made Asian and Pacific Islander two distinct racial categories instead of just “Asian Pacific Islander.” But for that distinction to have been made only 23 years ago is pretty wild.

What AAPI countries and geographic labels should I know?

As we've mentioned, there’s a plethora of regions and cultures represented under the AAPI umbrella. For you to recognize them independently of one another, here’s a starter rundown. Just note that there’s often cross-over between these communities, and within each of these groups, there’s a complex range of even more subcultures and identities.

  • AAPI: Asian American and Pacific Islander. This term represents any and everyone of Asian, Asian American, or Pacific Islander descent.

  • East Asia is is the region that includes:

    • China

    • Hong Kong

    • Japan

    • Macau

    • Mongolia

    • North Korea

    • South Korea

    • Taiwan.

  • South Asia is made up of:

    • Afghanistan

    • Bangladesh

    • Bhutan

    • India

    • Maldives

    • Nepal

    • Pakistan

    • Sri Lanka

  • Southeast Asia is the region containing:

    • Brunei

    • Burma

    • Cambodia

    • Timor-Leste

    • Indonesia

    • Laos

    • Malaysia

    • Philippines

    • Singapore

    • Thailand

    • Vietnam.

  • Central Asia includes:

    • Kazakhstan

    • Kyrgyzstan

    • Tajikistan

    • Turkmenistan

    • Uzbekistan

  • Pacific Islander represents anyone with origins in:

    • Hawaii

    • Samoa

    • Tokelau

    • Tahiti

    • Tonga

    • Guam

    • Mariana Islands

    • Saipan

    • Palau

    • Yap

    • Chuuk

    • Pohnpei

    • Kosrae

    • The Marshall Islands

    • Kiribati

    • Fiji

    • Papua New Guinea

    • Solomon Islands

    • Vanuatu

  • West Asia is the region that includes:

    • Armenia

    • Azerbaijan

    • Bahrain

    • Cyprus

    • Georgia

    • Iraq

    • Israel

    • Jordan

    • Kuwait

    • Lebanon

    • Oman

    • Palestine

    • Qatar

    • Saudi Arabia

    • Syria

    • Turkey

    • United Arab Emirates

    • Yemen

What can I do to support the AAPI community?

There are a number of actions that everyone, both in and outside of the AAPI community, can take to make sure it's being accurately represented and supported. (During AAPIHM and any other day before and after it!)

Choimorrow suggests reading about one of the communities as a good place to start. “Spend a little more time thinking about your life in relationship to Asian American Pacific Islanders," she says. "Go beyond just thinking about Asian Americans when you want to eat Asian food. Think about our history—learn a little more about how different folks ended up in the U.S. and our contributions to building America.”

Also! If you’re ready to dive into some real research, the free resources below are great way to dig deeper into the rich and super-fascinating AAPI history:

Organizations like NAPAWF and the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance also advocate for intersectional AAPI issues, and are great for anyone interested in cross-community experiences (which should be all of us, let’s be real).

Beyond reading, researching, and showing some financial support, Choimorrow says that combating prejudice and celebrating the AAPI community on the day-to-day can be as simple as just using your voice. “Speak up when you hear stereotypes, jokes, or misconceptions being spread about Asian Americans,” she said. “During COVID, we saw a spike in violence publicly because of lies and stereotypes about Asian Americans—that’s just one extreme. I encourage people to disrupt the narrative.”

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