Growing up in a predominantly white Indiana suburb with a deep history of racism, the Asian American community was my sanctuary.
Many of our parents didn’t fully understand how this Asian American identity formed and pulled together such a diverse group of people, but for us, it just fit. We tasted each other’s foods, listened to each other’s music, were unapologetically ourselves in a way we couldn’t be in other spaces. When we couldn’t find a home in our school, we found it in each other and in the community we built together.
But even that comfortable, safe space had its jagged edges. In middle and high school, I experienced colorism from lighter skinned Asians and stereotyped jokes about South Asians, sometimes from my closest friends. Asians with darker skin tones were made to feel less desirable. And in conversations about Asian identities, I had to constantly remind people that South Asians are Asian too. Sometimes, those reminders were met with a comment of “Well, I mean real Asians.”
When college came, I sometimes heard South and Southeast Asian cultures being called more savage, uncivilized or lower class. I watched close friends date and defend Asian partners who openly showed their colorism, anti-Blackness (which often goes hand-in-hand with colorism), and feelings of cultural superiority over other AAPI communities.
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I was even reluctant to join many AAPI student organizations with little to no South, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander representation. These were the groups meant to represent me, but almost no one who looked like me were part of them.
It was enough, sometimes, to make me wonder where I really belonged. And always, it felt like a betrayal coming from within a community I cherish.
Now, when AAPI Heritage Month comes around each year, I’m so excited to celebrate my community, but I also brace myself for the sting of exclusion when it seems like most celebrations center around some communities over others. Frankly, I can’t remember ever seeing my country, Sri Lanka, represented in AAPI Heritage Month imagery or programming.
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The sting of exclusion
Kevin Nadal, a Filipino American and distinguished professor at the City University of New York, where he studies the impacts of microaggressions, said many communities within the AAPI umbrella have long expressed feelings of marginalization and invisibility due to a narrative that “Asian” usually refers to East Asians.
“When we have a month like AAPI Heritage Month, people are supposed to be celebrated, and instead many feel excluded by people they’re supposed to be in community with,” said Nadal, also author of the book “Filipino American Psychology.”
South Asians, Southeast Asians and Filipino Americans make up about 60% of the Asian American population, Nadal said. Meanwhile, there were about 1.6 million Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander residents in the US in 2019, according to Census estimates.
We see this exclusion crop up during AAPI Heritage Month when symbols for the month often highlight East Asian cultures rather than a broader array of AAPI cultures, Nadal said. Programming around the month also often features East Asian keynote speakers and panelists or center issues specific to East Asian communities while ignoring those that may affect other AAPI communities more, they added.
Nadal said they noticed this from a young age, including while attending a California high school with a large Filipino American population. Even there, he said Filipino Americans and other communities were largely absent from AAPI celebrations.
Kiki Rivera, a storyteller for the Los Angeles-based national organization Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, said while they’ve seen efforts to lift up Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander voices, “more often than not, Pacific Islander communities and the issues our people face continue to get erased” during AAPI Heritage Month.
“Whether it’s a social media campaign celebrating AAPI leaders or a curated movie list on any platform, I notice East Asian Americans are often at the center,” they said.
In recent years, Nadal said some people have been more vocal about the invisibility of some communities under the AAPI banner. In 2016, Filipino and South Asian Americans penned an open letter to the New York Times after a video series on Asian Americans failed to include the diversity within the Asian American community. The letter led to the Twitter hashtag #BrownAsiansExist.
“We’re still forgotten,” the letter said. “We’re still not Asian American, let alone American…Once again, we feel like outsiders – even within the Asian American community.”
A quick history of ‘Asian American’
This exclusion goes back to the start of the Asian American movement that arose in the late 1960s, Nadal said. Activists at the time pushed for the community to unite under one banner, calling themselves Asian American.
But some East Asian American activists began to call the movement the “Yellow Power Movement,” to the dismay of other Asian American activists who didn’t identify with that, Nadal said.
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Since ethnic studies and Asian American studies began to be included in university curricula in the 1960s, Nadal said they heavily focused on Chinese and Japanese American experiences. Asian American studies conference presentations and panels also tend to focus on these perspectives, I added.
“This has an impact on who feels included in Asian American history and Asian American studies,” he said.
More than just representation
But this is more than just an issue of representation. When all AAPI communities are grouped together and some have reduced visibility, that means some communities don’t get the resources and policy support they need to approach structural issues they may face.
“With the diversity of AAPI communities, there are also different inequities, different social service needs and so forth,” Nadal said. “And erasing some of these groups means the ones that are more likely to suffer from things like poverty or homelessness or interactions with the criminal justice system receive fewer resources because the issues they face are not viewed as an Asian American problem.”
Rivera also said the most harmful impact of this exclusion is preventing Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities from accessing adequate resources.
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All this has led some community members to question the benefits of the AAPI umbrella label.
“There are still people wondering that if we continue to be part of this group and our needs aren’t being met or we are silenced and dismissed, is it really worth it?” Nadal said.
For me, that banner still has so much meaning.
It’s a label that’s rooted in protest and solidarity, and a shared feeling of exclusion in a country that repeatedly fails to fully recognize our humanity. It’s helped me find home in spaces where I felt alone. Being part of the AAPI community, to me, is a beautiful thing, but only if we honor each other and each of our individual communities fully, only if we take care of each other and strive for true solidarity. This AAPI Heritage Month, I hope we can all make this our goal.
“There is power in us advocating for issues that affect not just our communities, but our sibling communities of color,” Nadal said. “But we need to really be intentional about who we’re representing and if we’re reflecting all of our stories and making us all feel good and celebrated.”
Rivera urged people to do their research on what impacts each AAPI community and to “just show up for each other.”
“Lift each other up in spaces we notice the absence of each other in,” they said.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism