What’s in a name?

Exploring the evolution and origin of AANHPI Heritage Month

Throughout May, it’s likely you’ll see celebration events under many names and acronyms, including AAPI; Asian American; APIDA; Asian; Asian Diaspora Heritage Month; and AANHPI. While often used interchangeably, each term has its own meaning and history depending on who you ask, and when in history.

In the 1960s and 1970s, activist such as Yuji Ichioka, Emma Gee, Grace Lee Boggs, and Yuri Kochiyama, spearheaded efforts to recognize the history and contributions of Asian Americans. The term “Asian American” first appeared during this time with the foundation of the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA), which aimed to organize the many distinct groups of people of Asian descent under one, larger umbrella to increase their visibility during the civil rights and anti-war moment. But from the start, not all members of the community felt seen within the "Asian American” classification.

For some, such as those of Filipino or Desi (South Asian) decent, the term “Asian American” marginalized their cultures and experiences in favor of more those from more visible, familiar, and often-times lighter-skinned, East Asian countries. A notable example of this in action is the U.S. Census bureau, which currently excludes Filipino race classifications. It is also cited as one of the primary contributors of the “model minority” myth, a racist stereotype that erases the unique challenges faced within the larger community to be used as a racial wedge between underrepresented groups within America. In recent years, the hashtag #BrownAsiansExist has been used to bring awareness to those experiences.

During this time, terminology such as Asian Diaspora, Pan-Asian, Asian and Pacific America, and Asian Pacific Islander Desi American have been used to draw distinction to and recognize the differences between the groups in a more honest and respectful way.

Most recently, the official designation for May’s celebrations has evolved to Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Similar to the use of BIPOC, which stands for “Black, Indigenous, and people of color” and is intended to center the experiences of Black and Indigenous groups and demonstrate solidarity between communities of color, the emphasis of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Island ancestry highlights the unique struggles those communities have faced historically and continue to face today. For example, it contextualizes the displacement, dislocation, and colonization due to American Imperialism, and call attention to the concerns that in many categories like educational attainment, poverty rates, and health care, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) people fall behind white Americans as well as behind Asian Americans.

While imperfect, AANHPI seeks to elevate and celebrate the diverse cultures, languages and religions found within our communities.