Skip to main content Accessibility

AAPI Heritage Month highlights a community balancing diversity and solidarity

When I started writing Exclusion and the Chinese American Story (Penguin Random House; Crown Books for Young Readers), I often found myself wondering if I was Chinese American enough to be telling these stories. Through the process, however, it became very clear that there is, of course, no one way to be Chinese American.

As I write in the note to readers at the beginning of the book:

“If you identify as Chinese and you identify as American, then you can identify as Chinese American. It doesn’t matter if your family came to the United States in the 1800s, 1900s, or 2000s. It doesn’t matter whether you have two Chinese parents, or you were adopted, or your family composition is something else entirely. I hope that this book shows some of the diversity of what it can mean to be ‘Chinese American,’ and I hope that more people feel comfortable claiming that identity with pride, if it makes sense for them.”

Identity categories allow for more nuance than I may have previously assumed. As you might have heard before, these categories are not monoliths. May marks Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, recognizing the stories, struggles, contributions and communities that fall under a broad umbrella of identities.

I feel proud to call myself Asian American because through this I feel connection with people who, at first glance, might have radically different backgrounds and family stories than my own, but who experience many of the same things that I do here in the United States. And as part of the broader AAPI community, I feel solidarity with Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander people with whom we have many shared histories even as they have many different experiences from my own.

Some people struggle with these collective identities. I often hear questions like, “What do I have in common with someone whose origins come from a place thousands of miles from my own? Someone whose religions, languages, practices, histories are radically different? Someone whose ancestors waged war with my ancestors?”

These are good questions.

Collective identities can obscure disparities and differences between groups. The model minority myth suggests that all AAPI people are highly educated and work high-wage jobs when the economic and educational disparities between AAPI groups are staggeringly high. The groups that struggle most are the same groups that tend to be the most invisible within the collective identity.

The movement to disaggregate demographic data to expose such differences is a vital step to overcoming these invisibilities, as is better education, journalism and other forms of storytelling about all AAPI groups. According to a 2024 report from The Asian American Foundation, “A majority of Americans are unable to name a single historical event or policy related to Asian Americans.”

We can do better than that.

But at the same time, collective identities still have a role to play, and they are not meant to replace or erase our more specific identities. I am Malaysian Chinese. That tells you a lot more about my specific background, my specific family’s story. I can be proud to call myself Malaysian Chinese and still see the power in calling myself Asian American or AAPI.

AAPI identity relies on being able to hold diversity and difference with solidarity and collective identity at the same time, lessons that we can apply to broader, diverse coalitions. This is a lesson that feels vital for this moment in U.S. history, as many of us fret about the future of our multiracial democracy. It is a lesson we must take to heart. After all, solidarity happens not in spite of diversity, but because of it.

Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn is deputy director for learning and engagement with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice program.

Illustration at top: Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn is the author of Exclusion and the Chinese American Story, a title for young readers about the history of Chinese people in the U.S.