What does “Asian American” really mean?

Happy Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Heritage Month! As we celebrate APIDA Heritage Month, the categorization and label of “Asian American” itself brings up a lot of questions. What does “Asian American” really mean, and who do you think of when it’s said? In the United States, many people might think the term means East Asian populations (Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese people) – yet Asia as a continent is vast and also includes South, South East, Central, and Western Asian countries.

The issues of vague categorization and inaccurate representation are intricately linked to one another. Representation translates to real consequences. When all Asian communities are seen as a monolith, it perpetuates harmful stereotypes and obscures the unique concerns and needs of individual Asian communities.

The Need for Individualized Data

Anti-Asian racism has a long history in the United States that continues on to this day. The “Model Minority” myth that all Asian Americans are successful serves to erase historical and structural racism that Asians continue to face in this country. The Model Minority myth paints all Asian American communities as one single group, when in reality, Asian American communities include many different ethnic groups from all across East, South, and Southeast Asia, as well as Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities.

The Model Minority myth is perpetuated in local, state, and federal data collection initiatives, and by extension, is reflected in our nation’s policies. Demographic data collection is routinely performed in a wide array of government surveys, from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System to the U.S. Census. This data is then used to analyze and address racial disparities in health outcomes, economic opportunity, and access to social support networks. Though there’s been some recent progress, it is still common practice in demographic data collection to collapse all Asian Americans into one category.

Combining all Asian communities into one category is not an accurate representation of the lived experiences of Asian Americans. For example, overall the median annual household income for Asian American families in 2015 was $73,060, which was higher than the median income for all U.S. households. However, after breaking down the data, it is clear that many Asian American communities—especially South and Southeast Asian communities—struggle with vast economic hardships. Laotian ($15,000), Burmese ($36,000), and Nepalese ($43,500) households, for instance, all had median incomes well below the U.S. median income ($53,600). Similarly, Asian American communities also have unique health concerns that are often obscured when combined. For example, American Samoans have much higher rates of diabetes compared to the general population; Vietnamese people have some of the highest rates of cervical cancer among all racial/ethnic groups; Filipino Americans accounted for nearly one-third of registered nurses who have died from COVID-19. All of these pressing health concerns are rendered invisible when Asian communities are grouped together, and this makes it difficult for policymakers and public health leaders to direct resources, services, and funding to the communities that need them most.

Thanks to the work of Asian advocacy organizations, we are starting to see some progress in recognition of more accurate data as a critical health equity issue. Recently, this topic was discussed among other important equity advancement strategies at the White House Convening on Equity. A handful of states, including California, New York, and Massachusetts have recently passed legislation for the disaggregation of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) data. It is critical to continue to advance data initiatives at the state and federal level. In order for these initiatives to be successful, it is also essential that surveys are offered in a wider variety of Asian languages. As we celebrate APIDA Heritage Month, we must also ensure that all Asian American communities are seen and that their needs are heard and addressed.

For this APIDA Heritage Month, we ask that you continue to educate yourselves on the on-going issues that all AAPI face. Going forward, it is crucial to not only recognize but also support marginalized communities in tangible ways. Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Chicago has held bystander intervention trainings to help combat hate crimes. You can sign up for virtual workshops here: https://www.advancingjustice-chicago.org/what-we-do/bystander-intervention-trainings/

Queer Asian Organizations to support in Chicago:

Trikone Chicago – A South Asian specific Queer organization

i2i: Invisible to Invincible – Invisible to Invincible (i2i) is a community-based organization that celebrates and affirms Asians & Pacific Islanders (APIs) who identify as LGBTQ+ in the Chicago area.

National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Association – The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance empowers LGBTQ+ Asians and Pacific Islanders through movement capacity building, policy education and advocacy, and research.

Tags: Advocacy


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