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A Celebration of Cultures: Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

May 16, 2021

The month of May is nationally designated to celebrate the historical achievements and milestone contributions of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) heritage across the United States.

Acknowledging and celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is especially significant this year with the rise in Anti-Asian sentiment throughout the country. The AANHPI community draws strength from family and diversity of its distinct cultures – each with its own history and range of perspectives.

The History Behind Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

It was 1978 when Congress passed a joint Congressional Resolution to celebrate Asian American Heritage Week during the first ten days of May. The resolution was proposed to the President of the United States to “proclaim a week, which is to include the seventh and tenth of the month, during the first ten days in May of 1979, as ‘Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week.'” This joint resolution was passed by the House, then the Senate and was signed by President Jimmy Carter on October 5, 1978, to become Public Law 95-419.

These dates were chosen as they commemorated the first known and documented Asian to immigrate to the U.S. – on May 7, 1843. The completion of the Transcontinental Railway, by mostly Chinese laborers, occurred on May 10, 1869. Over the next decade, presidents passed annual proclamations for Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week until 1990 when Congress came together to pass Public Law 101-283 which expanded the observance to a month for 1990.
This law called on the United States people to observe Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with “appropriate ceremonies, programs and activities.”

President George H.W. Bush then issued Presidential Proclamation 6130 on May 7, 1990, designating May 1990, as the first Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

The Different Population Groups

The AANHPI community encompasses nearly 50 countries and ethnic groups with distinct cultures, traditions, languages, dialects, and histories. To better understand to Asian American, Native Hawaii, and Pacific Islander-related terms, WBD has collated the glossary below. A reminder, cultural identities can overlap as the AANHPI community is one of the larger groups.

  • AAPI or AANHPI: Initially known Asian American and Pacific Islanders, grew to evolve to Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander descent.
  • Asian: Individual with origins with the people of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or Indian subcontinent.
  • East Asian: Individual that is of Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, and or Mongolian descent.
  • South Asian: Individual that is of Indian, Bangladesh, Sri Lankan, Nepal, and or Pakistani descent.
  • Southeast Asian: Individual that is of Filipino, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Lao, Indonesian, Thai, or Singaporean descent.
  • Central Asian: An individual with origins in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and or Uzbekistan descent.
  • Pacific Islander: An individual with origins of Polynesia, Micronesia and or Melanesia descent.
  • West Asian: An individual with origins of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Georgia, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine,
  • Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and or Yemen descent.

The entire population stands at more than 22.9 million individuals in the United States as of 2019.

Reflecting on Our AANHPI History

Reflecting on this year’s Asian American and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, history was made as the U.S. celebrates the achievements of Vice President Harris, the first person that is of South Asian descent to be elected and hold the Office of the Vice President.

“Asian Americans, and Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders make our Nation more vibrant through diversity of cultures, languages, and religions. There is no single story of the AANHPI experience, but rather a diversity of contributions that enrich America’s culture and society and strengthen the United States’ role as a global leader. The American story as we know it would be impossible without the strength, contributions, and legacies of AANHPIs who have helped build and unite this country in each successive generation.”

White House, “A Proclamation on Asian American and Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islander Heritage Month, 2021” April 30, 2021

However, it is also important to reflect on present-day inequities faced by AANHPI communities that are rooted in the United States’ history of exclusion, discrimination, racism, and xenophobia against Asian Americans. Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders have endured a long history of injustice — including the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the incarceration of Japanese American citizens during World War II, and the targeting of South Asian Americans, especially those who are Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh, after the national tragedy of 9/11.

Executive and Legislative Documents

We encourage you to visit the Law Library of Congress where a list of compiled guides, including a comprehensive inventory of the Public Laws, Presidential Proclamations and congressional resolutions related to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, are available.

At WBD, we celebrate Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and know that it is more important than ever to recognize and honor the contributions of our diverse communities. AANHPI month is not only a month for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders to celebrate and educate, but also a time for each individual, organization and business to actively participate and take actions to educate themselves.

Here at WBD, we believe in creating a truly inclusive and innovative environment within our firm by recruiting, advancing, and retaining employees from all different backgrounds and with diverse experiences. We aim to make better decisions by continuing to empower our people, move forward with precision, and encourage our clients to think differently, feel deeply, and act purposely.

Author: Angela Suresh, Head of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) at WBD, is an international development professional engaged with the firm’s Private Sector Engagement Support award with the United States Agency for International Development. Angela recently graduated with her M.A in Strategic Communications from John Hopkins University focusing on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accountability in the workplace.

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