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Asian American, Pacific Islander students discuss limitations of ‘AAPI’ label

(Maddie Rausa/Daily Bruin)

By Anna Feng

May 29, 2021 6:56 p.m.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, but some members of the Pacific Islander community say the AAPI label makes them uncomfortable.

AAPI is a term commonly used to describe Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. However, some Pacific Islanders feel the breadth of the term obscures Pacific Islander representation.

“It’s like a form of tokenism, if you will, because we’re kind of just thrown in there to make sure that PI criteria (is filled), or in most spaces the PI visibility is not there,” said Fatiatamai Folau, a fourth-year history student who is Samoan.

Imani Isaia, a fourth-year sociology student who is a Pacific Islander, said splitting the Asian American and Pacific Islander identities would lend more accuracy to data collection. She said labeling Pacific Islanders as Asian Americans fails to acknowledge Pacific Islander identity and incorrectly identifies their ethnicity. For example, Pacific Islanders were grouped with Asian Americans in the U.S. census in the 1990s until a 1997 directive created the Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander category according to the Census Bureau.

However, third-year public affairs student Karlinna Sanchez said doing so would fail to spotlight non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders. Sanchez, who was born and raised in American Samoa and is Samoan, already struggles with people assuming they are Hawaiian.

Isaia added although there are high rates of Asian Americans at UCLA, only less than 1% of UCLA students identify as Pacific Islander.

“We are such a small drop in the ocean of UCLA students and UCLA numbers,” she said.

[Related: Pacific Islanders seek to represent community on campus, in academic conversations]

Isaia also feels splitting the term AAPI would spotlight the issues that the specific communities face, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many people include Pacific Islanders in their fight against the increased racism and xenophobia as a result of the coronavirus, although most of it has been targeted at Asian Americans, Isaia said.

“By recognizing our differences and separating, I feel like we can put the most attention to Asian Americans, and what the Asian American community needs right now is attention to them,” she said. “I don’t want the PI community to take attention away from that because right now is about speaking up and fighting against the violence that has been occurring in our country due to xenophobia and racism.”

The issue with a lack of Pacific Islander representation in spaces advertised as AAPI spaces is also prevalent on campus, Sanchez said.

When Sanchez tried joining clubs with the label AAPI under the hopes of meeting other Pacific Islanders, they quickly discovered that many of the clubs had few, if any, Pacific Islander members.

“I was like, “Oh, so what is the PI portion of AAPI?’ and they admitted to me that they really just focused on Asian communities,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said splitting up the Asian American and Pacific Islander identities into more specific categories would bring light to more underrepresented groups, like Polynesians, Micronesians and Melanesians, as well as non-East Asian groups.

“A lot of Pacific islands were colonized by Asian countries,” Sanchez said. “So what does it say when you group the colonized with the colonizer?”

Pacific Islanders were not grouped with Asian Americans until the 1980s, according to an article by Paul Spickard in the Pacific Historical Review. Min Zhou, an Asian American studies professor, said the term ”Asian American” functioned more as a political identity for activism and political action before the inclusion of Pacific Islanders.

The adoption of Pacific Islanders as an addition to the term “Asian American” stemmed from shared experiences of colonization and imperialism by the United States as well as regional similarities in their places of origin, Zhou said.

Zhou said the tendency to blur differences between groups when using such a broad category can be harmful when it comes to policy, especially because it can skew the data which influences decision making, she said.

Other Asian American students also feel that the AAPI label is misleading.

Chris Chae, a first-year psychobiology student, sees AAPI as a larger umbrella term under which he primarily identifies as Korean American.

Though Chae said he appreciates the way the term allows some people in the community to feel like a part of something bigger, he recognizes that the term sometimes obscures the experiences of those who are not East Asian. While Chae likes the way the term bridges Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, Chae said he would support splitting the term if it would help Pacific Islanders get the representation they need.

[Related: Atlanta shooting evokes concerns for safety in UCLA Asian community]

The use of AAPI often generalizes the Asian American experience and fails to acknowledge the diversity of the people of Asia, said Sydney Tay, a third-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student.

Defining a group of people as diverse as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders under one umbrella term can be harmful because non-Asians often don’t know the intricacies of the different ethnicities, Tay said.

Ultimately, splitting Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans into separate identities will empower both communities in the long run, Isaia said. In particular, it acknowledges the Pacific Islander identity and highlights their past which is often overlooked in history books and classes on Asian American history, she said.

“We have to respect our elders and respect our ancestors who passed before us,” Isaia said. “They weren’t counted, and if we can count ourselves today, I feel like that’s how we respect them.”

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