Today marks the end of May and the end of “Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month”. A heritage month that has gone largely unnoticed. As a Sri Lankan Tamil, born and raised in New Zealand, who has called America my home for the past 20 years, the discussion around the AAPI community and the challenges we face are vitally important. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are far too often an invisible minority, and so I take this brief opportunity to shed a bit more light on the subject.
First, it’s important to put this month in context. AAPI “month” began in 1977 as a single week to celebrate important contributions of the AAPI community and to commemorate two key dates: the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the US (May 7, 1843) and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad (May 10, 1869). Chinese immigrants were vital to the success of America’s railroads. And indeed America’s railroads were vital to the success of the country. Chinese railroad workers lived in tenuous conditions and were paid significantly less than their white colleagues. In fact it is calculated that three Chinese workers died for each mile of railroad built. That these sacrifices are little known illuminates how many of the contributions of the AAPI community go largely unrecognized and under appreciated.
As time marched on, the definition of “AAPI” expanded to include more than just the Japanese and Chinese. The term “Asian American” was first coined by activists at Berkley in the 1960s. It was a shift away from the term “orientals” and an attempt to leverage the political clout of a vast and diverse group. Today AAPI comprise one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in America with over 23 million people including roughly 50 ethnic groups with roots in more than 40 countries, speaking over 100 different languages. While the goals of bringing together a vast and diverse group were lofty, such a broad label has also proved to be problematic. The AAPI community has the most significant internal income gap of any racial group. A blanket term that covers almost three-fifths of the world’s population tends to diminish and obscure the vast differences within this community and denies many underserved groups from getting the support they need. The mean household income of an Indian American family is $100,000, compared to just $36,000 for a Burmese American family. There are significant disparities in access to education, health care and housing. In addition, 1.4 million Asian Americans are undocumented—a fact that may surprise many.
It’s relatively easy to point to individual visible success stories within the AAPI community such as leaders at Fortune 500 companies like Pepsi and MasterCard and leaders at tech companies like Microsoft and Twitter. These pockets of success in the AAPI community often give rise to a term now labeled “minor feelings” by the poet and author Catherine Park Hong. The concept that we in the AAPI community shouldn’t complain because things are good—we are living the American dream— especially compared to other racial groups like the Black community who have endured far more abuse and subjugation. But racial discrimination is not a competitive sport. We have all been told to ‘go back home’, we’ve all been called by the wrong name. We can try to isolate ourselves in gated white communities and send our children to the “right” schools, but we cannot escape our ethnicity. This raises two important concepts, the idea that the AAPI community is “white adjacent” and a “model minority”.
As a whole, members of the AAPI community, based on pockets of success, are frequently considered white-adjacent and therefore no longer identified as people of color, subject to racism. This is harmful to the community because it encourages the concept that the AAPI, like white people, are a privileged class. This racial hierarchy is used as a wedge to position us against other racial groups. Yet this doesn’t accurately represent the community as a whole. The AAPI community is heavily concentrated in lower-wage service, hospitality, garment making and caregiving occupations. We have to be honest and open about the struggles we face as a community and the inability to crack the “bamboo ceiling”. AAPI are stereotyped as ‘great workers’, but not ‘great leaders’. AAPI white collar professionals are the least likely racial group to be promoted into management or leadership positions.
The idea of Asians as the “model minority” stems from the US opening its doors to Asian immigrants during the second world war as a way to build wartime alliances. Naturalization rights were finally extended to Chinese immigrants in 1943 and Indian immigrants in 1946. As a survival strategy, many Asian Americans adopted habits and traits to demonstrate they were “good Americans.” This has perpetuated the myth of Asians as the “model minority.” AAPI have long been regarded as docile, rule-abiding, and industrious. But while these traits may seem complimentary, they often work against us, encouraging us to work or study harder and instilling a fear that if we speak up about racism or injustice, any success we have gained may be stripped away from us. We also need to be reminded that before we were considered a “model minority” we were a “problem minority” demonstrated through a series of draconian laws that effectively closed the door to immigrants from Asian countries from 1917-1924.
Issues surrounding race almost always come back to a lack of representation, as I can attest to from first-hand experience. Over the past decade, I have worked with every major department store, from Neiman Marcus to Nordstrom, but in that time, I never encountered a jewelry buyer of color. Never. While I have been lucky to have the opportunity to add diversity to these retailers, this lack of representation presented its own challenges, both in terms of how buyers perceived my line and how it was positioned and marketed to customers. Greater representation in the workplace isn’t just about making space for more individuals of color but about disrupting preconceived notions of race.
AAPI heritage month isn’t just another box-ticking exercise. For me, and many AAPI, it’s an opportunity to reflect on our community and inspire change. Many of us have been conditioned with a sense of shame about what makes us ‘foreign,’ from food to language and even fashion. Shouldn’t we, as members of the AAPI or any minority community, take pride in our authentic self? No matter how accepted or integrated or adjacent we become, we need only to look back two years to the wave of anti-Asian hate crimes that swept the nation after our own President called what was to become a global pandemic the “Kung Flu.” Those AAPI privileged enough to have platforms and recognition must continue to champion our community – all of our community, from the CEOs to the garment workers. With only 0.9% of elected officials members of the AAPI community, we still have a long way to go.
I created The Jewelry Edit in part as a space to empower designers of color to tell their own unique stories through jewelry and gain more visibility for the community as a whole. We believe that by supporting these artists, we’re creating a better path to success for all women of color. Inclusion and diversity are in our DNA, putting us in a unique position to advocate against systemic discrimination. Diversity benefits all of us. That is why we feel so passionately about using our platform to welcome and empower people of all colors and backgrounds.