The Challenge of Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month in the United States

This editorial is a joint contribution from Neurosurgery Department Head Dr. Clark Chen; Neurology Department Pediatrics Division Chief Dr. Sonya Wang; and their son Alec Chen, a freshman at Macalester College

During this month, we commemorate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage. 

In Texas, an Asian man was stabbed, and his young child was threatened because the attacker thought he was Chinese and responsible for the COVID pandemic. In New York, a 67-year-old Asian woman was punched more than 100 times, stomped on, and spat on while bombarded with racial slurs. In San Francisco, an Asian U.S. army veteran was punched in the face repeatedly after the assailant demanded, “go back where you came from.” It is difficult to bear witness to the increasing videos of racists proudly shouting anti-Asian racial slurs or the headlines describing senseless assaults and murders of Asians throughout our country. Based on some estimates, there has been a 300-500 percent increase in anti-Asian hate crime over the past year. Admittedly, it is not always possible to distinguish race-motivated hate crimes from random acts of violence; however, we cannot ignore the collective observations of respected journalists, reports of law enforcement, and the experiences of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. More and more, AAPIs are fearing for their safety, without which “the pursuit of happiness” is all but impossible.

Ironically, despite political demagoguery that places the AAPI community in harm’s way during the pandemic, AAPI individuals were over-represented among frontline professionals who provided the healthcare that our society so desperately needed. By some estimates, case fatality among frontline AAPI health professionals during the pandemic is three times higher than in other racial groups. Moreover, AAPI scientists contributed seminal discoveries that made possible the COVID vaccine, public health strategies for COVID containment, and anti-COVID medications. As an example, many historians credit the invention of the N95 mask to the Taiwanese American, Peter Tsai. Yet, there is little acknowledgment of these sacrifices and contributions. Prominent social scientists have posited that our society expects AAPIs to be the “model minority” who will excel despite inherent societal injustices. Since things that are “expected” are often taken for granted, the needs and contributions of AAPIs have become “invisible” to the greater society. While this “model minority” expectation “shields AAPIs from some forms of systemic racism such as police brutality, it simultaneously obscures Asian Americans’ encounters with other forms of racism1." Consequently, AAPIs are often excluded in initiatives aimed to address racial disparity and social justice. Worse yet, many institutions actively seek to limit AAPI representation on grounds of diversity.

While this message began as an attempt to celebrate May, the Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the message has evolved into a callfor action after consideration of the recent societal trends. With the rise of China as a global power that challenges U.S. hegemony in economy and ideology, inflammatory anti-Asian rhetoric will undoubtedly continue. We need to actively combat such dangerous demagoguery and allow the voices of our better angels to rise above the shouting of our baser demons. It is essential that we dispel the myth of the model minority and include AAPIs in our diversity and equity initiatives as we march toward a more perfect union. My hope and prayer will be for the celebration of future AAPI Heritage Months.

1 https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/04/19/model-minority-myth-h...

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