Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

It’s time to retire the term AAPI

Rachel Choi
Illustration by Rachel Choi

Growing up Asian, Hispanic, and Kānaka Maoli on the island of Oʻahu, I have always been keenly aware of my racial identity and the way it is viewed by the rest of the world. Once a thriving, independent kingdom, Hawaiʻi was illegally taken over by the United States and turned into an exotic vacation destination. The rich culture of Native Hawaiians is overlooked in high school history courses, and many do not understand that there is a difference between being from Hawaiʻi and being ethnically Hawaiian.

Countless times, I’ve introduced myself to Emerson students and gotten the classic Oh my gosh, you’re Hawaiian? Isn’t that like, in California? Being Hawaiian is not the same as being Californian, so I always take this opportunity to explain my cultural heritage.

Hawaiʻi was first “discovered” and documented by European settlers in 1778 in an expedition led by Captain James Cook. Prior to this, Hawaiʻi was populated by Polynesian voyagers who traveled to the islands on canoes. After the first missionaries arrived in the early 19th century, Hawaiʻi became recognized for its agricultural opportunities, bringing in immigrants from around the world to work its sugar plantations—leading to the current multicultural makeup of the state.

In 1893, the Hawaiian Kingdom was illegally overthrown by the U.S. government, eventually becoming an official state.

The history of the Hawaiian Islands is one censored by neocolonialism, leaving many Kānaka Maoli narratives silenced.

One of the most common sights in Hawaiʻi is the upside down Hawaiian flag—a symbol of distress and protest for sovereignty among the Native Hawaiian community. These subtle forms of protest usually frequent the islands following events in which respect for native culture is disregarded by the mainland.

For example, the proposed construction of the Thirty-Meter-Telescope on the sacred Mauna Kea was protested by many Kānaka Maoli, who wanted to protect the spiritually reverent site. More recently, the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility was demanded to be shut down by many locals and Kānaka Maoli upon the discovery that the U.S. military base had been leaking fuel into the area’s water supply.

The cry for sovereign recognition in the eyes of the U.S. government is not new to the islands, as Indigenous Hawaiians have been fighting for independence for years.

I recently applied for an internship in which they asked typical racial demographic questions. I was shocked to see that the application questionnaire still grouped together Asians and Pacific Islanders.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to know that there is a greater focus on the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, but seeing one of my historically underrepresented identities compounded with another identity that dominates the Hawaiʻi population just felt wrong.

If we take a look at Hawaiʻi’s population statistics from 2022, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders make up only 10.3 percent of the state’s population, with Asians making up 37.1 percent. 

In 1997, the federal government recognized Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders as a separate racial group from Asians, but the general public still faces confusion on whether the term “AAPI” should be used.

Asians and Pacific Islanders are not the same.

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs, Pacific Islanders are people who have native origins with the Pacific Islands, including Hawaiʻi, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Micronesia, and many other islands in Oceania. Most of these islands were colonized in the early 20th century, under the control of dominating world powers, such as the U.S., Britain, and Japan.

Today, Hawaiʻi and the rest of these islands are known mostly as dream-wedding destinations and exotic beach getaways. Media coverage consists mainly of recommendations for places to stay and eat while visiting the islands. Tourists are rarely told that these resorts are built on stolen lands, nor that some people actually live and work there. In fact, people only seem to take the colonization of Hawaiʻi into account when tragedy strikes. 

The recent Lahaina wildfires made national headlines with most of the early news stories focusing on the loss of tourist appeal. While watching the local news, my family and I listened to tourists complain about how their vacations were cut short, yet all I wanted to know was whether my cousins and extended family had survived the devastation.

The wildfires that flattened an entire town, which was once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, were ultimately the result of climate change and centuries of colonialism—two things that are inextricably intertwined. This tragedy underscores the fact that indigenous, minority, and low-income communities are on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

In an article with CNN, Estella Owoimaha-Church said that labels, such as AAPI, represent another attempt to hide the disparities each community faces and “too many of our communities go unseen.” She explained that these umbrella terms are very limiting when it comes to recognizing access to education, health care, and criminal justice for these groups.

With the recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders are bound to lose the sliver of opportunity for higher education they once had. We have been conditioned to squeeze our identities into a checked-off box in questionnaires, and now, that “privilege” is also being held against us.

The term AAPI is simply too ambiguous, and frankly disrespectful, to truly recognize each of these communities for what they represent. While the term can serve as a unifying label for the two groups, it also erases entire cultures that are barely recognized in the U.S. today.

Maybe I should take solace in the fact that AAPI generally covers most of my ethnic background, but the truth is, I have been grappling with my Hawaiian-Asian ancestry all my life. As a child, I hated my curly, Hawaiian hair and darker skin, and I longed to look like the rest of my Asian classmates. It wasn’t until I moved to Boston that I became proud to call myself Kānaka Maoli.

So for the sake of recognizing Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders and their rich histories, it is time for us to retire the term AAPI.


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About the Contributor
Hailey Akau
Hailey Akau, Assistant Multimedia Editor and Magazine Section Editor
Hailey Akau (she/her) is a writing, literature, and publishing major from Honolulu, Hawaii. She focuses mainly on illustrations and graphics for The Beacon but also contributes the occasional opinion as she sees fit. She also enjoys writing personal essays or prose and considers herself an em dash enthusiast.

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