In 1978, the federal government declared May as Asian Pacific American (APA) month. Nobody is exactly sure if this decision was made in efforts to be more inclusive or if it was made with the sparse knowledge government leaders held of the two communities which had been informed by the U.S. imperialism that displaced Asians in the Pacific and Pasifikans in Asia. With this decision though, knowingly or not, they declared how Asian and Asian American (A/AA) and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NH/PI) communities would be defined, made visible, and served by systems and institutions for decades to come.
For decades now, many well-intentioned individuals, organizations, institutions and systems have committed erasure and perpetuated white supremacy and racism, particularly against NH/PI by using terms like API, AAPI and APA. Predominantly Asian-led organizations and mission statements have also been created with these same letters which promise to serve both Asian and Asian Americans (A/AA) and NH/PI, but instead, have largely absorbed critical equity-based funding and invested it back into A/AA communities resulting in what is now decades worth of NH/PI political and financial disinvestment in community infrastructure.
In December 2020, the Washington State Department of Health released their report titled, COVID-19 morbidity and mortality by race, ethnicity and spoken language in Washington state. This report included the statistic that NH/PI in Washington state experienced the highest death and hospitalization rates of any racial group with 11 times the hospitalization rate of Asian groups and eight times the death rate of Asian groups.
Because Washington state was one of less than 20 states in the U.S. to disaggregate COVID-19 data by demographics including race and ethnicity, and therefore not aggregate A/AA and NH/PI, our communities and systems were able to recognize the disparate outcomes and respond accordingly. Without this disaggregation, disparity rates within the Pasifika community would have been invisible, drowned in the more populous numbers and less severe outcomes of Asian communities with the COVID-19 virus, leaving Pasifika communities to attend their weekly funerals without receiving any of the resources or response to halt them.
This is not to say that Asian and Asian Americans did not experience disparate outcomes during the pandemic. In fact, A/AA communities experiences the highest spike of hate crimes between 2020 and 2021 out of any other racial or ethnic group due to racial scapegoating and dangerous rhetoric used by government leaders all of which led to violent hate crimes and deep-seated fear for safety by A/AA community members across the U.S.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted what we have deeply known all along – that Asian and Asian American and Pasifika communities are two distinct communities which are umbrellas in themselves aiming to visibilize hundreds of communities.
Like all Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), we share intersections of struggle in economic and undocumented statuses as well as other forms of systemic oppression, but also like all BIPOC communities, we are so very different. It is the result of an inherently scarce and racist system that demands our communities be lumped together to obtain the resources and rights that we are and should be entitled to as residents of this country, namely residents who have and continue to be actively harmed by U.S. colonialism, imperialism and white supremacy.
As we celebrate what has long been known as “API Heritage Month,” we must reckon with the hard truth that what was sold to us by the U.S. government as a term of solidarity, a promise of resources and a token of visibility has actually created material harm and the complete opposite for Pasifika communities.
To all individuals, organizations, institutions and systems – this May and going forward, stop using the terms ‘API’, ‘AAPI’, ‘ANHPI’ and ‘APA’, and disaggregate. Use A/AA and NH/PI or Pasifika respectively and appropriately to talk about the issues at hand and the communities that are actually experiencing them. Additionally, support movements and efforts for both A/AA and NH/PI communities that increase visibility of the issues that these communities face.
It cannot be on NH/PI communities alone to uplift the importance of disaggregation. As long-time beneficiaries of funding for “API communities,” it is the responsibility of A/AA-led organizations to take a firm stance and shift away from terminology, rhetoric, and frameworks that group our unique communities together.
There is undisputed beauty in the solidarity that Asian and Pasifika communities have found and had to build during what has truly been an ambitious movement. And moving forward, may there be deep listening, learning, grace and action in disaggregation, so we may all find deeper solidarity and the inherent abundance that we hold as peoples and communities.
Kiana McKenna is the Director of Policy and Civic Engagement at the Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington (PICA-WA) and Shomya Tripathy is the Director of Policy at Asian Counseling and Referral Services (ACRS).