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Who silenced the Pacific Islander?

Written by Tonga Victoria Fakalata

On September 7, 2023, the Asian American Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus (AAPILC) convened the largest gathering of AAPI Public Officials in the country at the Kimpton Hotel in Sacramento, and the only thing missing from this historic event were, well, Pacific Islanders. 

Although an honorable accomplishment, the AAPI Legislative Caucus centering only Asian American representation and not Pacific Islanders is but one example of the common AAPI experience. “On the first night of the conference, in a ballroom full of people, there were only three Pacific Islanders in the room and we all sat at one table.” One event attendee shared about her experience. An Executive Director for a Pacific Islander-based nonprofit organization, she shared further on the discomfort of being in a space that is by definition, meant for Pacific Islanders. 

“That was my first time being in an AAPI space, and in those moments when you are the only one or of the handful of Pacific Islanders, your sense of awareness is heightened to some degree. Like, everytime the AAPI acronym was used, I noticed it, and everytime only the AA part of the acronym was used, I noticed that too.” 

Likened to the sub-movements of the greater Civil Rights Era, the Asian American Pacific Islander consolidation actually was created for a different purpose than the Black/African American community and the Hispanic/Latinx communities. The latter community groups were formed and solidified through unique struggles of oppression and resistance. For example, the Black/African American community are bound together by the past legal nature of slavery and Jim Crow and the post-1965 fight for racial equality. In the Hispanic/Latinx community, the shared language and culture has helped in forming large Hispanic/Latinx organizing bases on issues such as housing and immigration that have effectively reformed local and state legislation. 

The AAPI acronym, on the other hand, was created not out of pursuit for liberation because of racial struggle, but on political convenience. Simply, the AAPI acronym gives a name to the mass migration that came from Asia and the Pacific into the United States. If the only thing these two groups have in common are trends in migration, could this be why AAPI spaces tend to look and feel disproportionate?

The answer to this question is a yes, and. Yes, the ways in which we entered America might be the most common characteristic and why these spaces feel a little not-natural, and there is so much that both Asian American and Pacific Islanders can leverage from what makes each group unique. Best said by NHPI national leader and longtime community activist, ‘Alisi Tulua, ‘the AAPI fight is done in two ways, and both are equally as important.”

The fight in solidarity is what was experienced at the AAPILC. When Asian Americans and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders come into a space to build community and collective power, federal and state level agencies are impacted and transformed. This strength in numbers and ideas, however, results only if these convenings are led by a spirit of due diligence towards effective outreach, community engagement, and fair representation. Pacific Islander tokenism must end in order for the AAPI collective to earn any credibility, and the onus falls on both the Asian American community and the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities. 

The second fight is the fight that happens at the grassroots level, in our own communities. It is the everyday social programs, the school board meetings, and the church gatherings that can empower individuals and families to do and be better. These are also the stories that, when brought into the fight for solidarity, have the power to change hearts and minds. 

Members of the AAPI collective carries a shared responsibility to build, and navigate this space if we choose to create longevity. It is a responsibility that is activated on a decision to make. The creators of this social construct did not entirely consider the investment and radical intention required to merge the two groups together, however, because of active growth underpinning the AAPI movement, there is an onus on each of us to make room and show up.

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