Why the AANHPI acronym brings mixed feelings for some within the community

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- May is AANHPI Heritage Month, a time to recognize and celebrate the culture, history, and heritage of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. However, not everyone in these communities feel comfortable with grouping these ethnicities under one umbrella. Those who have mixed feelings about the acronym say the term can often blur the lines between the different needs and issues of each group.

The U.S. Census reports 1,849,226 Asian Americans (6.3%) and 77,196 Native Hawaiian Pacific Islanders (0.3%) live in the State of Texas from their 2020 survey. Kapualani Abreu is a Native Hawaiian who currently lives in The Woodlands. She says although their population is small, she still has mixed feelings about the commonly-used term, "AANHPI," which groups them with the Asian American community.

"I think it's fair for us to want to be our own people," said Abreu. "We fought for so long to be our individual people that I don't think it's fair to lump us with other cultures."

The acronym also comes in slight variations, including AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) and APA (Asian Pacific American). An Tuan Nguyen, who is a clinical assistant professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Houston, said the term, "Asian American" wasn't coined until 1968 by student activists, Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka.

"They realized that until that moment, we didn't really have a group or umbrella that people of Asian descent could come together, find some sort of mutual support, and share an identity," he said.

In the 1980s, the U.S. Census Bureau decided to group Pacific Islanders under the same categorization.

"The idea being that both groups were relatively small and that we could potentially have more advocacy bargaining power in this country if we come together," said Bianca Mabute-Louie, a sociology Ph.D. student at Rice University.

Even though the Census has since separated the groups in their classifications, the umbrella term and its variations are still commonly used. Some say they don't have a problem with the acronym, believing it brings unity and empowerment in their shared fight for social equity. But others say the groups each deserve their own recognition, because their issues and needs are uniquely different.

Mabute-Louie and Nguyen said scholars and activists have argued for a clear distinction between the two groups. They provided some examples about how the issues and needs between Asian Americans can differ from Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

"A core aspect of the identity and movements for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders is their indigeneity and indigenous sovereignty. Many of their countries did not consent to America to begin with," she said. "Meanwhile, many Asian Americans come from immigrant groups. It's a different experience, being a refugee who has come here because you've been displaced versus someone who had their land taken away by American imperialism."

"A Chinese American might go back to visit China and say, 'I am coming back to the origins of my culture. This culture is authentic.' I don't know if Native Hawaiians are able to say the same thing, because they suffered not only the whitewashing of their land, but their culture has somewhat been stolen by the U.S. cultures," said Nguyen.

Additionally, experts say those of NHPI heritage are often overshadowed or left out of events and efforts that use the combined term.

"I think it's the problems with lack of representation and sometimes the overpowering of certain ethnic groups in our communities that make people feel and wonder, why should they be in a group where they don't see their own people, which is a very fair question," said Nguyen. "Being together is a good thing. But if one of us in this group under this umbrella of pan ethnicity exploits this shared identity and overpower other groups, taking away their representation, lessening their voice, and creating this divide within our own group, that's when it becomes very dangerous."

There are places that recognize and celebrate NHPIs separately. For example, the state of Utah celebrates Pacific Islander Heritage Month separately in the month of August and has been doing so for the last 10 years. Abreu hopes to see more of those efforts across the country and beyond.

"Having the continental U.S. recognize us as our own people would be great. That's the ultimate for me," she said.

As the social construct of race and identity continues to change over time, Mabute-Louie and Nguyen hope the public will continue having these conversations about how we can better achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion as a society.

"I try to lean into those mixed feelings. I try to hear from folks about how the term, 'AAPI' is really powerful to them and others who feel very invisibilized by it. Just like how our backgrounds and experiences are so diverse, so are our opinions about how we should be named and categorized," said Mabute-Louie. "Racial categories are not static and they change over time. We've seen that with history. So the ambivalent feelings and mixed feelings we have are not surprising to me as a sociologist."

"I tell people it's not about the term. It's about the context and actions we take. We have to be more attentive, inclusive, supportive, and even more appreciative of each other's cultures," said Nguyen.

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