Sharing Our Humanity: Reflections During Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month

May is Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month. Passed by Congress in 1990, this month is traditionally a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. And despite traditions and practices over the past 20 years, this May feels different. 

The change is challenging, but positive. We are deepening and expanding the dialogue about navigating race in America while identifying as AAPI, both within the AAPI community and beyond. 

For generations, exclusion and erasure have marked the AAPI experience of race in America, including during recent reckonings with racism and white supremacy. So much of the American conversation on race has been painted in black and white terms, for reasons that are understandable and important.  We must continue to elevate and understand the Black experience in order to confront enormous historical injustices. However, that dichotomy leaves the other experiences of communities of color, including AAPI experiences, as an asterisk or further marginalized. The Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment, perpetual foreigner syndrome, the model minority stereotype -- these realities of AAPI history and experience are infrequently an area of inquiry. However, the dam is breaking in the wake of March’s devastating shootings in Atlanta, which killed six women of Asian descent, graphic assaults on Asian elders, and a documented rise in anti-Asian violence. Today, we finally see visible, public dialogue within AND outside AAPI communities about AAPI grief, vulnerability, and experience.

Breaking the silence around racism and othering is an exhausting endeavor; something Black and brown activists have long shared. It also requires distinct navigation while AAPI, especially when the AAPI experience is often perceived as proximate to whiteness. But at the core is a shared humanity across races and a shared pursuit of justice for all that will require different ways of acting and organizing. I have been so grateful for the large and growing community of activists and allies who are increasingly working together to advance necessary conversations on how we can more fully realize our common aspirations for justice and opportunity. 

The nuance in this dialogue is personal to me. I am the biracial (Asian / white) daughter of a Taiwanese immigrant whose formative years were shaped by identifying and being identified by others as AAPI. I was drawn to social justice work as a high schooler and from the earliest days of my career, aware of the racial hierarchy embedded in our systems and culture. I am also the mother of two young bi-racial children who the world will largely see as white, but for whom I would like to be intentional in building pride and belonging among the AAPI community. Navigating race and identity is not new to me, or even a choice I have.  But the freedom to name out loud the ways in which it has been hard and has shaped my behaviors is new. Naming it used to feel risky, used to be risky.  It’s not without risk now, and still requires courage and fortitude, but there is strength in numbers, in community, and in solidarity..

This dialogue is also the work for us collectively at EP. We believe that education should be a lever for equity and that all students deserve to realize their full potential. To realize that aspiration, we must disrupt the legacy of white supremacy and transform systems that have historically marginalized students of color and their families and communities. Enabling ALL children -- including AAPI students, alongside their Black and brown peers -- to reach their full potential and to be seen in their full humanity is why we pursue systems change. 

EP is committed to finding, developing, and connecting the adaptive, inclusive leaders who can drive the systems change necessary to realize this vision in communities nationwide. We are building the capacity of our leaders to interrogate systems and engage in the nuanced and contextual dialogue that racial justice work demands.  And that’s why we find it so important to intentionally craft a diverse network, and develop ALL leaders’ capacity to center equity and inclusivity.  

What I’m Reading

In the tradition of elevating AAPI voices this month, and to showcase the AAPI community in our full humanity from heartbreak to excellence, here is a sample of readings that have recently broadened my perspective:

  • 6 Charts That Dismantle The Trope Of Asian Americans As A Model Minority: This selection of data curated by NPR dispel the myths that AAPI are a monolith, are fairly represented in leadership, face less systemic racism and discrimination, and more.
  • How Vincent Chin's Death Gave Others A Voice: Vincent Chin’s killing in 1982 was an inflection point in the AAPI movement. Paula Woo, author of a recent young adult book on the topic, shares reflections on Vincent’s legacy. “I think our voice has been raised, our stories, our history, our contributions have been raised. So we've got to go out there and fill in the blanks, because if we don't, who will?”
  • “Why do you work here?” Educator Joe Chang -- a fellow member of an AAPI affinity group in education -- challenges the notion that Asian Americans are proximate to whiteness, and shares personal reflections on navigating invisibility while working in K-12.  “Like many Asian Americans, I am adept at compartmentalizing in order to participate, but I crave the wholeness of being fully integrated within myself and in the world around me.”
  • Learning to Un-Model the Minority Myth: Michaela Wang, a high school senior, articulates the importance of breaking the silence as a young adult and leaning into conversations about the AAPI experience in America. “I’m ready to find myself [...] to write my own narrative.”
  • History, memory, nature: A profile of Lucy Chuang, a senior at my alma mater Princeton University, whose family’s embrace of art and poetry to express your humanity reminds me of my own family.  “[My mother] wanted me to know that there was power in having your own voice and formulating your own personhood.”
  • Where The Mountain Meets The Moon: A novel by Grace Lin that I’m reading with my first-grade daughter, who delighted at the opportunity to see grandparents called Agong and Amah named and reflected on a book’s pages -- a personal reminder of how much representation matters. 

Melissa Wu is Education Pioneers' Chief Executive Officer. Melissa brings to Education Pioneers an interest in interrogating the systems and structures that perpetuate inequity, primarily through the lens of education. She has spent much of her career advocating on issues of teacher retention, school and system improvement, and performance management. She believes that transformational leaders are required at every level of the education system, and sees Education Pioneers playing an important role to create excellent and equitable outcomes for all students.

Join the Conversation

Commenting Policy

Education Pioneers does not discriminate against any views but reserves the right to remove or not post comments that are off-topic or contain obscene language, threats, or defamatory statements.