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Why the Term “AAPI” Has Its Flaws

Last updated on March 23, 2022

From A Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) Student’s Perspective

As a Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) student—an American Samoan to be more specific—I am sometimes unsure of how to represent and express myself at Northwest. I have been put under the blanket term “AAPI” my whole life, just like every other Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander. When legal forms ask me for my racial identity and ethnicity, I always have a hard time because it feels weird to click on my race that is also connected to another totally different race. 

The term AAPI has some major flaws. Asian Americans and NHPIs have been grouped together within the term “Asian American Pacific Islanders” for too long. Many Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander scholars dislike this term and believe that it should stop being used since the reasoning for the term being created in the first place no longer matters or benefits anyone anymore. So many people do not realize that by saying “Asian American Pacific Islanders” we usually end up completely ignoring Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander identifying people, mostly because Asian Americans tend to get most of the attention. Asian Americans deserve to be acknowledged, but NHPIs should not be a race that is just “along for the ride” with Asian Americans, which is honestly how it feels most of the time. 

I am a very proud American Samoan, even though I am adopted and am still learning more about my culture. My American Samoan pride does not minimize the struggles I sometimes go through when it comes to finding an affinity space to feel a sense of belonging. The Northwest affinity that would “suit” me the most is AAPI affinity. But that AAPI affinity is obviously always full of Asian American students to whom I cannot fully racially relate. Even though there is a very significant racial difference between me and Asian Americans, I have no other choice but to go to AAPI if I want an affinity space because there are so few Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students at Northwest school for whom an affinity space could be created. It is hard to be in a space where so many people confidently go into their affinity spaces, but every time I hesitate wondering to myself, “do I really belong here, in this affinity space?” I know many other POC students experience this, but it is incredibly hard when you don’t know if people like you even exist at your own school. In other POC minorities, you can at least be a minority together and unite and understand one another. 

I will always have a small disconnect with Asian students in my affinity group because we cannot relate with one another fully on racial issues. I cannot connect with the Asian or Asian American students on the colonization of my people in the Pacific Islands. Not only that, but several different Asian nations were actually colonizers of the Pacific Islands as well as different European nations. Colonization is only a small part of the reason Pacific Islanders are displeased with the term AAPI. We Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders have our own struggles and deal with different sorts of oppressions that are completely different from Asian American identifying people. The grouping of Asian Americans and NHPIs together hides the continued racism, colonization, and injustice that oppress NHPIs still to this day. Similarly, the term “Asian” doesn’t distinguish between all the cultures and countries within the Asian content. 

In a Seattle Times article, two leaders of the Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington (PICAWA) were interviewed, Dakota Camacho and Joseph Seia. Dakota Camacho said that Asian organizations that call themselves “AAPI” organizations should Just be Asian.” “If you focus on Asian Americans,” Camacho said, “please just be Asian.” The reason he said this is because when organizations call themselves an AAPI organization or association, it makes it sound like they are helping out the NHPI community as well when in reality, they are really focusing on Asians and Asian Americans only. When it seems like a group of minority people are being helped, no one tends to acknowledge or learn about their struggles. My people are slowly dying, and citizens of the US don’t know about it. The Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander community was hoping that the pandemic would help people finally begin to understand that NHPIs are really struggling. In March of 2021, The Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander community had been facing major issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitalization rates had been 10 times higher than the white communities, and death rates from COVID-19 were nearly six times higher.

The pandemic is not the only time that Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders have really struggled with death, illnesses, and sickness. In the Marshall Islands and many islands in the Pacific Ocean nuclear weapon tests were being held, which, according to Stanford Medicine’s article on the colonization of the Pacific Islands, “left residents with radiation sickness, and a multitude of cancers.” Cancers emerged in these communities in the forms of lung cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma.

In Samoa, the impact of colonization led to a rapid shift from the traditional diet and lifestyle, which created a rise in diabetes. Since World War II, nearly a third of the population now has the disease. Nuclear weapons testing is not the only thing that has been affecting the NHPI community. The reason nuclear weapon testing happened in the first place was because of Colonization. The colonization of several Pacific Islands has created a profoundly negative impact. Due to the United States taking over several Pacific Islands and making them territories of the US, this has encouraged tourism and has been the cause of a lot of the Pacific Island religions and cultures to slowly fade and disappear. Even though colonization of the Pacific Islands started in the 16th century there is still a lasting impact to this day.

NHPI lives are being overlooked. There are roughly 1.4 million NHPI within the U.S. We take up a good enough portion of the US. Something that needs to be made clear though when talking about NHPIs is that the Kanaka Maolis – the indigenous people of Hawaii, or those related by blood to the indigenous people – do not represent all Pacific Islanders. The Pacific Ocean contains 15 nations and 15 territories, 3 of those territories; The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), Guam, and American Samoa are a part of the 16 US territories. People tend to overlook the 3 subregions (Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia) that contain about 30,000 islands in the Pacific Ocean. There are many different languages that are spoken in the 3 regions, but due to colonization over the years, English and French have become the official languages in the Pacific.

Not only do many Islands experience their culture fading away due to colonization and tourism, but there is also still another major issue that people do not know about, or just choose not to acknowledge. Even though American Samoa is a territory of the U.S., Samoans are not allowed immediate citizenship until they turn 18. In 2015, in order to block Somoans from receiving birthright U.S. citizenship, the Obama administration cited a century-old Supreme Court case law that refers to Samoans as “alien races” and “savages”. American Samoans have to go through the process of applying for citizenship like all other immigrants. This oppression of American Samoans is not only backward and problematic, but it is also majorly downplayed. 

When I mention the American Samoan U.S. national situation people often assume that the only difference between U.S. citizens and U.S. nationals is that U.S. nationals cannot vote as if that means American Samoans don’t need to be U.S. citizens. The United States is a democracy, and the current president of the U.S. affects us too. By not allowing U.S nationals to vote, the government is not allowing American Samoans to have a voice here in the U.S. The government of American Samoa has been pushing the U.S. to immediately grant citizenship to their Island’s residents for years now. Many US citizens who have the right to vote choose not to vote, throw away the chance that they have to be heard in this country, not realizing that they are privileged to have the right to vote, while many people are being refused citizenship and the right to be heard in this country. Being a U.S. national means that American Samoans have to choose between Samoa and the U.S. if they want to have U.S. citizenship. Once an American Samoan becomes a U.S. citizen they are no longer a Samoan citizen, and cannot own land on Samoan territory.

As NHPIs we are humans who deserve to be seen and acknowledged as our own beings and not just the leftovers of the Asian American community. At Northwest, please start to use the term Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander when talking about Pacific Islanders to acknowledge us as our own race and ethnicity. I am proud of my race, culture, and ethnicity and I don’t want it to be hidden behind a completely different ethnicity.

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