In 2021, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month feels more significant. Before this year, how many of us were truly aware of its existence? Admittedly, as British-born Chinese, I only discovered it in recent months and what struck me is that despite initially beginning in 1977, it feels like it’s just now starting to make its way out of the echo chamber.
Like most of these observances, AAPI Heritage Month originated with Congress to recognize the history and contributions of many Asians and Pacific Islanders during America’s formative years. The month of May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese people to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. While many Chinese immigrants laid the tracks, they also suffered greatly during this period from racial discrimination and even legislative prohibitions like the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 that prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers as the sentiment was, “they are taking our jobs.”
The dangers of language
We’d like to think that times have changed and our society is much more tolerant and accepting, however, the coronavirus proved we still have a long way to go. Since the start of the pandemic, the AAPI community in all areas around the world, but particularly the US and UK, has seen an increase in vicious and racially provoked attacks due to an unwarranted association with the virus. Over the last 18 months, in the US, there were more than 3,000 anti-Asian hate incidents (some more deadly than others) and, in the UK, there was a 300% increase in attacks against Asians.
Nicknames for coronavirus like “Wuhan virus”, “Kung flu” and “China virus” circulated freely and frequently among world leaders, academics, and media channels particularly at the start of the pandemic – language that may have seemed innocent but had huge ramifications for AAPI people. As communicators, we understand the power of language. When weaponized, it can have an excruciating impact that those within the community, and their allies must work twice as hard to address.
When scrutinized, the history, the trauma, the model minority myth, the successes, the struggles and the stories of the AAPI community still seem to be told at surface level. Are we able to celebrate the history, raise up leaders and future generations when so little is seen in terms of AAPI representation in public spaces?
Do you see us?
Around 3 in 5 (62 percent) of Asian Americans said they “rarely” or “never” see people who look like them in advertising materials such as TV commercials or sponsored content posts on social media, according to a Morning Consult survey conducted in October 2020, among 1,000 Asian adults in the United States.
The lack of visibility of AAPI faces on the main stage, in politics and across media outlets is all too apparent. Problem is, it’s not because we’ve not always been here, we have, we just haven’t had a prominent presence. The deeply flawed terminology of “model minority” and “hidden minority” that gets placed upon AAPI communities all come back to the same connotations – that we are not seen and because of that, it’s a good thing. Stay quiet, stay subservient, stay back.
But not this time.
“This Time It’s Different – Let’s Rise Together”
Voices are uniting, and a new generation of AAPI and ESEA (East South East Asian, the term used in the UK) are taking it upon themselves to break the wall of silence, to educate and to expose the rest of society to the plights and power of our community. For me, that feels like the focus of AAPI Heritage Month – it’s less reflection and more progressive action towards changing the narrative that’s plagued and marginalized my community for far too long.
Allyship is crucial to tackling injustice. We’re now seeing so much more support across industries, influencers and businesses recognizing the need to shift the paradigm when it comes to AAPI people. Movements like #StopAAPIHate and #StopAsianHate have been gaining ground thanks to the power of social media, prolific Hollywood actors like Gemma Chan and Henry Golding have been publicly backing the UK’s #StopESEAHate campaign.
I hope this is truly the starting point and that the fight for AAPI equality stretches further than the hashtags and heritage month. For the first time, it genuinely feels like so many digital influencers, grassroots organizations and established businesses are finally seeing the AAPI community properly for who we are and recognizing the challenges we still face.
In an industry where image and perception are our currency, we have a collective responsibility to fight against bias and ensure inclusivity and equality rings true for all underrepresented communities across every level of society. The more you see us, the harder it’ll be to look the other way.