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Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

May 01, 2021

As we begin the month of May, we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

The following reflection and commemoration, with support from the staff of the Asian Pacific American Student Services (APASS), of this heritage month, is written by third-year Criminal Justice Major Gabby Galamgam (He/Him). Gabby is involved with Air Force ROTC, and his hometown is the Island of Oahu, Hawai‘i.

The history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander peoples is largely invisible in the mainstream conversation of the history of the United States. This is not to say that Asian American or Pacific Islander peoples have been passive or quiet, but rather a method of colonization and imperialism that has successfully veiled the presence of Asian American and Pacific Islander peoples. Asian American and Pacific Islander peoples have been incredibly important to the establishment of the United States and yet, have also had a dual identity of being portrayed as the enemy. For example, prior to May 4, 1978, Asian American citizens received zero recognition for their contribution to the transcontinental railroad and the hardships they endured at the hands of the United States. From 1863 to 1869, an estimated 15,000 Chinese immigrants sacrificed the time and labor to the establishment of the railroad, with many also sacrificing their physical health and even their lives. Despite these contributions to the political and economic infrastructure of the United States, the federal government passed The Chinese Exclusion Act and openly banned Chinese immigrants in 1882. In 1892, the Geary Act was passed, which deported Chinese immigrants who did not carry a permit.

A year later, President Grover Cleveland would illegally occupy the islands of Hawai‘i, and throughout the 20thCentury would begin a colonization and imperialistic campaign of several other Asian and Pacific Islander countries through mass incarceration of Japanese Americans in internment camps to warfare including but not limited to World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, and several different campaigns in the Middle East in the late 1900s through the longest war, Afghanistan.

Throughout all these efforts to marginalize and minimize Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Asian American and Pacific Islanders have combatted systemic oppression and violence. Most notably the efforts of the 60s, namely the Filipino Farm Workers Movement, the 70s, when Asian American college students engaged their Colleges and Universities to institute Ethnic Studies programs, as well as the establishment of the pan identity of Asian American. This May, we acknowledge this activism and the efforts of Ruby Moy and Jeanie Jew. Through Moy and Jew’s advocacy, Asian Pacific American Heritage Week was established on May 4, 1978. Then in May 1990, a new bill was passed by President George H.W. Bush which expanded Asian Pacific American Heritage Week to the month of May. The month of May was selected because it commemorates the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant into the United States and honors the Chinese workers that helped complete the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869.

This story illuminates just one of the millions of stories of eradicating and silencing the Asian American and Pacific Islander diasporas in the United States. While there has been more recent attention focused on the violence against Asian American individuals due to the increase of Anti-Asian hate crimes, fueled by xenophobia stemming from hate language surrounding COVID-19, please realize that this violence is not a new phenomenon, but rather is just the most recent chapter of this dire history.

This May, we encourage members of our community to learn more about this history and to elevate Asian American and Pacific Islander members of our community.

Take Action:

  1. Learn about Anti-Asian Hate and Xenophobic Harassment prevention:
  2. Learn more through these professional development recommendations:
  3. Watch the PBS miniseries: Asian Americans

For additional education and personal development related to diversity, equity and inclusion, please use the following resources: DDEI Education and ResourcesDEI & Antiracism Resources from the UNC Libraries, and the Education Equity Toolkit from the Colorado Department of Higher Education.