US Pacific Islanders highlight their cultures and concerns as pushback against anti-Asian hate sees them swept up in AAPI acronym

Robert Delaney
·11-min read

Asians living in America are under assault. Rarely a day passes without a report about someone of Chinese, Filipino, Thai or Indonesian descent being attacked or even killed. Legislation meant to address the onslaught is moving through Congress. And US President Joe Biden has set up a task force, warning that “we have to act” to stem the tide of violence.

Chinese, Japanese and other East Asians, seen as part of these communities, have suffered discrimination and violence in the United States throughout the country’s history. But the backlash against them by those looking for Covid-19 scapegoats has put their plight in the mainstream for the first time.

As the violence and harassment of Asians continues, the acronym AAPI – which stands for Asian-American and Pacific Islander, a group that comprises dozens of ethnicities and many more languages and dialects – has been catapulted into regular usage.

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And just as quickly, it has been criticised for the way it downplays issues unique to native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.

This month, Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, introduced the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act to address “discriminatory actions against AAPIs, who are generally viewed as ‘the other’ and therefore kind of easy to target”.

The legislation would appoint a Department of Justice official to expedite a review of pandemic-related hate crimes.

Despite the widespread use of “AAPI”, some say the term obscures issues that Pacific Islanders have had trouble calling the public’s attention to.

Joseph Seia, executive director of the Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington, has been fighting the term’s usage for years. While he laments the fact that many Asians must now be on their guard in public and wants to show solidarity, he finds organisations and hashtags that use the AAPI term “frustrating”.

Joseph Seia is executive director of Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington.
Joseph Seia is executive director of Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington.

Seia, who is of Samoan ancestry, lives in the Duwamish/Coast Salish Territory near Seattle, an area on the Puget Sound and a swathe of the Cascade Mountains east of the city. AAPI “is actually not a term that we’ve consented to”, he said.

“We are in solidarity with Asian-Americans, but it’s kind of weird because we’re not experiencing the hate that they’re experiencing at the moment.”

Seia and some others represented by the acronym’s second two letters point out that Pacific Islanders have suffered injustice for decades, but in very different contexts, and the recent spate of violence against Asian-Americans has little to do with them.

The causes that Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders have been fighting for are as varied as compensation for stolen land and sickness caused by nuclear testing; higher unemployment and suicide rates; and worse health outcomes relative to other communities – historically and throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

The Honolulu-based East-West Center, for example, reported in August that Pacific Islanders other than Native Hawaiians have 10 times the Covid-19 infection rate of all other ethnic groups in Hawaii.

The reasons for that are similar to economically disadvantaged communities, such as Blacks and Latinos, who are more likely to live in multigenerational households.

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“The health disparities are rampant in some of our subpopulations … and that gets really diluted in some of these bigger narratives and in the way that resources are allocated,” said Jen Lee, deputy director of the Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organisations, which represents federally funded community health centres in areas with high concentrations of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans.

These disparities require “a little bit more of a discussion amongst ourselves about how do we work differently and whether this been an equitable experience for all”, Lee said.

The aggregation of Asian-Americans, representing about 6 per cent of the US population, and Pacific Islanders, at less than 1 per cent, masks other differences.

While half of those in this classification have college degrees, for some Pacific Islander subgroups, degree attainment is as low at 15 per cent, according to data compiled by APIA Scholars, an advocacy group that uses another acronym that covers both groups.

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These outcomes are very different for Americans of Chinese descent. For example, 69 per cent of Chinese Americans have some level of a post-high school education and 27 per cent have a postgraduate degree, according to Pew Research Center data. In the broader American population, those numbers come in at 59 per cent and 11 per cent.

Other data points that APIA Scholars highlight, like the fact that the top 10 per cent of those identified in the classification earn more than 10 times the bottom 10 per cent, underscores how difficult it is to treat Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders as one group.

“For us, it’s nuclear testing, it’s erasure on the national level, our communities are most impacted when it comes to incarceration rates,” Seia said.

“We have rates similar to black and Native folks, we have suicide rates similar to Native American communities, our smoking is the worst out of all the communities, worse than Native Americans, so a lot of our issues are actually more similar to Native American people.”

Marchers in New York protest against anti-Asian hate crimes on April 4. Photo: Xinhua
Marchers in New York protest against anti-Asian hate crimes on April 4. Photo: Xinhua

“Oftentimes, we’re only brought in when our statistics are horrible so that essentially it’s like our bad data is for sale, as a way to accumulate funding,” Seia said.

These statistics as well as issues that have oppressed different “PI” communities across generations, like the colonisation of the Hawaiian islands and elevated incidence of cancer among Marshallese as a result of nuclear weapons testing conducted at Bikini and Enewetak Atolls from 1946 to 1958, which advocates say have never been addressed properly, are lost in the attention to the thousands of racist attacks tracked by Stop AAPI Hate over the past year.

The organisation’s database has become an essential resource for news outlets and others trying to quantify the attacks.

The violence increased last year along with claims that Asians were responsible for the coronavirus because of its emergence in Wuhan, China. That connection was amplified by former president Donald Trump and several members of his administration as they tried to deflect criticism of their handling of the pandemic.

Trump frequently referred to the “Wuhan virus”, “China virus” and “kung flu”, dismissing the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO), which called on the medical community in 2015 to stop using geographic identifiers for new infectious diseases.

The WHO said the change was needed “to minimise unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people”.

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Like Seia, Mary Hattori, who identifies as both Asian-American and Pacific Islander, agrees that the work Stop AAPI Hate has done is needed to counteract the violence that has flared amid the stigmatisation, but she said the mainstreaming of the acronym is also increasingly counterproductive.

Citing a January 26 White House memorandum about “racism, xenophobia and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders”, Hattori questioned why the latter group was included when there is no data showing an increase in violence against them.

“Do we dilute that by using ‘AAPI’ or do we confuse the situation?” she said. “I’m not aware of a rise in PI hate crimes in the country. Just what are the facts here?”

Online searches for the acronym spiked in March last year, surpassing those for “Asian-American” just as Stop AAPI Hate began publishing the number of harassment reports it was processing, according to Google Trends data.

The top two search requests related to AAPI over the past 90 days are “what does aapi stand for” and “aapi community meaning”.

Online searches for the acronym AAPI spiked in March 2020. Graphic: SCMP
Online searches for the acronym AAPI spiked in March 2020. Graphic: SCMP

“One positive aspect of that term is that it is often used to generate a sense of solidarity and community,” said Hattori, the acting director of the East-West Centre’s Pacific Islands Development Programme.

“But I suspect or I fear that that’s not the overarching outcome. You’ve got all these other unintended consequences of using that term”, such as special considerations for AAPI scholarships.

While the US Census has expanded its racial identification categories to allow Asians and Pacific Islanders to select specific nationalities and ethnicities within these two groups, other areas of the federal government have yet to catch up.

The Department of Education, for example, runs an “Asian-American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions Programme” to provide funding and other assistance to schools serving this broader demographic.

“The path to equity is different for every ethnic group, and certainly very different for Asians as a whole versus Pacific Islanders,” Hattori said. “If for census purposes we’re more granular and more accurate, then I think in the national conversation, we should strive for being more accurate.”

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However, the unaddressed problems that Pacific Islanders have faced will not be resolved simply with the elimination of any particular term, said Jennifer Ho, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Ho counters the argument that the term is problematic by pointing out that many people from the Pacific islands, including the Hawaiian archipelago, have mixed ethnicities.

“There’s an attempt at inclusivity by saying Asian-American Pacific Islander, and I think part of that has to do with the fact that because of years of [interracial] partnerships, you have people who, for example, are Samoan and who may resemble people who are East Asian,” she said.

In this respect, there is at least one large concentration of people who fully straddle the AAPI ethnic range.

Some 24 per cent of people in Hawaii identify as multiracial, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center analysis, which also found that 70 per cent of them say they are some combination of white, Asian and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.

US President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris meet with Senator Mazie Hirono (foreground), Representative Judy Chu (right) and other members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Executive Committee in the Oval Office on April 15. Photo: AP
US President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris meet with Senator Mazie Hirono (foreground), Representative Judy Chu (right) and other members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Executive Committee in the Oval Office on April 15. Photo: AP

Moreover, Ho said, the entire concept of race is an artificial construction largely proposed by white people as a way to subjugate and marginalise people who look different from them.

Dr Tung Nguyen, who served as chair of former president Barack Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, agrees that more effort is needed to address issues specific to the latter group.

“Pacific Islanders don’t get their fair share when resources are coming to AAPI,” said Nguyen, who is now president of AAPI Victory Alliance, a policy think tank.

“But overall, neither community gets very much, and if we focus on fighting between what each of us are getting rather than thinking about how together we can get more from the white infrastructure, then I think that’s helpful to both communities.”

The conversation about historical marginalisation of non-whites was gaining momentum even before last year’s police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, which reignited the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, or the slaying of six Asian-American women in Atlanta last month.

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One frequently cited paper published by the journal Science in 2016, for example, advanced the belief that race is a social construct and counterproductive in efforts to understand physical diversity among humans.

“We believe the use of biological concepts of race in human genetic research – so disputed and so mired in confusion – is problematic at best and harmful at worst,” the paper’s authors say in their summary. “It is time for biologists to find a better way.”

Ho has a solution that many diverse groups have been trying to realise for decades, if not centuries.

“It’s good that we’re having this conversation because what it points to is the imperfection of the [AAPI] term, and that this term exists to try and grapple with racism, so the way out of this is to stop racism,” Ho said.

“The way out of this is to end white supremacy in the United States.”

Additional reporting by Anson Wong

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