← Back

Tools for understanding and celebrating the AAPI community

May 27, 2021 New Classrooms

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. Our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) team collected various resources to celebrate AAPI history and culture. Many of these resources provide important historical context to the experiences of the AAPI community, and shed light on the civil rights struggles against exclusion that are still battles today. Other resources celebrate the culture and creativity of the AAPI community, from music to film and more. 

These different aspects of the AAPI experience are valuable to understanding others in your classrooms, workplaces, and more. We’re excited to share this repository, pulling from AAPI creators and writers where possible, as tools for understanding and celebration. Please share these resources with others, and let us know if you have resources to add.

The hundreds of ethnicities, religions, and cultures under the AAPI umbrella

The term AAPI is relatively new, and it encompasses Americans with ancestry from East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, and Hawai’i.  

This community is not a monolith — it includes hundreds of ethnicities, religions, and disparate cultures that often have conflicting needs and aims. The idea of the AAPI umbrella as a racial identity is founded on a history of exclusion — from the annexation of Hawai’i, to the Asiatic Barred Zone, to the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, all of these groups have been othered and excluded by the laws of the United States.

A history of exclusion

In the 1960s, student activists coined the term Asian-American to include all of these groups and started a Pan-Asian movement in the vein of the Black Power and anti-war movements. In the 1980s, scholars began using the term “Asian-Pacific American” to signify a shared experience of colonization between Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders — this term is often used interchangeably with AAPI.

A history of civil rights battles and landmark Supreme Court victories 

May 6th is the anniversary of the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The Act prohibited working-class Chinese from immigrating to the United States: it was the first time the U.S. had passed a law substantially limiting free immigration, but it wasn’t the last.  

In fact, many civil rights issues facing us today echo struggles faced by AAPI communities in previous decades: ICE detention centers, post-9/11 Islamophobia and the Muslim ban all have counterparts in earlier AAPI history.

Civil rights issues today echo struggles faced by AAPI communities in previous decades

The story of Asians and Pacific Islanders in America is one of dichotomies and tensions; between colonization and indigeneity, between assimilation and self-determination, between the “perpetual foreigner” and the “model minority”.  

Since the first Chinese workers arrived in California to build the Trans-Continental Railroad, generations of Asian-Americans have grappled with questions of identity and belonging. During that time, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have fought to be recognized as American citizens, winning landmark victories in the Supreme Court and electing leaders to Congress (and, most recently, the White House).

To read:

A collection of AAPI perspectives in response to the rising tide of anti-Asian violence

To watch:

The history of identity, contributions, and challenges experienced by Asian Americans, a documentary

To read:

The story of labor leader Larry Itliong and the role of Filipino-Americans in the history of labor in the US

Media representation and portrayal

When you watched TV as a kid, did you see characters who looked like you? Characters who talked like you (and your parents)? Were those characters the heroes of their stories — or were they the sidekicks, the villains, and the comic relief? How did those characters inform your sense of your own identity, your self-esteem? What did they tell you about how other people perceived you?

Asian-American and Pacific Islander representation in media — particularly television and movies — has been a hot-button issue in recent years, as Asian roles are given to white actors and Asian-American actors and creators are routinely passed over for awards. 

The problem of how Asians are portrayed in American film is as old as the film industry itself — from Anna May Wong to Charlie Chan, East Asians have contended with everything from “dragon lady” stereotypes to straight-up yellowface (think Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s). South Asians have been largely invisible — many Indian-American Gen Xers recall Apu from the Simpsons as the only representation they had on TV as kids. For Millenials, the only Pacific Islander they saw in movies was The Rock — and unless you’re a die-hard WWE fan, you might not have even known he was Samoan

Fortunately, the industry seems to be moving on (somewhat) from stereotypical AAPI characters to more realistic work that centers voices within the community. In recent years, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in the film and TV industries have begun to speak up about the racism they’ve faced, and studios have begun to produce work from AAPI creators featuring AAPI protagonists (RIP Patriot Act, cancelled too soon). 

The critical success of films like Minari and the historic box-office numbers of Crazy Rich Asians signal a change in attitudes, but the work is ongoing, and individual examples of representation aren’t the same as systemic change. To learn more, check out some of the articles from AAPI authors below:

A history of the Kim Sisters, America’s original K-Pop stars

A take on “representation for the white gaze”

An article on martial arts and Asian-American masculinity

Ways to get involved

What is advocacy? There are infinite definitions and a million ways to practice it, from Instagram stories to sit-ins. You don’t have to be physically getting out in the streets to be considered an advocate. There may be areas of your daily life where you are already acting as an advocate — can you think of any? While social media posts and hashtags are easy ways to show support against hatred and bigotry, there are other more substantive ways we can be advocates for marginalized communities. Amplifying voices within those communities, calling out bias and bigotry when we see it, and providing direct material support are all forms of advocacy. By speaking up and speaking out, we can take what we’ve learned about being allies and leverage the power of our voices to try and bring meaningful change in our communities.  

To learn more about issues and causes affecting the AAPI community and how you can help, here are several organizations, individuals, and entities that we recommend checking out:

Sharing stories from our team

In an organization-wide lunch and learn, we participated in a session on the power of storytelling. A couple of our colleagues put these learnings into practice. There are multiple ways a person can tell their story and weave in their own personal experiences. These are the stories that inspire others and challenge the popular narrative. We want to thank Vera and Shirley for allowing us to share their stories with you as examples of the power of storytelling.

Psychedelic Rock, by Vera Tran

If I could time-travel it would be to 1960-1970s Cambodia before the communist occupation of the Khmer Rouge because of the music scene. During this time Cambodia was going through a period of creative growth after claiming its independence from France. My parents talk about that time as being lively with a hint of rebellion — pretty much the essence of youth culture — and the music during this time was a reflection of that. This era’s music was everywhere growing up. It was all we listened to at home and all that was played at parties and weddings. My parents never splurged on anything except for Khmer karaoke laserdiscs, so I knew it had to be a big deal. The music is a vibe. It was influenced by the sounds from the states, France, even Latin America. Mix that with Cambodia’s traditional folksy sound and boom you get psychedelic rock. I loved it even though I didn’t know half of what they were singing about. I just enjoyed dancing to it and humming along to the melody. 

As I grew older I started listening more to the radio jamming out to American pop music and overtime Cambodian music faded into the background and became something that I got to openly enjoy at weddings among family. I would never tell my friends at school about this. In fact, I was also afraid to admit to my cousins that I loved Cambodian music and they probably felt the same way about it as me, embarrassed. The constant, sometimes high pitched vibrato vocals wasn’t really a sound you hear in popular music. It wasn’t until college when the band Dengue Fever whose sound is inspired by Cambodian rock of the 60s and 70s that I finally felt that the music was worth sharing. It was cool to see the band members compelled enough to start a band because they loved the music. 

The music is nostalgic to me, but also holds a deeper meaning. Pol Pot destroyed any sense of independence and identity through music, culture, and religion during his reign and along the way killed over a million Cambodians with the highest estimates at 3 million. My parents were lucky to have escaped, come to America and start again. As much as the music is about change, it’s also about loss and the struggles my parents endured. It serves as a way to honor the sacrifices my parents have made but also as a connection to part of my heritage. Who I am is multifaceted and multicultural, I’m American, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and a Pacific Northwesterner. I may not be fully immersed in my parents’ motherland cultures but it’s things such as Cambodian music that keep me tied to my background. It’s part of my identity and it’s beautiful.

Listen to one of my favorite tracks from Dengue Fever, Tiger Phone Card:

Learn more about Cambodia’s “golden age of music” and its fall:

Shuffle Dance, by Shirley He

One form of dance that has been rising in popularity in the Chinese community is the Melbourne shuffle, or simply “shuffle dance” (曳步舞). It originated in the Melbourne rave scene in the 1980s, and has been growing in popularity in many of China’s urban spaces, ranging from parks to plazas all over. One way to visualize the dance is to think of it as a “square dance” that involves a fast heel-and-toe movement combined with a matching arm action. A popular exercise for losing weight, fending off high blood pressure, and helping with loneliness amongst the elderly community, the shuffle dance is a versatile dancing style that can be adapted to a variety of music. There are shuffle dance competitions, and some restaurants even encourage employees to learn the dance to attract more customers. Here is a viral video showing a primary school headmaster leading over 700 students in the dance.

My mom recently joined a shuffle dance team with a few of her friends, as a safe way to see everyone during the pandemic and also get some exercise. She started off with no dancing experience, but with a weekly group dance practice and her own dedication, she’s been able to move fluidly and nail down all types of dance variations to different songs. The dance teacher records each session, and with every video my mom sends me, I can see the improvement in her form and see how much fun she’s having. Ever since we immigrated to the US when I was three years old, my mom has sacrificed every hour of her day to take care of me and my siblings, juggling several jobs at once and still making sure we had fully cooked meals even when she could not be home. For this reason, I’m so happy that my mom is finally able to take some time for herself and has found a hobby that she loves. Being part of a dance group is another way in which my mom feels connected to our Chinese heritage and like she’s in a community away from home. I’m so proud of my mom and her newfound dancing skills.