Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders


“Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders” is a phrase describing several aggregated demographics—or multiple distinct, diverse groups of people combined into one category. Historically, the U.S. Census defined “Asian Americans” as individuals of East, Southeast, and South Asia descent, and “Pacific Islanders” as individuals of Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Chamorro (Guamanian), Fijian, Tongan, Marshallese, Melanesian, Micronesian, and Polynesian descent. This phrase is now considered problematic, due to the evolving and personal nature of racial and ethnic identities, the potential to ignore or gloss over Native Hawaiians, and the geopolitical complexities of what is considered “Asia” (versus the Middle East, Indian Subcontinent, etc.) It is now considered best practice to discuss ethnic groups individually (i.e. Japanese American, Native Hawaiian, Chamorro), or to reference “Asian Americans” and “Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders” as distinct groups. When referencing aggregated data, the preferred phrasing is currently “Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders” or Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) people.


Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) are growing demographics that are integral to the culture and identity of the United States. Throughout history, their significant and often-overlooked contributions range from atomic sciences and technology, to pediatric immunology, ethnic minority psychology, civil rights, and domestic violence advocacy. At the same time, AANHPI people have been systematically exploited, excluded, scapegoated, displaced, and abused by white Americans. From anti-Asian hate crimes to human trafficking, labor exploitation, and spikes in gendered violence, AANHPI lives have been consistently valued less by our society. Indigenous Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians have experienced land theft and genocide, and have had to continuously fight for their homes, rights, and cultures. Asian American people have also been stereotyped into very narrow identity windows of ‘model minorities,’ which pits them against other BIPOC communities and harmfully aims to dictate where Asian Americans should be successful and unsuccessful (i.e. successful with math but unsuccessful with sports). AANHPI people who are LGBTQ+, economically poor, adult industry or garment workers, trafficking survivors, immigrants, and/or limited-English proficient also experience additional compounding marginalizations, which can significantly limit their ability to thrive.


In recent years, there has been a rise in anti-Asian American hate, including a disturbing increase in violence against Asian women. Largely attributed to Asian communities receiving misplaced blame for the COVID-19 pandemic, this follows a familiar trend of scapegoating Asian Americans throughout U.S. history. Today, this attention has cast a complex spotlight on AANHPI advocacy and justice. Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander activists have worked hard to combat stereotyping and anti-AANHPI racism, create safe spaces for their communities, and decolonize community change work. AANHPI people who are LGBTQ+, survivors, and first or second generation immigrants have been especially powerful community organizers, changemakers, and advocates, bringing a much-needed intersectional, equity-focused lens to health and well-being.


Partnering with Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders to achieve health equity and racial justice, requires deeply uprooting racist systems that perpetuate their exploitation and abuse. Institutionalizing and operationalizing equity and justice throughout all leadership levels of all sectors will require organizations, allies, and systems to deeply center and follow the leadership of people with lived experience. Community-led processes, self-representation, and centering AANHPI voices are a few effective tactics communities can leverage to advance equity and well-being for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. 


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