Celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month

This content is sponsored by Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP.

May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, and the timing is helpful with Asian-American discrimination continuing to rise.  According to a report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, while hate crimes overall decreased from 2019 to 2020 in sixteen of America’s largest cities, hate crimes targeting Asian people increased by nearly 150 percent, likely relating to anti-Asian sentiment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Instead of getting ready to celebrate the contributions and place they have in our society, Asians, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. have become afraid to leave their homes.  Just last week, a 61 year old Asian man was brutally attacked in New York City with the attacker caught on video viciously kicking the man in the head multiple times.

In this article, we’d like to share our personal stories as Asian-Pacific Americans living in the U.S., our perspective on diversity and inclusion, and share some ideas about how to celebrate Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. We also encourage readers to learn about safety tips for those experiencing or witnessing hate, as well as other resources offered by stopaapihate.org.

Many readers will be surprised to learn that I spent my formative years in West Virginia and I loved every minute of it.  Minorities make up approximately 8% of the population in West Virginia with Asians constituting less than 1%.

My colleague Dorothy was born in the U.S., but spent the majority of her pre-adulthood in Taiwan.  She considers herself a first generation immigrant. Like many new immigrants, she works hard and does the best that she can to fit in. Within her community of Taiwanese immigrants (most came to the U.S. in pursuit of advance educational degrees), she encourages people to do the same, because she believes that she has a responsibility to earn respect by merit in the new country where she now lives.

We both now live in Northern Virginia, which is part of the greater Washington, D.C. metro area and the percentage of Asians in Virginia is almost 6.5% with minorities making up about one third of the state’s population.  Growing up in places consisting of predominantly one type of ethnicity, we both have come to understand through personal experience that diversity is something that enhances a community, but also brings distinct challenges.  Among these challenges is making all members of the community feel truly included despite the different cultural backgrounds people come from.

When the Coronavirus just started to spread in Asia, Dorothy went on a business trip and had to travel by commercial flight.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not yet issued its recommendation about face coverings at the time.  Having lived through other pandemics in Asia during college, she had worn face coverings previously, knew the benefits of wearing a facemask and was prepared with one in her purse.  But she shared with me that, “for the very first time, I was afraid to put on a facemask in public because of my Asian ethnicity.”

Our unique experiences as AAPI Americans highlight why this country must use opportunities like AAPI Heritage Month to promote the value of embracing diversity and cultivating inclusiveness.  As a community, we need to recognize that while there have been efforts to deal with intentional acts of discrimination, the world is still full of unconscious and implicit bias, stereotype, and unintentional discrimination that can be addressed with education.

As we celebrate AAPI Heritage Month, here are a few ideas for you to consider. You can check out the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month recommended booklists shared by public libraries including the Fairfax County library system and the DC Public Library.  One book I can recommend is Immigrant Acts by Lisa Lowe.  We also encourage readers to learn more about times in this country’s history when Asian-Americans were excluded, like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens and Executive Order 9066 which was used to remove Japanese-Americans from their homes. For those looking for more celebratory activities, there are fun events like dragon boat festivals and other local cultural festivals where you can experience the cultural contributions of the Asian-American community.

You can also consider supporting nonprofit organizations such as the Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), which offers bystander intervention trainings to stop anti-Asian and xenophobic harassment. If you are interested in attending events to support the fight against Asian hate – on May 18, a national nonprofit organization, Act to Change, will be hosting a virtual Asian American and Pacific Islander Day Against Bullying and Hate. You can register and find more information at ActtoChange.org.

In writing this article, our hope is that readers use AAPI Heritage Month as a reminder to both celebrate the portion of our country’s great melting pot that is Asian and learn more about Asian-Pacific American culture and history.

Dorothy Deng is a Taiwanese-American attorney and Mark Franco is a Filipino-American attorney in Whiteford Taylor & Preston’s Associations, Nonprofits and Political Organizations practice group.

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