In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, it's important to better understand who makes up the large and diverse community that celebrates it, as using the proper terminology can help you be a better ally and show support to BIPOC communities. Asia is the largest continent and consists of arguably 50 countries, and it's made up of a little more than 4 billion people . While the World Bank's Pacific Island member countries have a combined population of about 2.3 million people.
To start, you've likely heard the term AAPI and wonder what it means and who exactly it is referring to: AAPI stands for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. According to the Asian Pacific Institute, this term includes "all people of Asian, Asian American or Pacific Islander ancestry, who trace their origins to the countries, states, jurisdictions and/or the diasporic communities of these geographic regions."
Dawn Lee Tu, Ph.D, faculty director at de Anza College and former director of Asian Pacific American student development at UC Berkeley, explains that the term "Asian American" was first coined by student activists in 1968 to identify Asian groups during a time when Americans would use the derogatory term "oriental" to refer to Asians in the United States.
Under the U.S. Census Bureau, that term officially evolved to "Asian Pacific Islander" in the 1980s and early 90s. And finally, in 1997, the White House Office of Management and Budget broke the terms "Asian" and "Pacific Islander" into two separate racial categories.
How a person chooses to identity can be complex, but it's crucial for us all to educate ourselves about the distinctions between the two as experience differs vastly between Asians and Pacific Islanders.
Who may identify as Pacific Islander?
It helps to look at Pacific Islander countries' geographic location. Pacific Islanders are people whose origins belong to Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. This classification includes (but is not limited to) Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Tahitian, Guamanian, Fijian and Papua New Guinean people.
Who may identify as Asian?
Today, the U.S. Census Bureau classifies Asians as "having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent," including (but not limited to) China, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, India, Cambodia, Vietnam or the Philippines.
A vital note: There are many Asian disporas across the world representing many different languages, religions, cultures and faiths. People from Central Asia (a person with origins in the original peoples of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) may or may not identify as Asian due to the geographically proximity to Europe (Eurasia). The same can be said for people from West Asia (a person with origins in the original peoples of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Georgia, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen), where many countries are part of the Arab League organization.
Here's a shortcut glossary to Asian American and Pacific Islander-related terms. Just keep in mind that cultural identities can overlap in this larger classification of AAPI people.
- AAPI: Asian American and Pacific Islander. This term generally includes all people of Asian, Asian American or Pacific Islander descent.
- Asian: A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent.
- East Asian: A person of Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean and Mongolian descent.
- South Asian: A person of Indian, Bangladesh, Sri Lankan, Nepal and Pakistani backgrounds.
- Southeast Asian: A person of Filipino, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Lao, Indonesian, Thai or Singaporean descent.
- Central Asian: A person with origins in the original peoples of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
- Pacific Islander: A person with origins in the original peoples of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia.
- West Asian: A person with origins in the original peoples of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Georgia, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.