Breaking down the term AAPI, how it came to be, and the controversy behind it.
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the contributions that the AAPI community has had in the United States and the world!
But, who exactly are we celebrating? And how do we know we're using the term AAPI correctly?
That's exactly what we'll be unpacking in this article, along with the history of the term AAPI and how using the term might do more harm than good.
As always, our goal in this series is to empower you to lead and participate in efforts to make your own workplace inclusive and supportive of all talent. DEI is always evolving, and we're here to learn and grow right along with you. If you have other terms you'd like to see us cover after AAPI, leave a note in the comments or reach out at email@example.com!
Definition of AAPI
AAPI is an acronym that stands for Asian American and Pacific Islander and is an umbrella term meant to include all peoples with ancestry from the continent of Asia, Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. According to the Asian Pacific Institute, the term “Asian American” is meant to represent Americans who have origins in Southeast Asia, the Far East, and the Indian subcontinent.
It’s important to keep in mind that some Asian diasporas, namely people from Central Asia (i.e. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) and West Asia (i.e. Armenia, Cyprus, Georgia, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and UAE) may not identify as Asian.
AAPI is a relatively new term coined in hopes of moving towards progress and inclusivity, but it has also earned its fair share of criticism. Alongside it are its more simplified – and equally as controversial – forms: Asian Pacific Islander (API) and Asian Pacific American (APA).
History of AAPI
AAPI finds its roots in a student activism movement of 1968. In a time of social upheaval, graduate students Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka took the opportunity to unite people of Asian descent by naming their student activist group Asian American Political Alliance. Gee and Ichioka’s group was the first to publically use the term “Asian American”.
With inequality and disunity raging, Gee and Ichioka’s broad term managed to unite those of Asian descent under a common goa. As a result, activists were strengthened by a newfound, yet intensely shared identity.
By the 80s, the term had expanded into Asian Pacific Islander (API) by the U.S. Census Bureau, extending the reach of this already broad umbrella term. It wasn’t until 1997 that the terms “Asian” and “Pacific Islander” were split, and the U.S. government finally chose to recognize the distinct differences between the two terms.
Controversy Over AAPI
While it served its purpose for the U.S. Census in the 80s, the term AAPI grouped together two very distinct identities, each with very distinct experiences, and has since garnered criticism from the Native Hawaiin and Pacific Islander (NHPI) community.
Despite it being an attempt at furthering inclusion, NHPI people are concerned that the term has blinded many to the struggles that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders face. By grouping them in with another overarching identity term, many individuals in the community have found that their own experiences and identities have been muted.
NHPI people have also faced unique hardships in the shadow of colonization and oppression in the United States and North America that Asian Americans have not. Because of this, the socio-economic disparities further drive the two apart, with NHPI people falling sorely behind in terms of poverty and health rates. By merging the two groups together, there seems to be an erasure of the specific and pressing needs of the NHPI community.
Many believe that the only way to return to the path of true inclusivity is for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to be fully recognized as two separate groups. Because of this, there is a growing push for the disaggregation of the two identities.
When to use AAPI
When using any inclusive terminology, it’s always important to respect the preferences of those you are referring to. It’s not always inclusive to use an umbrella term like AAPI, especially considering the recent controversy surrounding it. Some may prefer more specific terms, like NHPI, Pacific Islander, Pasifika, or Asian American.
If you’re unsure of how to best refer to someone, just ask!
Self identities change from person to person, so it’s better to ask than assume. It shows the intentionality behind your words, and being intentional is one of the best forms of support for all communities!
Want to learn more about how to uplift those in the AAPI community? Check out our report on Uplifting AAPI Leaders here!
What does BIPOC mean?
For our first entry in our now-monthly glossary of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) terms, we're going to cover BIPOC, a (relatively) new term in the space. We'll answer questions like "What does BIPOC stand for?", "Are Asians and Latinos BIPOC?", and "BIPOC vs POC — which should I use?"
As always, our goal in this series is to empower you to lead and participate in efforts to make your own workplace inclusive and supportive of all talent. DEI is always evolving, and we're here to learn and grow right along with you. If you have other terms you'd like to see us cover after BIPOC, leave a note in the comments or reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org!
BIPOC meaning and definition
BIPOC is an acronym. It stands for Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
Within that, Black usually refers to people with darker complexions, who may have African or Caribbean ancestry, and may or may not be descended from people who were enslaved. Indigenous usually refers to people whose descents were native to the Americas or here before European colonizers arrived. People of color is a broad term for non-white people; it includes Black and Indigenous people but also may also those of Asian, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, or Latin descent.
BIPOC vs POC
BIPOC builds on (and in some contexts, replaces) another popular DEI acronym, POC, or people of color, but highlights the unique discrimination faced by Black and Indigenous groups. Instead of lumping all non-white people into one category, which has been seen by some as erasing the significance of anti-Black sentiment, it adds more nuance to a term used to reference all non-white people.
Cynthia Frisby, a professor of strategic communication at the Missouri School of Journalism, explained the expansion of POC to the New York Times: "The black and Indigenous was added to kind of make sure that it was inclusive. I think the major purpose of that was for including voices that hadn't originally been heard that they wanted to include in the narrative, darker skin, blacks and Indigenous groups, so that they could make sure that all the skin shades are being represented."
The term was first used in 2013, but took off in May 2020 after protests against anti-Black police brutality exploded after the death of George Floyd. There was some initial confusion over what the term actually means, with some people reading it as "bisexual people of color" or "Black and Indigenous people of color"—that is, a combination of Black and Indigenous people versus a broader category that includes other non-white people.
It's now well understood to mean Black, Indigenous, and people of color, and while the intention behind the term is to be extra inclusive, which is why you'll see it used in DEI spaces, not everyone sees it that way.
From a September 2020 episode of NPR's Code Switch podcast: "I feel that the term POC is nonsense, and I think it's a way for non-Black people to sit comfortably in their anti-Blackness because they're so afraid to say Black," says Christine Harris. "So they come up with these terms that make them feel comfortable with their whiteness or their adjacency to whiteness. And I get irritated — not irritated, vexed — when people refer to me as POC or BIPOC. Like, no, absolutely not. I'm Black, don't play me."
Are Asians BIPOC? Are Latinos BIPOC?
For people of Asian descent, yes. Since POC includes all non-white people, and Asian Americans are non-white, BIPOC includes them.
For Latinx people, sometimes. Remember that the term Latinx refers to geography, noting people residing in Latin America or descended from people who resided there. (The related term Hispanic describes anyone descended from Spanish-speaking populations.) Neither refers to race, which in and of itself is a social construct and not a biological classification. Therefore, a Black or Indigenous Latino might identify as a person of color whereas a white Latino might not.
The relationship between Latinx people and race is a complicated one, particularly in the U.S., where people who look non-white (including Latinx people with darker skin tones) or have Hispanic-sounding names may face discriminatory treatment more similar to the ways that Black and Indigenous groups have historically been treated than the ways white people have been treated. So in that way, Latinx people are often considered to be included under the banner of POC.
When to use BIPOC vs POC or other terms
Like a lot of what we talk about when we talk about inclusive terminology, it really comes down to the preferences of the people you're referring to. For instance, some people may prefer to be called Black and others might like African American better. One person may identify as Native American and another as Indigenous and still another as a member of a specific tribe, finding umbrella terms like Native American to strip away the history of her tribe. If you don't know, listen to how your coworkers or employees refer to themselves or ask them outright what they'd prefer.
Do keep in mind whether you're using umbrella terms like POC or BIPOC to avoid addressing the specific experiences of one underrepresented group. For instance, while using the term BIPOC might be a good way to talk about the broad non-white experience, BIPOC isn't a substitute for Black people. Don't erase a specific group's history, issues, and perspective if you mean to highlight them. And overall, ask the group you're trying to include what kind of terminology or behavior would make them feel included. You don't have to have all the answers—you just have to make space for the people who do.