About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at jokamura@civilbeat.org.

Acronyms like AANHPI and AAPI obscure significant cultural, socioeconomic and health differences between ethnic communities.

Last May was Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, although one wouldn’t have known it in Hawaii, despite or perhaps because of our majority population of “AANHPIs.”

President Joe Biden issued a proclamation in late April to make the observance official. He declared that “Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AA and NHPIs) represent us at every level of government,” and mentioned Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Labor Julie Su and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai. 

However, he did not cite any high ranking Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders in his administration. In fact, the only reference in his proclamation to those groups was that the heritage month was intended “To honor the traditional practices and ancestral pathways of Pacific Island voyagers.”

Going online, I learned that Taco Bell in Northampton, Massachusetts, commemorated AANHPI month on its website, fortunately without introducing a new mix of Mexican, Asian and Pacific Islander food. But in Hawaii, Gov. Josh Green didn’t bother issuing a proclamation like President Biden did, although he would have a lot more to say about AANHPIs in his administration.

In Hawaii, we have and are familiar with numerous AANHPI groups and hence don’t need or use a lengthy acronym to refer to all of them. We also know that Native Hawaiians are the Indigenous people of Hawaii, which distinguishes them from other Pacific Islanders. 

Perhaps that is why the history of when and why May became AANHPI Heritage Month reveals the major roles played by four prominent elected officials from Hawaii. In 1978, Congress passed a bill designating the first 10 days of May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. In the Senate, the bill was introduced by former senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga.

May was selected as the month to honor “APAs” because the first known Japanese immigrant to the United States arrived on May 7, 1843 and the transcontinental railroad, which was built with the labor of 20,000 Chinese workers, was completed on May 10, 1869.

In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed a bill to extend Asian Pacific American Heritage Week to a month. Perhaps aware as a result of growing up in Hawaii that Pacific Islanders don’t call themselves Pacific Americans, President Barack Obama in 2009 changed the name of the observance to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. 

Completing the groups recognized in AANHPI month, Native Hawaiians were specifically added in 2021 by a presidential proclamation. I wasn’t able to determine if any Native Hawaiians in the Biden administration or any of our congressional representatives suggested this change.

The names of the groups included under the AANHPI umbrella also have a Hawaii connection. They are based on two federally recognized racial categories — Asian American, and Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander. They were created in 1997 by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, which has the authority to establish the racial and ethnic classifications used by the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal agencies.

Previously, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders were combined with Asian Americans under a single federal racial category — Asian American and Pacific Islander. Those two distinct racial groups were merged by the U.S. government in the 1980s primarily as a matter of bureaucratic convenience rather than cultural similarity or political ties with each other.

2016 file photograph Senator Daniel Akaka at a rally held at the Capitol. 26 july 2016
Former Sen. Daniel Akaka contributed indirectly to the creation of the AANHPI Heritage Month when he argued that the experience of Hawaii’s Indigenous people was more aligned to that of Native Americans than Asian Americans, who are historically immigrants. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016)

Thus, in the 1990s, Sen. Daniel Akaka sought to have Native Hawaiians moved from the “AAPI” census category to the Native American category. He argued that the status and experiences, particularly colonization, of Kanaka as an indigenous people are more like those of Native Americans than those of Asian Americans, who are all historically immigrants to the U.S. 

After objections were raised by some Native American groups because they might have to share federal funds allocated to them with Native Hawaiians, the issue was settled by the Office of Management and Budget by establishing a new racial category of Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander. 

It first appeared officially in the 2000 U.S. census. Joining the three other Hawaii-born former U.S. senators, Sen. Akaka thus contributed indirectly to the name of AANHPI Heritage Month.

Within that unwieldy acronym, in the continental U.S., the terms “AAPI” and, less frequently, “APA” are regularly invoked by Asian American academics and community leaders without taking into consideration the interests and desires of Pacific Islanders, including Native Hawaiians, if they wish to be joined with Asian Americans. 

While race matters in the continental U.S., in Hawaii, ethnicity and indigeneity matter much more.

Merging the former groups with Asian Americans doesn’t strengthen them but instead marginalizes them to the much greater numbers and political and economic power of Asian Americans.  

Besides the federal bureaucracy, this incorporation occurs in academic disciplines, such as in Asian Pacific American studies programs, and in community-based organizations like the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association. It also was most recently evident during the coronavirus pandemic.

In March 2020 at the start of the pandemic, a nationwide campaign — “Stop AAPI Hate” — was initiated by a coalition of three organizations — Chinese for Affirmative Action, the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University and the AAPI Equity Alliance. 

According to the Stop AAPI Hate website, the campaign was started “to track and analyze incidents of hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.” These incidents especially involve the assaults and killings of Asian Americans, who were racially blamed for the introduction and spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. and the consequent deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. 

But I don’t recall any news reports of Pacific Islanders being among the victims of such racial scapegoating or of Pacific Islanders being accused of bringing the coronavirus into the U.S. It seemed to me that the Asian American leaders of the Stop AAPI Hate campaign are so used to invoking the term “AAPI” that they didn’t bother considering, or perhaps even asking, if Pacific Islanders wanted to be included in their protest.

COVID-19 Vaccination card.
Significant differences in health status during the coronavirus pandemic became apparent when data was broken down from larger racial groups into smaller ethnic categories. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

The campaign may even have created an unnecessary problem for Pacific Islanders by implying that they were subject to Covid-related hate attacks and hence were seen by some as responsible for the spread of the coronavirus. 

Fortunately, in Hawaii we didn’t have racists blaming, beating or killing Asian Americans for the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, there was an awareness that it affected Asian American and Pacific Islander groups in different ways. 

Early in the pandemic, Filipino, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community representatives recommended collection of data on Covid infections and deaths according to ethnic rather than the racial categories used by the federal government. Their request to the state Department of Health resulted in revision of the federal Covid surveillance form used by the department so that such disaggregated data could be collected and reported.

The Hawaii Covid data gathered between March 2020 and February 2021 were published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report of September 17, 2021.

Consistent with what local community representatives had been saying, the report indicated that Covid infection and death rates were highest among Pacific Islanders, including Marshallese, and that, among Asian Americans, infection rates were highest among Filipinos and Vietnamese. These significant differences in health status became apparent when the data were disaggregated from larger racial into smaller ethnic categories.

The CDC report also stated that Japanese and Chinese had among the lowest Covid infection rates in Hawaii. Such health disparities can be attributed in part to differences in occupational status among ethnic groups. Japanese and Chinese people, who tend to have higher status occupations, were more likely to be working remotely at home, which reduced their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

Events like the Celebrate Micronesia Festival, featuring Kosrae Women’s Association Dancers, should receive our support instead of the federally approved AANHPI Heritage Month. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

But well before the CDC report was published, based on community knowledge, targeted and culturally responsive Covid prevention and intervention campaigns, including vaccination, using the appropriate languages had begun in Pacific Islander, Filipino and Vietnamese communities. 

As should be evident, a major problem with conjoined racial categories, such as AANHPI and AAPI, is that they obscure significant cultural, socioeconomic, health and other consequential differences among the included groups. 

Thus, we shouldn’t commemorate or celebrate AANHPI Heritage Month and instead should support our local cultural events, such as the Okinawan Festival, Merrie Monarch Festival, Narcissus Festival and, most recently Micronesia Festival. 

While race matters in the continental U.S., in Hawaii, ethnicity and indigeneity matter much more. Their significance extends beyond cultural celebrations and ultimately concerns how Hawaii is organized as a society into its constituent indigenous and ethnic groups and not races. 

Accordingly, we should continue to use and emphasize Indigenous and ethnic categories and identities that are meaningful to us and ignore those that have little relevance to our daily lives, such as AANHPI. Doing so might even save lives.

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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at jokamura@civilbeat.org.

Latest Comments (0)

Identity is rather important, now isn’t it? When I was a kid, the Boomers were still in their 20s. When they weren’t protesting the draft or doing Drugs, Sex & Rock ‘n Roll, they would search for their identity by asking the question "Who am I?" They were trying to find out who they were and apparently thought that asking "Who am I?" was a reasonable approach to find the answer.As a boy, I went with my grandparents to visit a friend of theirs. When we got there that friend was arguing with her Boomer daughter. That young woman was living with a Black man and already had 3 children with him. Her mother told her she could accept this man into the family if only the daughter would marry him. But, the daughter didn’t see the point of marriage; it was just a slip of paper. "I’m still finding out who I am. Who am I?" The Boomers in their 20s were a trip. Thank God for grandparents.Do people still ask "Who am I?" or did that go with the 70s? Funny how all sorts of obsessions and fads come along and then just disappear. I wonder what purposes they actually served in the first place.

Scott_Israel · 8 months ago

Thank you for helping us trace where NHAAPI/AANHPI was hatched.Was LGBTQ+ identity also hatched this way?

Ca · 8 months ago

How about the Feds stick with constitutional oversight and national defense? I bet we would save a ton of money if we closed all the departments who's only purpose seems to be spreading discord and confusion.

TenPercentForDaBigGuy · 8 months ago

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