AAPI Heritage Month, Transcending the Myth

By Landy Lin, Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have historically been ignored in the United States. This is largely due to the persistence of the model minority myth, which places AAPI individuals on a pedestal for working hard and keeping their voices low and heads down. My parents immigrated to the United States from China 30 years ago, chasing the American Dream. By encouraging me to work hard, keep my voice low, and head down, they were inadvertently encouraging me to assimilate into the white-dominated community that I grew up in. This assimilation was successful in the sense that I was a part of the model minority myth. That same myth, though, is what continues to silence AAPI voices to create a racial hierarchy that upholds white supremacy and perpetuates anti-Blackness.

While I was taught the basics of voting in middle school, I didn’t realize the privilege of being able to vote until I watched the 2016 election unfold. It was then that I understood the power of civic engagement as a form of voice and protest. Civic engagement to me is about more than just voting.

I helped create the first AAPI Coalition at my college after the 2021 Atlanta spa hate crimes. I was too afraid to speak up then, but I knew I needed to take action somehow. So I joined five other students and a team of faculty and staff and set out to create a space for AAPI students on campus. It was challenging to work through my Chinese American identity, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of anti-AAPI hate, and the general Sinophobia I had received throughout my life. However, I was determined to establish the Coalition. We were the first official AAPI affinity-based group in the college’s 200-year history. Creating the Coalition allowed me to be heard among my peers and to exist within a community I had never had before. AAPIs are consistently milled into a monolith and subjected to the model minority myth. My parents believed in this myth and boxed me into it for most of my life. They eventually heard me when I spoke up, as did the other adults in my life.

While there’s a common misconception that young people don’t vote because they don’t care or don’t want to become involved in politics, this AAPI Heritage Month I’d like to challenge that and encourage people to listen to AAPI youth when they speak, and especially when they vote. The personal is political when public health, education, and economic policies are molded by election outcomes. The 2020 election was the first presidential election that I could vote in, and I did the opposite of what my parents had taught me; I spoke out by casting a ballot. I also openly guided my family and friends through the election process, helping dozens of people vote for the first time.

The 2020 presidential election saw a 21st-century record participation rate, especially since it took place amid chaos and confusion. Policy changes led to an increase in voter accessibility through expanded early voting, automatic registration, and mail-in ballots–though this varied from state to state. This resulted in almost 67 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot with 60 percent of Asian Americans and 56 percent of Pacific Islanders voting. Furthermore, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders had an 11-point and 14-point increase in voter turnout rate from 2016 to 2020, respectively, the highest increase among all the racial groups. The rise in anti-AAPI hate crimes and sentiment during the COVID-19 pandemic may also explain why more AAPIs than ever took to the polls to express their voice. The United States has approximately 25.7 million AAPIs. Data also shows that the AAPI population is predicted to reach 47 million by 2060. AAPIs will continue to make up a significant percentage of the U.S. eligible voting population.

It is time to move beyond performative activism and toward tangible action as this year’s AAPI Heritage Month ends. It is also important to recognize that the AAPI community consists of over 50 different ethnic groups with diverse values, traditions, and voting stances, thus they should not be viewed as a monolith. We should encourage and hear all AAPI voices, especially youth voices, as the United States prepares for the 2024 election cycle. And we should invite and include AAPI youth in the policy-making process. I want other AAPI youth who have been told to work hard and keep their heads down to know that their voices and opinions matter.

Please visit the organizations below to learn more:

  • AAPI Data for data disaggregation to combat the AAPI monolith
  • AAPI Youth Rising to support a bipartisan AAPI Youth-led organization
  • APIAVote to learn more about AAPI civic engagement and get involved

Over the years as part of Asian American Heritage Month, CLASP has produced powerful commentaries and analyses that share insights on AAPI communities, their unique experiences and challenges, and policy solutions to support and empower them. Here is a sample of work from our experts: