Story at a glance
- The month of May is designated as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
- Asian Americans have been subjected to a record number of hate crimes over the past year due in part to misleading and racist language used to refer to the coronavirus pandemic.
- AAPI Heritage Month is not only a time to celebrate and honor AAPI cultures across the U.S., but advocate for their equity and safety, supporters say.
May 1st marked the beginning of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month — a time to acknowledge the accomplishments and contributions of the AAPI communities to the United States and beyond.
Last Friday, the White House released a proclamation on the annually observed occasion. While the acknowledgement of Asian Americans and their contributions has always been important, experts say that the unprecedented rise in anti-Asian hate over the past year makes the observance of AAPI Heritage Month more vital now than ever.
President Biden made that sentiment clear in the recently released White House statement, saying: “In the midst of a difficult year of pain and fear, we reflect on the tradition of leadership, resilience, and courage shown by [Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander] communities, and recommit to the struggle for AANHPI equity.”
The history of AAPI Heritage Month
More than 100 years before the first AAPI Heritage Week was declared, the month of May became a significant time for the AAPI community in the United States. On May 7, 1843, the first Japanese immigrant arrived in the country, and a few decades later on May 10, 1869, the transcontinental railroad, which was worked on by roughly 20,000 Chinese immigrants, was completed.
It wasn’t until 1979, when President Jimmy Carter signed a presidential proclamation, that AAPI Heritage Week was first celebrated. Then, Congress passed an amendment in 1992 which called on the people of the U.S. to observe an entire AAPI Heritage Month with “appropriate ceremonies, programs and activities.”
Now, May is used as a time by those of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage to amplify their voices and their concerns, as well as share their cultural pride. A rather broad term, Asian and Pacific Islander traditionally refers to those who have origins in the East, Southeast, the Indian subcontinent of Asia, as well as the Pacific islands of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.
“Asian Americans, and Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders make our Nation more vibrant through diversity of cultures, languages, and religions,” said the White House statement. “There is no single story of the AANHPI experience, but rather a diversity of contributions that enrich America’s culture and society and strengthen the United States’ role as a global leader. The American story as we know it would be impossible without the strength, contributions, and legacies of AANHPIs who have helped build and unite this country in each successive generation.”
The importance of celebrating
Over the past year, Asian American communities have been reeling from an uptick in violence and hate spurred by racist rhetoric about the coronavirus pandemic. During AAPI Heritage Month and beyond, advocates are urging Americans to seek out ways to be allies in actionable ways that go beyond words.
According to the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate, hate crimes against Asian Americans in major U.S. cities grew nearly 150 percent in 2020, despite an overall decline in hate crimes last year. One of the most traumatic events took place in March of this year, when a white gunman fatally shot eight people, including six Asian women, in a series of killings at three massage parlors in the Atlanta area.
AAPI Heritage Month is not only a month for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to celebrate and educate, but also a time for all Americans to actively participate and take actions to educate themselves. Allies are important in any cause, and can help to amplify the voices of the Asian American community when they need it the most.
How to educate and celebrate
One of the most important lessons to learn about appreciating a culture other than your own, whether it is AAPI culture or another culture, is that self-education should always be the first step. Whether that means watching documentaries or cracking open a book or two, educating yourself about the history and hardships of another culture is the best starting point in your journey to openly celebrating it.
Before you dig into comedies like “Crazy Rich Asians” or more somber films like “The Farewell,” begin by taking the time to learn about the long history of injustice faced by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. — including the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the incarceration of Japanese American citizens during World War II, the murder of Vincent Chin, the mass shooting of Southeast Asian refugee children in 1989, and the targeting of South Asian Americans, especially those who are Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, after the national tragedy of 9/11.
Great resources for educating yourself about AAPI history and culture include reading articles about how to fight anti-AAPI bias and the history of Asian Americans in the U.S., as well as following educational influencers on social media platforms, such as Kim Saira on Instagram. Episode six of the Will Smith-hosted Netflix docuseries “Amend,” titled ‘Promise,’ is also a great starting point for educating yourself about the plight of immigrants in America.
Another great way to celebrate AAPI Heritage Month is by dining at your neighborhood Asian-owned restaurants and by supporting small Asian-founded brands, like the women-owned ones on this list.
“Now is the time for our non-Asian friends and colleagues to show us through their actions that they’re listening,” journalist and Asian Women Alliance founding member XiXi Yang said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. “As opposed to denying racism or telling us how to feel, there is so much power in listening to an entire community’s hurt.”
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