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Putting the PI in AAPI: The Fight for Representation

Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — May is Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. It’s a time meant to celebrate the stories and cultures of both Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (PI), but there’s a discourse expressing concerns within the Pacific Islander community that has been going on for some time.

Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans are lumped into the same category when the two are vastly different ethnic and cultural groups. Furthermore, Pacific Islanders, which include the native peoples of Hawaii, Samoa, Guam, the Mariana Islands, Fiji, Tonga, the Marshall Islands and more, say they feel overlooked and underrepresented during this month. Activists within the demographic question whether Pacific Islanders need to have their own month all together, or if they should continue to push for increased visibility during this heritage month.

Aynsley Broom is half-Samoan and currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee. There, she is an outspoken board member of API Middle Tennessee, where she has met Asian-American allies and Pacific Islanders alike. She sights reoccurring issues with how companies and people leave out Pacific Islanders, during a time that is supposed to celebrate them.

“Pacific Islanders are not seen or heard. I can already think of, like, two big events that have happened,” she said. “You had the White House forum for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.”

She referenced an event hosted by the White House earlier this month, meant to highlight the vast array of cultures that this month is meant to uplift, as well as prompt discussions within the community. A mere ten minutes into the forum the hosts began a dialogue that many Pacific Islanders found exclusionary.

“Don’t forget that we have two hashtags we’re using today, #visible together, our month’s theme, and #AANHPIHM,” said Phillip Kim. To which his co-host Jeannie Mai-Jenkens responded, “Nobody’s remembering that. Just do the Asian Heritage Month and make sure to take pictures and post.”

Professor David Iona Chang of the University of Minnesota is a Native Hawaiian historian, focusing on the history of indigenous populations. He says that lack of representation becomes inherent with a broad title, such as AAPI.

“We have really serious problems with this category. It agglomerates two groups, which are themselves pan-ethnicities, already,” he said. “It puts them into one category that is [meant to be] a form of inclusion, which actually ends up being a form of erasure.”

Aynsley Broom says that this kind of erasure impacts generations, including her own mother, who she tearfully recalled admitting that she wished for a lighter complexion.

“I feel like if my mom and her generation or anybody who’s ever felt like her, saw themselves on the screen being portrayed in this beautiful light, it would mean such the difference in the world.”

Broom emphasized that even during this month, she rarely sees the stories of Pacific Islanders in the media. On streaming platforms, she struggles to find the stories of PIs, when they’re promoted by such platforms to be highlighted. Broom is joined in this push for representation by countless other activists, such as Joi Dwight.

Dwight is a Samoan-Hawaiian filmmaker based in Los Angeles, working to bring more representation to Pacific Islanders, not only this month but year-round. She’s shooting an original film with a fully PI cast, and people are taking notice. She was featured on Kickstarter’s AANHPI (Asian-American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander) Creators spotlight recently, promoting her campaign to fundraise for the film.

“I realized that there was an entire group of Pacific Islander people who are in film, but we don’t get any representation. We don’t have any sponsors for our film festivals. We don’t have any budgets or anybody really looking in our direction, even though our films are great,” she said. “I wanted to take a stance and just have a chance to showcase our people, Pacific Islander people, just being normal everyday people.”

The film will focus on love and heartbreak and will feature original music from PI artists such as Sammy Johnson. It’s set to premiere in November. In the meantime, Dwight suggests that people support and enjoy content made by Pacific Islanders through outlets such as Island Block Radio or MYX Radio. Most of all, she says to come out and feel Pacific Islander love.

“That’s my favorite part about being Pacific Islander and specifically Polynesian. We have so much love in us,” Dwight said. She insisted it’s evident in the art they create, too. “It’s so special because it’s so deeply rooted in our culture.” For Dwight and so many others it’s a culture she wants to be seen, not just during AAPI month, but every month.

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