In the first months since the novel coronavirus hit the United States, acts of hate against Asian Americans have been on the rise. Asian Americans across the country have shared stories of being accosted verbally and physically by fellow Americans looking for someone to blame. “Go back to China!” or “Chink!” their harassers yell from their cars, on the subway—even while walking on the same sidewalk. A man threw acid on an Asian woman in Brooklyn in front of her home as she was taking out her garbage. The president’s insistence on calling it the “Chinese virus” emboldened these attackers. Trump’s words are like the wind to the racist sail, helping anti-Asian sentiments escalate swiftly into violent acts of discrimination and hate.
This is not the first time Asian Americans have been attacked for events outside of their control. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American from Michigan, was brutally murdered by two white autoworkers who were upset about the outsourcing of the auto industry to Japan. The two men were charged but never served jail time, which galvanized a generation of Asian American activists across ethnicities to organize and bring visibility to the injustices faced by the so-called “model minority.” Anti-Asian racism is deeply woven into the fabric of American history.
The term “Asian American” emerged out of political necessity. In the 1960s and 1970s, Chinese American, Japanese American, and Filipino American activists from community organizations to colleges banded together under the umbrella of “Asian American” to fight racism, modeling their organizational strategies after Black civil rights movement leaders. Through protests, publications, and political organizing, they cultivated a panethnic consciousness among different Asian ethnicities who historically had not seen their interests as being the same. Most people—including many Asian Americans themselves—are not aware of the political origins of Asian American identity. Many view “Asian” mainly as a descriptor for food or family values, which given the economic and cultural diversity of Asian America quickly becomes problematic.
In the last half century, the Asian American collective has expanded to include more than 20 other ethnic and national origin groups including Koreans, Vietnamese, Asian Indians, Thai, Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong. When the watershed 1965 Immigration Act reopened U.S. borders to Asian immigration after a 50-year hiatus, tens of thousands of Asian immigrants arrived on U.S. shores. Some came to reunite with family members who had migrated decades before. Some came as postwar refugees. Some came as professionals who were recruited for jobs in health care and engineering.
The emerging economic and cultural heterogeneity of Asian America has made it challenging to advance Asian American causes and narratives. The reality is that people still equate “Asian American” with East Asian Americans. The majority of “Asian American” stories in The New York Times are based on Chinese Americans.Within Asian American organizations from politics to media to academia, Southeast Asians and South Asians feel they are underrepresented and neglected. In my own research on Filipino Americans, I’ve written about how Filipinos’ sense of Asian American-ness shifts across the lifespan and across different racial and institutional contexts. In some moments, Filipinos feel Asian; in others, they don’t.
Adding to the complication was the decision of the U.S. government to merge Asian Americans with Pacific Islanders to create a new “Asian American and Pacific Islander” (AAPI) racial category. Pacific Islander is not a monolithic category—it comprises over 20 subgroups including Native Hawaiians, Samoans, Tongans, and Chamorros. American geopolitical and economic interests have exploited the home societies of both Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. But as University of Utah education professor Kēhaulani Vaughn notes, the latter are distinct in that U.S. colonial interests have maintained control of these peoples’ land, suppressed their political sovereignty, and systematically erased indigenous ways of life. These factors help explain why Pacific Islander communities, relative to Asian Americans, suffer higher rates of poverty, chronic illness and disease, and incarceration. In fact, one of the main arguments of Vaughn’s research is that the historical, racial, and economic experiences of Pacific Islanders converge more with indigenous and native populations than with Asian Americans.
Within the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, East Asian Americans still possess the privilege of cultural representation, which sheds light on why we hear so little about Pacific Islanders in media stories about AAPI and COVID-19.
“You don’t see Pacific Islanders being [targeted like] Asian Americans in that way. They’re racialized differently,” Vaughn explains. “But you are seeing them, on the flip side, being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in the contraction of it, so it does produce some fractures where it sheds light on this [AAPI] category that is in many ways inadequate.”
What has become evident in the past two months is that the pandemic disproportionately affects communities of color that are most economically vulnerable. According to a report from the Pacific Islander Center of Primary Care Excellence, the case rate of COVID-19 among Pacific Islanders in California is three and a half times that of the state: 217 versus 64 cases per 100,000. Given the prevalence of preexisting health conditions within Pacific Islander communities, COVID-19 has the potential to be deadly. And yet this ticking time bomb of a public health crisis has been absent in the public discourse around AAPIs and COVID-19. If Pacific Islander stories get lost in the mix, the problems their communities face—whether with COVID-19, educational access, or socioeconomic inequality—will fail to garner the attention and support the issues need.
“Without having disaggregated data, it makes us continue to feel like we don’t matter. Like we’re not recognized as humans—that our humanness doesn’t matter. Like our lives don’t matter,” says Vaughn.
As an undergraduate, she was once ambivalent and, at times, outright resistant to being labeled as Asian American. She spoke of the “exhaustion of being identified as something that you’re not and being told by others that you’re Asian.”
Despite the schisms between Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Vaughn argues that these communities can organize in coalition with one another. She has channeled this belief into her work with Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC), an organization that she helped co-found and serves on the board for.
“If we understand the inadequacies and the pitfalls of the category, you can still work productively across communities,” says Vaughn. “Pacific Islanders can call out anti-Asian hate crimes and racism and the Asian American community and organizations can recognize that when they say AAPI they really have no PI representation—and that matters. Including ‘PI’ for the appearance of inclusion, does more hurt to the Pacific Islander communities that continue not to be seen. If Asian Americans want to coalition build productively, they can refer to Pacific Islander organizations and community leaders to speak on behalf of community issues. They can also provide resources to Pacific Islander communities and organizations that allow Pacific Islanders to self-determine what is best for their own communities.”
Coalition-building with Asian Americans is how Vaughn and her fellow Pacific Islander leaders were able to author A Community of Contrasts: Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, the first national report that disaggregated Pacific Islander subgroups. In partnership with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the report highlighted a range of issues facing Pacific Islander subgroups, such as education, immigration, civic engagement, economic justice, and housing.
“Representation matters,” Vaughn says. “It builds pathways for underrepresented communities.”