Today is the first day of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, a time to celebrate and shine a spotlight on Asian Americans as part of the American fabric. This year, such recognition is particularly important because of the current violence against our community.
The size of the Asian American community hovers around 23 million, accounting for around 7 percent of all Americans, and that small 7 percent contains multitudes, a dizzying and constantly evolving diversity! With members hailing from 50 countries and ethnic groups and speaking more than 100 different languages, the Asian American story in its great breadth and richness has been hard to convey. As a result, the general public does not have a good understanding of the AAPI community, which has contributed to some Asian Americans feeling voiceless or unheard as part of the larger American story. At this moment in 2021, however, while we may feel unheard, we are very visible.
Over the last year, anti-Asian hate and bigotry increased by close to 150%, according to an analysis released by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University. On March 16, in Atlanta, a white gunman rampaged through three spas, killing eight people, six of whom were Asian American women. A month later, on April 15, at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, another white gunman also shot to death eight people, four of whom were Sikh. News around these events have thrust Asian Americans into the headlines, but being seen does not equate to being heard or understood. Nevertheless, the heightened visibility does open the door to begin creating a new clarity and fresh opportunity to dismantle the otherization that leads to violence against AAPIs in the first place.
Anti-Asian racism and violence has a long history in America, from the colonization of Hawaii and the 19th century Page Act (that effectively prohibited the entry of Chinese women) and the Chinese Exclusion Act, to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and to the Trump-era Muslim Ban (since many of us are Muslim). Particularly in times of national crisis, Asian Americans have been scapegoated as “non-American,” “foreign,” and “other.” The COVID pandemic has been the greatest crisis in a generation and originated in China, so it’s not surprising that the need to assign blame has again landed on the AAPI community.
In the face of such great challenges, we must continually uplift the fact that Asian Americans have been here for quite some time and have been a vital part of the tapestry of the United States. For example, in the mid 1800’s, 20,000 Chinese immigrants built the transcontinental railroad, connecting for the first time, the East and West coasts of our nation. In the early 20th century, Punjabi Sikh farmers cultivated agriculture in the California Central Valley and built large swaths of the western railroad. Filipino grape farmers in the 20th centuries were part of a labor revolution, joining forces with Cesar Chavez to create United Farm Workers, leading to a strike that was “one of the most important social justice and economic movements in American history.” Immigrants from present-day Bangladesh established themselves in New York City in the early 1900’s and built professional associations and fought for worker’s rights. And in the 1960s and early 1970’s during the height of the civil rights era, a coalition of Black, Asian Americans, Latinx, and American Indian organizers came together to establish the field of ethnic studies, which is taught today throughout our education system.
It’s time to recognize this rich and powerful history and stop the otherization. Asian Americans are not foreign or “other,” we are American. We claim our place in the United States by continuing to join with other communities of color in rejecting and dismantling the white supremacy that dehumanizes us all and tries to pit us against one another. We claim our place by raising our voices, telling our stories, and insisting that we be heard and recognized as integral parts of the American experience and the American fabric.
This AAPI Heritage Month, that’s exactly what we will be doing. At MomsRising, we will be celebrating the historical contributions of Asian American women, including civil rights activists, lawmakers, and scientists, as well as the artists and activists actively telling our stories today. Join us, hear us, celebrate with us!