I remember the first time on a standardized test when the box I checked magically transformed from “Other” to “Asian American Pacific Islander.” I did not know whether to celebrate that I was seen by the powers that be—the standardized testing overlords—or question am I Asian? Technically, I am south Indian, from Andhra Pradesh. I consider myself desi, Indian, South Indian…but Asian? What a large umbrella that encompasses the immigrants and refugees from the largest continent with immense cultural diversity, numerous dialects, diverse cuisines, and varied history (especially with colonizing forces). I now know, with deep pride, that the term was coined by Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka at the University of California, Berkeley, who were inspired by the Black Power movement and recognized the importance of broad coalition building. On a tactical level, it is a brilliant expression. On a personal level, it does remind me that my own experiences of growing up as an Indian immigrant in Alabama and Arkansas were mirrored for so many others just like me. Classmates mocking of a homemade lunch with kimchi or aloo gobi, attending Sunday school not for religion but for culture and language. Practicing diphthongs and aspirations that keep you tethered to a place your family has left for you, yes you, to receive a better life. A dream of opportunity and equality, fully unknowing of where our place is in a nation that continually has failed to reckon with white supremacy and a history of racial subjugation and violence.
In the last year, we have seen a significant rise in hate crimes targeted against Asian Americans, the fires of hatred stoked by misinformation and ignorance. In her book “Minor Feelings,” Cathy Park Hong writes that “in the popular imagination, Asian Americans inhabit a vague purgatorial status: not white enough nor black enough; distrusted by African Americans, ignored by whites, unless we’re being used by whites to keep the black man down.” And the last few months have shown us how important the broader coalition is. That the umbrella that once created this coalition to oppose immigration exclusion, naturalization rights, and fight discriminatory laws must continue to dismantle the structures that keep Americans of all backgrounds and nationalities in cycles of violence and poverty.
I am inspired by the work of the Catalyst Fund grantees I manage at A Better Chicago. There are so many lessons we can learn from organizations that are embedded, reflective, and adaptive to the communities they serve. It is often forgotten that Asian Americans have the highest income disparity of any racial group in the United States. I hope that, in the movement to address systemic inequities in our country, more resources and supports are targeted to this vulnerable and often ignored group that lives in the shadow of the model minority myth that negatively impacts all Asian Americans. AAPI Heritage Month gives us the opportunity to celebrate the multitude of Asian American cultures, while also calling attention to the fact this group is diverse in so many ways. We can all be part of the work to unify, nurture, support, and uplift marginalized communities in Chicago and beyond. Let’s keep growing the coalition.