Celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month

In 1992, Congress passed Public Law 102-450, designating May as Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, commemorating the month that marked the arrival of the first documented Japanese immigrant to the United States and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, a feat that culminated from the contributions of ~20,000 Chinese immigrants.

Like the oxygen that sustains us, contributions of AAPI descendants percolate through all aspects of our lives. Whenever we plug in a Universal Serial Bus (USB) device, we are indebted to Ajay Bhatt (a trailblazing Indian computer architect) for this transformative invention. Whenever we require anti-parasitic drugs, we are grateful to Youyou Tu (the first Chinese woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine) for her discovery of Artemisinin, a foundation for modern anti-parasitic drugs. In our own Department, we celebrate the legacy of Shelley Chou (the first Chinese Neurosurgery Department Head in the history of the U.S.;  https://med.umn.edu/news-events/humble-beginnings-national-leadership) who paved the way for AAPIs with aspirations in academic leadership. The Louvre’s pyramid, the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Right Act, The Joy Luck Club… the list continues.

While we celebrate AAPI heritage and contributions, we are simultaneously facing a collective racial history that is less than flattering, tarnished with regrettable events and legislation, such as the 1854 California Supreme Court decision of People v. Hall (a ruling that barred people of Asian and African American descent from testifying in court because of their “inferior” capacity), the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (that initially banned Chinese immigration and was subsequently extended to people from the Philippines, India, and Japan), and the 1942 Japanese Internment (Executive Order 9066 from President Franklin D. Roosevelt stating that people of Japanese descent would be incarcerated in isolated camps).

Have we progressed beyond these disgraceful phases of societal evolution? In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001, we witnessed a surge of hate crimes against innocent Southeast Asians and Middle Easterners. As late as 2015, Daniel Ho, Professor, Stanford University School of Law, noted neighborhood restriction statements that included “property shall not be used or occupied by any person of African, Japanese, or Chinese or any Mongolian descent.” In 2020, we witnessed the propagation of anti-Asian, incendiary rhetoric and mounting reports of anti-AAPI racism and violence. By one account, more than 3,800 anti-AAPI incidents were reported in the past year.

As we celebrate the aspirations of the AAPI community and the transformative impact of this community on our greater society, we should not lose sight of the challenges that await in our path toward racial justice. Consciously or unconsciously, race plays a key role in our sense of identity. It is within our human nature to treat with kindness those who share this identity. It is humanism beyond nature to expand the scope of this identity to those with unknown affinity. Such humanism will require dedicated efforts to understand ourselves as well as those on the fringe or beyond our shared identity. The magnitude of the required effort in this regard should not be underestimated; however, it is my belief that if enough of us strive toward this humanism, we will be able to eventually celebrate future AAPI months without reservation.

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