In the US, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are often lumped together as “AAPI”, for statistical and other purposes. That’s led to many, perhaps most, Americans assuming Asians and Pacific Islanders are one and the same. Ema Hao’uli, a Sāmoan-Tongan Aotearoa New Zealander studying at Cornell University in the US, looks at why that’s a problem.
When I first came across the term “AAPI” here in the US, it seemed like another one of those Americanisms (like the imperial unit system and tipping culture) that doesn’t make much sense.
International audiences have also been introduced to “AAPI” in the wake of the racist and sexist domestic terrorist attacks in Atlanta, Georgia, last month, in which eight people — including six Asian women — were killed by a white man.
Many Americans have responded to the attacks by expressing support and solidarity with the “AAPI community”.
President Joe Biden, in his remarks in Atlanta following the attacks, said the federal government would be strengthening its work with the AAPI community to prevent hate crimes. Candlelight vigils and rallies have been held across the country to show AAPI solidarity. Media outlets have shared ways to donate to AAPI organisations and educational resources.
AAPI stands for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Other versions of this are “APA” (Asian and Pacific Americans), and “API” (Asians and Pacific Islanders). A friend informed me recently that there’s also “APIDA” (Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans).
To my Sāmoan-Tongan Aotearoa New Zealander ears, lumping in Pacific Islanders with Asians is bizarre.
We come from linked, but distinct, cultural and geographical contexts. And at home, in Aotearoa, our Pasifika and Asian populations have completely different educational, economic, and health outcomes. Surely we would see a similar pattern in the US?
I was so bothered by this question that for my final project in a statistics course last year, I decided to find out for myself. But study after study analysed Pacific Islander Americans and Asian Americans as one population group.
I could find only a few examples where there were separate data for Pacific Islanders. And these studies — which showed, for example, that Pacific Islanders had lower incomes than Asians (although they were on par with median household incomes generally), and lower rates of educational attainment — made it clear that AAPI findings don’t apply to Pacific Islander American communities.
That’s not surprising given there are only about 1.4 million Pacific Islander Americans and 22 million Asian Americans. In addition, these studies reflect America’s large East and South Asian communities, who generally fare well in most socio-economic indicators.
In other words, AAPI stats reflect the “AAs”. The “PIs” disappear off the edge.
The response to the Atlanta attacks has been a reminder of this complicated reality.
Here in the Cornell University community, there’ve been listening and strategy sessions, town halls, and candid community conversations for AAPI students. I went to one of these, held for the students in my master’s programme — where I think I’m the only Pacific Islander. I listened to my fellow Asian students speak bravely and passionately about their experiences as Asians in the US, how the attacks had affected them, and what our school could do to better support AAPI students.
As they spoke, I felt a mix of emotions.
As a person of colour and a woman, I could relate so much to the experiences that my Asian friends described.
But, as a Pacific Islander, their experiences and their pain were not mine to claim. I wanted to stand alongside my Asian friends — but in solidarity, not as one of them.
It’s not that Pacific Islanders specifically weren’t the target in the Atlanta shootings. More broadly, I had a feeling that Pacific Islanders weren’t actually experiencing the same uptick of racist violence that has been so clearly experienced by the Asian community here in the US (and in other western countries) during the pandemic.
Here in Ithaca, New York, where I live, the Pacific Islander population is too tiny for me to draw any conclusions. It occurred to me, too, that perhaps my Aotearoa conceptions of race and ethnicity had affected my perception of the issue. Maybe Pacific Islander Americans see it differently?
So I asked my Tongan and Sāmoan family in California and Hawai’i — where over half of the Pacific Islander population live in the US — whether they were aware of anti-Pacific Islander attacks occurring in the last year. They weren’t.
“One of the few perks of being big, brown, and having a reputation for being violent,” said my cousin in Hawai’i, “is that people generally leave us alone.”
A friend sent me the only example I’ve seen of anti-Pacific Islander violence during the pandemic: an anecdote from a Pacific Islander in Dallas, Texas. While speaking Chamorro (the native language of the Indigenous people of the Marianas), this person was coughed on by a woman and told: “You and your people are the reason why we have corona. Go sail a boat back to your island.”
The incident was reported earlier last month by Stop AAPI Hate, a reporting centre launched in March of last year in response to the escalation in xenophobia and bigotry arising from racist political rhetoric in the Covid-19 pandemic.
Of the 3,795 incidents of racial hate and discrimination reported to Stop AAPI Hate from March 2020 to February 2021, it’s unclear how many came from Pacific Islanders. Stop AAPI Hate breaks down reporting by ethnicity but — oddly, considering the group’s name — no Pacific ethnicities are listed.
We can assume that incidents reported by Pacific Islanders (along with smaller Asian ethnic populations that also aren’t named) fall into Stop AAPI Hate’s “Other” category, who are 2.8 percent of respondents.
Given that Pacific Islander Americans make up around six percent of the total AAPI population, this seems disproportionately low. It’s possible there’s been underreporting by Pacific Islander Americans. But the response of Pacific Islander American organisations to the Atlanta attacks suggests that’s probably not the case.
I went online to see what Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, a national Los Angeles-based advocacy and research organisation, was saying in the days following the shootings. In response to being tagged in social media posts about anti-Asian violence, they made it clear that it wasn’t their place to lead the discussion: “We are in solidarity.”
This is not to say that anti-Pacific Islander hate attacks aren’t happening or that their frequency hasn’t increased. As far as I can tell, like so many other things about Pacific Islander Americans, we simply don’t have enough information to know exactly what’s going on.
And that’s one of the problems with this mainstream comfort around “including” without asking, without knowing. In this context, including has the very opposite effect to what is intended. It suggests that Pacific Islander Americans don’t really matter, because no one has actually thought to ask them what their experience has been.
When inclusion means erasure
Of course, in a time of tragedy, it’s inappropriate for Pacific Islander Americans to draw attention to their (apparent lack of) experience of racist violence in the pandemic, in response to being “included” through the use of the AAPI label.
There’s too much space for misunderstanding and further pain — for example, giving the impression that Pacific Islander Americans are treated better than Asian Americans (which is not at all the case, nor the point). Or that Asian Americans are to be blamed for this incorrect inclusion.
But there are real consequences — beyond my discomfort in an AAPI student town hall — to the widespread use of the AAPI category.
The state of anti-Pacific Islander violence during the pandemic joins a long list of things we don’t know about Pacific Islander Americans because their data are merged with — and subsequently submerged within — that of Asian Americans.
Some of these things are staggering.
For example, we don’t know how many Pacific Islander Americans in the US have had Covid-19. Only 30 percent of states separate out Pacific Islander Covid-19 cases, in defiance of federal rules mandating that NHPI (Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander) health data must be separated from Asians’ health data.
What we do know, however, is that the Pacific Islander community is disproportionately affected. In 11 of the 16 states that collected Pacific Islander health data separately from Asians, Pacific Islanders are dying of Covid-19 at the highest rates of any racial or ethnic group.
We know this only because of the work of the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Covid-19 Data Policy Lab at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, which was set up by Asian American and Pacific Islander American academics to determine the scope and severity of the Pacific Islander American experience of Covid-19.
Last August, the lab released a dashboard for Pacific Islander Covid-19 data to help health advocates, researchers, and policymakers to better understand how Covid-19 is affecting the community — and to finally help bridge gaps in needs and services for the community.
Researchers at the lab say that, before the launch of the dashboard, attempts to get government assistance for the Pacific Islander community for Covid-19 were ignored. In states where health data for Asians and Pacific Islanders were aggregated, Pacific Islanders’ Covid-19 rates were invisible — hidden by the low Covid-19 infection rates in Asian communities.
And in states where Pacific Islander data were actually disaggregated from Asians’, Pacific Islanders’ low absolute infection numbers were used by health officials “as an excuse to not devote resources to ensuring the NHPI communities knew how to deal with Covid-19.”
It’s deeply painful to consider just how poorly Pacific Islanders are being served by public health agencies here in the US, especially in states where their health data aren’t separated from Asians’.
And it’s all the more frustrating when we consider that the case for separating Pacific Islanders from Asians in data collection has already been made and won at the federal level. In the late 1990s, thanks to the dogged advocacy of Native Hawaiians, the US federal government agreed to classify Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders separately from Asians.
That change acknowledged the need for data that showed the social and economic situation of Pacific Islander Americans — and could be used to monitor discrimination against them in housing, education, employment and other areas.
This means that, for more than 20 years, there’ve been separate “Asian” and “Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander” categories in federal surveys and censuses.
Why, then, does “AAPI” persist as a cultural category?
An “anxiety of inclusiveness”
Lisa Kahaleole Hall has observed two contributing factors in her 2015 work on this subject. First, there are many organisations here in the US that claim to represent Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans but have little to no Pacific Islander representation, or engagement with Pacific Islander communities.
Second, and relatedly, most Americans have no idea who Pacific Islanders are. Kahaleole Hall argues that non-Pacific Islander Americans:
. . . tend to assume that if a racial minority organization is naming its activities and constituents with Pacific Islander in the description, (1) there must be Pacific Islanders involved, or (2) Asian Americans must really be Pacific Islanders and the terms are interchangeable.
Unfortunately, the first is rarely true and the second is not true at all.
Kahaleole Hall has spent more than 20 years trying to get Asian American organisations and individuals to stop using “API/APA” — and she has some theories as to why she’s had mixed success.
She suggests that, among other things, an “anxiety of inclusiveness” on the part of Asian Americans is at play. In the all-encompassing Asian American umbrella, “representation (as ‘Asian American’) simultaneously takes place with nonrepresentation (the specificities of being Korean, Hmong, Pakistani etc)”.
From this view, Pacific Islander Americans are seen by Asian Americans as another “un(der)represented Asian American constituency” that just needs more inclusion under the Asian American umbrella.
The problem with this, of course, is that Pacific Islander Americans are not Asian Americans.
One glaring difference — to my Aotearoa eyes, anyway — is that most Pacific Islander Americans are Indigenous peoples in the US.
As J Kēhaulani Kauanui has observed, Indigenous Pacific Islanders who have ties to islands that were forcibly incorporated into the United States — Hawai’i, Guam, American Sāmoa — have outstanding sovereignty and land claims.
She argues that this means that the frameworks for understanding the issues affecting the majority of Pacific Islanders in America are shaped by imperialism and settler colonialism — not just racial equality and civil rights.
Stereotypes and the “model minority” myth
Pacific Islanders also deal with their own particular set of globalised racial stereotypes.
On the fetishisation of Pacific Islander women, Kauanui and Ju Hui Judy Han have pointed out that we’re not “stereotyped as mysterious, meek or demure, as East Asian and Southeast Asian women often are.” Instead, we’re “imagined to be simpler, without elaborate schemes to please men, or so goes the white male fantasy”.
Kahaleole Hall has also discussed the stereotypes Pacific Islander men face in the US — which my cousin in Hawai’i alluded to earlier. They are “gendered/racialized as black men, with the attendant prejudice and danger of stereotypes of hyper-masculinity”. This is in stark contrast with the emasculated, feminised stereotypes that Asian American men face.
Kauanui and Kahaleole Hall — both Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) scholars — emphasise that neither set of stereotypes is “worse”: they are just different.
And in these differences, we can see the potential double-duty oppressive effect of the conflation of “Asian” and “Pacific” identities for Pacific Islanders in America.
Where there are many of us, Pacific-specific stereotypes abound. Kahaleole Hall has pointed, for example, to police violence against Sāmoan and Tongan men in California, which stems from perceptions of “blackness and savagery”.
When non-Pacific Islander Americans are ignorant of Pacific Islanders, however, they tend to assign them Asian-associated stereotypes — like the “model minority” myth.
The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (which, if their website is up-to-date, doesn’t have a Pacific Islander American board member but does have a Tongan policy associate) explains the model minority myth in its excellent guide to best practices for researching Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander Americans. They say the myth presumes that:
AAs & NHPIs are . . . inevitably on their way to becoming predominantly financially well-off professionals who have achieved greater academic and socioeconomic success, encountering few if any problems.
When I first read that passage while researching for my statistics assignment, I didn’t understand why the model minority myth would be applied to Pacific Islanders. It didn’t make sense, given the economic and educational statistics I’d found for Pacific Islander Americans. Not to mention how this jarred with my own experience of racist media coverage and portrayals of Pasifika people at home (Al Nisbet’s cartoons and Heather du Plessis-Allan’s rant about Pacific Island countries being “leeches” on New Zealand come to mind).
But then I found this NBC story from 2014, in which a Tongan woman, whose parents are described as “working-class immigrants”, recounts her difficulties at school, where she and her siblings were the only Pacific Islanders. Her teachers and counsellors assumed she was Asian and therefore didn’t need help at school or any information about college or scholarships. So she didn’t get the support she needed.
Pacific Islanders aren’t the only ones who get lost in the AAPI category and are specifically disadvantaged by the model minority myth.
As some scholars have noted, the stereotype also invisibilises Hmong Americans and other Southeast Asian American communities, who often struggle to achieve the levels of economic and academic achievement associated with the model minority myth — and whose students’ academic needs are largely going unaddressed. They, like Pacific Islander Americans, also disappear in the AAPI statistics.
In general, however, the model minority myth hurts all of us.
Implicit and unspoken in the model minority stereotype is the idea that there are problematic Black, Brown, and Indigenous minorities, and a supreme white majority.
The myth promotes racial and ethnic inter-group comparisons and rivalries according to perceived (and sometimes desired) proximity to whiteness. So we have anti-Black racism in the Asian community, anti-Asian racism in the Black community, anti-Black racism in the Latinx community, anti-Asian racism in the Pacific Islander community . . . and so it goes on.
It’s not all happy families within our pan-ethnic groups either — and Pacific Islanders are no exception. For example, the tragic police killing of Micronesian teenager Iremamber Sykap in Honolulu last week has brought to the fore anti-Micronesian hate in Hawai’i, including in the Native Hawaiian community.
These comparisons and divisions — driven ultimately by white supremacy — distract us from the work of building racial and ethnic group understandings of shared and separate experiences of racism, oppression, and marginalisation.
And they keep us from committing to working together to dismantle white supremacist systems.
Part of this commitment must be to take care to ensure that our intentions of inclusion don’t end up erasing our most marginalised racial and ethnic groups.
We need to look at whether the leadership of minority organisations reflect the communities they claim to represent. We need to make fewer assumptions and ask more questions — especially of narratives that involve minority groups who don’t have a voice in those narratives. We need to seek out those voices and amplify them.
We need to design and demand better, fairer systems of resource allocation to allow the smallest and most marginalised groups to seek and receive what they need — and to be able to choose when to work with others in coalition, and when they need to speak for themselves.
We need to stop trying to belong in spaces that weren’t made for us — and make our own.
We also need to work towards finding ways to discuss and recognise our racial and ethnic differences without any sense of hierarchy, in a way that strengthens — rather than weakens — our coalitions in the fight for racial equity.
These are challenges for everyone who cares about indigenisation and decolonisation, racial equity, and economic and environmental justice.
And that includes us at home in Aotearoa — where Chinese respondents to a Human Rights Commission survey were twice as likely as others to say they’d experienced more discrimination since the start of the pandemic. Where Fijian-Indians are seeking to be categorised as Pasifika, not Asian. And where we have our own statistical category that doesn’t make sense and likely causes harm: MELAA, which stands for Middle Eastern, Latin American, and African.
We have some work to do.
Ema Hao’uli is a Sāmoan (Falelatai, Lufilufi, and Fusi, Safata) and Tongan (‘Uiha and Lotofoa, Ha’apai) Aotearoa New Zealander living in Ithaca, New York. She’s a 2019 recipient of the Fulbright New Zealand Science and Innovation Graduate Award, and is in her final semester of study towards a Master of Public Administration at Cornell University. Before heading to Cornell, Ema worked in policy in Wellington, focusing on the recognition and protection of Māori rights and interests under Te Tiriti o Waitangi/Treaty of Waitangi in intellectual property law.
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