AAPI Heritage Month History
Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month takes place between May 1st and May 31st every year to honor the struggles and accomplishments of AAPI Americans throughout history. The month of May was originally chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese immigrants to the United States on May 7, 1843 and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869, a feat largely accomplished by the hard work of Chinese immigrants.
The idea of having an AAPI Heritage Month was the brain child of Jeanie Jew, a White House staffer, who was disappointed by the lack of attention given to AAPI contributions during the Bicentennial celebrations of 1776. While by that time Black Heritage Month and Hispanic Heritage Week were already in place, she found that the contributions of AAPI Americans were largely overlooked. Such contributions included those of her great grandfather, M.Y. Lee, a Chinese immigrant, who during the 1800s, had come to the United States and, alongside mostly other Chinese immigrants, had helped build the Transcontinental Railroad, which in turn transformed America’s economy, leading to the nation’s superpower status of the 1970s. Jeanie was also aware of the massive racism her great grandfather had faced after the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which halted Chinese immigration for 10 years. Then, the Geary Act, in 1892, not only renewed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 but additionally, forced Chinese immigrants to obtain and carry Certificates of Residence from the Internal Revenue Service or face hard labor and/or deportation. Additionally, her great grandfather was subject to a spate of violence against Chinese immigrants, which eventually led to his death.
Due to Jew’s influence, in 1978, New York Congressman Frank Horton and former California Rep. Norman Mineta introduced a bill that would designate the week beginning on May 4 as Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. While President Carter signed the bill into law, the week was a one-time deal and had to be renewed every year. In 1990, President Bush expanded the week to a month, but it was not until President Clinton that the celebration became permanent without the annual need for a renewal.
Model Minority Myth
In spite of the celebration having become permanent thirty years ago and there being around 22.2 million Asians and 1.6 million Pacific Islanders in the country, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is one of the least recognized and celebrated heritage months in the country, largely due to the model minority myth.
The model minority myth, or the false idea that the AAPI community is somehow a more successful minority group than other groups because of cultural disparities and greater work ethics, ostensibly makes Asian Americans less in need of heritage celebrations. The model minority myth is dangerous and false for many reasons. First, it ignores the limited paths for Asian immigration, which largely permits only those who are highly educated or pursuing higher education to immigrate. Thereby, the selected group that is permitted immigration have access to higher paying jobs and their children have access to higher performing schools. These higher wages and better academic performance are then used against other minority groups. For example, the model minority myth is used to argue that opportunity gaps where Blacks and Hispanics have lower average test scores than White students no longer need to be addressed. If AAPI students can succeed, why can’t Blacks or Hispanics? Never mind the economic disparities caused by a skewed immigration system.
Furthermore, the model minority myth hurts Asian Americans as well. The pervasive lie allows for the racism Asian Americans have faced and continue to face to be overlooked. Because of the model minority myth, Asian Americans are not included in discussions about diversity at most workplaces. Hence, in spite of similar and higher levels of education compared to their White peers, they are less likely to be promoted to management positions than any other race including Hispanics and Blacks. Furthermore, Asian Americans have faced violence from the 1800s all the way to present day. For instance, the Chinese Massacre of 1871 involved the brutal murder of 18 Chinese men (or 10% of the Los Angeles Chinese population) by White citizens who were never held accountable for their actions. Similarly, California’s Alien Land Law of 1920, which prohibited Asians from owning land, while not physically violent in itself, stripped Asian Americans of their businesses, leading men such as Vaishno Das Bagai, an immigrant from India, to commit suicide. Today, is no different. Unfairly blamed for the coronavirus, Asian Americans continue to be at the receiving end of spates of violence.
Ideas for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month
In order to bring about greater social justice for the AAPI population, it is important to use May to honor and celebrate the achievements of the AAPI community and to recognize the hatred and racism that the community has had to and still strives to overcome. Here are a few ideas for you to use with your students:
- Who are Asian American Americans and Pacific Islanders? While obviously, all racial distinctions are socially constructed, it is important to recognize all of whom belong to the AAPI community. This includes all people of the Asian continent including the Indian subcontinent and East Asia and people of the Pacific Islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia) and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island). Spend time with a map and help students recognize where these countries are. Consider having students create their own AAPI museum with a student-created map in the background. The map can highlight both geographical and cultural aspects of each region.
- Successful AAPI Members: Don’t allow the month to only focus on the struggles of Asian Americans, which can then be seen as deficit-oriented. Allow students to understand that the AAPI community is an integral part of the United States and that Asian Americans have done their part to serve the nation. Research successful AAPI members. Talk about contributions such as the Transcontinental Railroad. And learn about Asian Americans who have helped defend the country.
- Japanese Internment and More Atrocities Against AAPI Community Members: That said, allow time to discuss the atrocities experienced by AAPI members throughout history. Consider reading Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky by Sandra Dallas with your students. The book highlights 12-year-old Tomi Itano’s feelings as a second-generation Japanese American during the Japanese Internment.
- Microaggressions: Many AAPI members have roots in the United States that date back to the 1800s or before. In fact, Native Hawaiians are originally from what is today the United States and had their lands stolen by White immigrants. Nevertheless, there is still an attitude that keeps AAPI members from fully being recognized as American. Talk about how statements like, “Where are you from?” and “You speak English well,” are hurtful microaggressions that keep Asian Americans aliens in their own land. Watch videos such as What Kind of Asian Are You? and discuss how we can avoid making such statements.
- Racism in the News: Watch news videos and then, talk about the rising AAPI hate and how to counteract it.
Remember that whether or not you have AAPI students in your classroom, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is an important opportunity to integrate social justice into your classroom, school, and/or district. Please let us know in the comments section what you are doing to honor this month.