Our individual stories are part of the American story we all share

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, an opportunity for us to pay tribute to the many contributions APA citizens have made to America and a great reminder that our individual stories are part of the American story we all share.

Asian Pacific Americans, also referred to as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, account for nearly 6 percent of the U.S population, or more than 17 million people. The three largest groups, according to the latest Census data, are Chinese, Filipino, and Indian. From 2000 to 2010, the Asian Pacific American population grew by 46 percent—faster than any other ethnic group in the nation. 

The acronyms APA or AAPI may be quick ways of referencing those whose heritage is Asian or Pacific Islander, but there are vast differences in the cultural identity, experiences, and history of East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific groups.

And by the way: There’s much debate right now over whether federal data collected about nearly 50 Asian Pacific American ethnic groups should be disaggregated. Most federal agencies (and many states) categorize data in two groups: “Asian” or “Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander.”

Critics say that aggregating data this way obscures important differences between groups, including their socioeconomic status, health issues, and access to resources and educational opportunities. Some say this is one of the biggest civil rights issues facing the APA/AAPI community.

“Current data collection methods apply a flawed assumption that AAPIs are a racial monolith,” says the website Reappropriate. “We are deprived of the right to self-determination by agencies that ignore the ways in which we describe and identify ourselves. In so doing, we lack the data we need to unmask the differences of our diversity—a diversity that has been historically a source of strength and unity for the AAPI community.”

Just last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law requiring disaggregation of health data for Asian Pacific Americans.

As educators, appreciating and respecting the uniqueness of the Asian Pacific American groups in public schools enables us to build a bridge to every child, discover our students’ passions, and unlock their potential. Here are some helpful classroom resources that detail some of the contributions Asian Pacific Americans have made to politics, medicine, and other areas.

Also, check out the suggestions on our Read Across America website for exploring the rich history and culture of AAPI groups through literature. They include the wonderful book A Piece of Home, an immigration story about holding on to tradition in a new place, and Ink and Ashes, a riveting mystery about a Japanese American teen in Utah who uncovers the real story of her father’s life. 

Also, take a look at this profile of graphic novelist and cartoonist Gene Luen Yang, author of The Shadow Hero as well as American Born Chinese, which chronicles the challenges of growing up Asian American.

Teaching Tolerance provides an “I Am Asian American Toolkit” with professional development resources that help teachers and other educators consider our own assumptions and knowledge gaps about Asian Americans, while also providing additional curricular resources. There’s also information available from Smithsonian Education.

Before the month is over, take some time to explore. Our students will be enriched by what we discover.

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