Asian & Pacific American Heritage and History

Since 1990, the U.S. government has designated the month of May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, celebrating the heritage, achievements, and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the United States. The month of May was chosen to mark the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to the United States on May 7, 1843, as well as the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869.

The term “Asian American” was coined in 1968 by student activists Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, as a unifying political identity for different groups of people of Asian descent. With the Black Power Movement, the American Indian Movement, and anti-war movements expanding, Gee and Ichioka strategically named their student organization the “Asian American Political Alliance” to increase the visibility of activists of Asian descent and consolidate their efforts. The term “Asian American” also pushed back against the usage of the Euro-centric term “Oriental” to refer to Asians in the United States, which holds racist and colonialist connotations. Asian Americans claiming the words to describe themselves went hand-in-hand with being empowered to continue supporting civil rights efforts.

During the 1960s, as African Americans continued to challenge institutional racism, Asian Americans came to reflect on their heritage and experiences, identifying how they also faced discrimination. Sharing the struggles to achieve ideals of freedom and equality for all, Asian American activists joined the Civil Rights Movement. Asian Americans also became inspired to speak out on matters specific to their communities, such as issues facing business owners and residents of Chinatowns across the country and the Vietnam War.

Speaking out as an Asian American community was unheard of before, as reflected by the lack of an iconic representative. Furthermore, 1960s Asian American civil rights activism was significant because it signaled a shift from Asian Americans fighting for the right to be Americans, to fighting for their rights as Americans. One prominent example is Yuri Kochiyama, who was influenced by Malcolm X’s ideologies of self-determination and liberation, and who supported quality education for inner-city children, anti-Vietnam War protests, the development of Ethnic Studies programs. In an interview on May 19, 1972 for the radio station KPFK in Los Angeles, Kochiyama stated that Malcolm stressed needing to know one’s heritage and history to know which direction to go in; words the Asian American community heeded.

Asian American students in California challenged curricula in institutions of higher education because, as was argued, research and teaching had for too long propagated stereotypes about AAPI education history and culture. They joined the Third World Liberation Front’s student strikes (TWLF) in 1968 at San Francisco State University and in 1969 at the University of California, Berkeley. A coalition including the Black Students Union and other student groups, TWLF demanded that the university establish new departments devoted to ethnic studies, hire more faculty of color, and enroll more students of color. At this time, the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) formed on the University of California, Berkeley campus, and AAPA branches soon sprung up on college campuses nationwide. Although the AAPA was disbanded in 1969, it played an important role in encouraging Asian Americans to take political action together. An Asian American identity was thus claimed.

Today, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the two fastest-growing racial populations in the United States, projected to become the largest immigrant group in the country by 2055. Unlike other racial groups, most AAPIs are foreign born. Immigration is therefore a significant and relevant issue for AAPIs across the country. In addition, as the U.S. naturalization rates among the largest 20 immigrant groups has increased between 2005 and 2015, more attention has been paid to the AAPI voter base. There is considerable internal group variation regarding issues such as poverty, health care, educational attainment, and English proficiency. Consequently, there have been calls to disaggregate data to better address the needs of the diverse AAPI community.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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