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AAPI Heritage Month: What it is and what you can do today

AAPI Heritage Month: What it is and what you can do today


San Francisco’s opening ceremony for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Li Jianguo/Getty Images

In the US, May is the month to celebrate the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Though it can be easy for some people to group together individuals from the East, the Southeast, the Indian subcontinent and the Pacific Islands, the reality is they have distinct cultures, nationalities, languages and histories. 

That’s why Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month isn’t just for ceremony. It’s a time to learn about the history of these different cultures — which includes everything from the key contributions Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have made to the US, to marginalization that’s spanned generations. These experiences are especially important in the face of a sharp increase in anti-Asian discrimination and violence since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

We can suggest what to read and watch, how to play an active role, and why AAPI Heritage Month matters. Read on to find the resources and information to know, including what Asian American and Pacific Islander history is. (And here’s how to donate to organizations addressing violence against the AAPI community.)

How did AAPI month come to be?

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were commemorated during the first week of May following a congressional resolution passed in 1978. It wasn’t until 1992 that the entire month of May was designated to observe AAPI heritage with relevant activities, programs and ceremonies. 

The month of May was chosen to mark two significant events: the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to the US on May 7, 1843, and the anniversary of the transcontinental railroad — which was completed thanks to the labor of tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants — on May 10, 1869. 

This year AAPI Heritage Month takes place against the backdrop of a rise in anti-Asian crimes, including online harassment, during the pandemic, as some people have falsely blamed Asian Americans for the spread of the coronavirus.

How to educate yourself or teach others

Official government websites such as those of the Library of Congress and the National Archives include information on exhibits and educational events, as well as news articles and resources. The National Park Service also spotlights places and stories related to AAPI history. 

The US Department of Education has issued a memo with suggestions for teachers, including toolkits and lesson plans. You can also find classroom resources on the Learning for Justice website. 

Where to find books during AAPI month or anytime

If you want to dig into a novel or some nonfiction literature, the following book lists can help you find the perfect fit. 

Where to watch AAPI movies, documentaries and shows

If you want to stream documentaries, films or TV programs related to the AAPI experience, here are some ways you can do it at home. 

How to participate in AAPI month in your community

Many cities are holding their own events for AAPI month, and the easiest way to find out about a program close to you is to search “AAPI month” and enter your city. Major cities like Chicago, San Francisco and DC provide online resources for art and cultural events, concerts, discussions and more. You can also look online to find out which local businesses might be sponsoring activities. 

There are also lots of ways to find volunteer opportunities and donate to organizations that are working to address anti-Asian violence and discrimination. 


A protest against anti-Asian crimes in Brooklyn on April 4. 

Wang Ying/Getty Images

What is Asian American and Pacific Islander history?

In short, it’s US history. For over 150 years, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have played a crucial role in forging American identity. Starting in the 1850s, Chinese contract laborers were instrumental in building up infrastructure and the economy while working in mines, railroads and factories, and as farmers and fishermen. In subsequent decades, waves of immigrants, including Japanese, Korean, South Asian and Filipino workers, replaced them as low-wage labor following legislation that excluded people from Asian countries from citizenship rights and more. 

The pattern of Asian immigration in the US correlated to the demands of the early industrialists and agricultural merchants. During periods of shifting labor needs, land expansion, economic recession and war, Asian immigrants faced intense discrimination and anti-immigrant violence. 

For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 denied naturalization to Chinese immigrants and severely restricted immigration from China over the next 60 years. The 1917 Immigration Act barred all immigration from the Asia-Pacific region, and the 1924 Asian Exclusion Act denied entry to Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and South Asian Indians, prohibiting naturalization. During World War II, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt interned some 120,000 people of Japanese descent, including American citizens. 

Many Asian immigrants were brutally detained and turned away at Angel Island, dubbed the Ellis Island of the West. It wasn’t until 1952 that the US government overturned the naturalization bans of Asian immigrants. But laws remained discriminatory until 1965 when, in response to the struggles of the civil rights movement, the US government shifted its policy and overturned the restrictive quotas. Today, Asian Americans constitute the fastest growing racial and ethnic group in the US. 

For more about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and the coronavirus, here’s why calling it the “Chinese virus” sparked an increase in violence and death. And here’s how anti-Asian harassment and hateful rhetoric increased online.

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