The month of May brings Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a time for us to celebrate, recognize, and pay tribute to the generations of people from these cultures who have enriched our country’s history and continue to make notable contributions today.
People who identify as Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, too often are overlooked in conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion. I want to acknowledge and recognize this fact, while letting our AAPI colleagues and youth know that we see them and are committed to supporting their rights and opportunities in an equitable way.
Numerous Countries and Cultures Represented
Asian and Pacific Islander cultures are tough to encapsulate in a brief message such as this one, firstly because those two terms include such a large and diverse pool of people. The term “Asian American” alone encompasses a broad array of cultural backgrounds, including Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Pakistani, Thai, Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian, Taiwanese, Bangladeshi, Burmese, Nepalese, Indonesian, and Sri Lankan.
When you add Pacific Islander Americans to our list, then we also add many more regions with rich histories and cultures, including Hawaiian, Micronesian, Melanesian, and Polynesian.
When you look at the histories of these cultures in America, you learn that many of them faced racism, colonialism, and horrific acts of violence toward their peoples due to their cultural identities. It’s important that we remember and recognize this past as well.
Here are a few videos that can help you learn more about AAPI history and cultures:
- What Pacific Islanders Want You to Know
- Asian: How You See Me
- American Born Confused Desi
- Asian American History in 4 Minutes
Influential Asians and Pacific Islanders
Please keep an eye out this month for AAPI celebrations in your community, and I encourage you to learn about notable Asians and Pacific Islanders who have had huge impacts historically and today. Here are a few:
- Grace Lee Boggs was a Chinese American author, philosopher, and social activist who participated in the March on Washington and was active in the Civil Rights Movement and the movement for gender equality. She embraced a philosophy of constant questioning of how people relate to those in their community, their country, and the world. She wrote numerous books, publishing her last one, “The Next Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century,” at age 95.
- Queen Lili’uokalani, the first and last queen of Hawaii, ruled the Kingdom from 1891 until 1893, when a group of powerful American business owners supported by U.S. Marine forces overthrew the monarchy. This coup led to Hawaii becoming a republic, with the ultimate goal of annexing the islands to the United States. The new government placed Queen Lili’uokalani under house arrest and she was forced to abdicate the throne. She is now known as one of the most influential and revered women in Hawaiian history.
- General Vang Pao of the Royal Lao Army was an influential military leader who was key to the Hmong community’s beginnings in the United States. Numerous Hmong people emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1970s during the Vietnam War, fleeing the murders and imprisonments their people were facing in Laos. Many of the first wave of emigrants were part of General Pao’s Secret Army, which was aligned with U.S. war efforts. General Pao remains respected among the Hmong people for his leadership and military accomplishments.
- Mahatma Gandhi, a lawyer, anti-colonial nationalist, civil rights leader, and political ethicist, is one of the most revered people in Indian culture. His use of nonviolent resistance to help India achieve independence from British rule not only improved the lives of Indians, but inspired civil rights movements worldwide. He led numerous campaigns focused on easing poverty, expanding women’s rights, building positive relationships between different religious and ethnic groups, and achieving self-rule for India.
- Judge Fa’amomoi Masaniai became Washington State’s first judge of Samoan heritage in February 2021. He is now serving on the King County District Court. Previously, as a lawyer, he argued cases around Washington state, in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, and in courts in American Samoa.
Other Commemorations in May
I would also like to briefly recognize several other celebrations and commemorations in the month of May:
- Mental Health Awareness Month, to raise awareness about mental health and fight stigma, provide support, educate the public, and advocate for policies that support people with mental illness and their families.
- Haitian Heritage Month, a celebration of Haitian heritage, history, culture, and contributions to the world.
- Jewish American Heritage Month, to celebrate and recognize Jewish American achievements in and contributions to the United States.
- Older Americans Month, to acknowledge the contributions of past and current older persons in our country.
I hope that this message will encourage you to keep learning and thinking about the different backgrounds and identities of the people around you. This month, as you learn more about Asian and Pacific Islander cultures, I hope you will continue having conversations and acknowledging the rich perspectives brought to our work by our AAPI teammates and the youth in our custody.