The Asian American community has an umbrella problem. And maybe President Obama
is the one to fix it.
If Toni Morrison can call Bill Clinton “America’s first black president” in
1998, then surely we can dub Barack Obama our nation’s “first Asian American
Has there been another president who has a better sense of the Asian American
The president may have served up the dog-eating jokes for the White House
Correspondents’ Dinner, but there was none of that when he spoke at the Asian
Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS) dinner in
For Obama, the APAICS gala, a key Asian Pacific American Heritage Month event,
was “like coming home.”
Within the opening moments of his keynote remarks came a “Mahalo” and shouts of
“Aloha” from Obama’s extended Hawaiian Ohana (family). The man knows Asian
“This is a community that helped to make me who I am today,” Obama said. “It’s a
community that helped make America the country that it is today.”
Some might dismiss the president’s overall remarks as mostly a “feel-good”
speech that highlighted the accomplishments of Asian American political heroes
like Norm Mineta, Patsy Mink, and Dan Inouye.
That it did.
But Obama also showed us how few presidents before him have had as deep an
understanding of the Asian American back story. And it’s a story that even Asian
Americans need to be reminded of.
“No matter when it began, no matter where it began, your stories are about
someone who came here looking for new opportunities not merely for themselves,
but for their children, and for their children’s children, and for all
generations to come,” said Obama.
“Few of them had money. A lot of them didn’t have belongings. But what they did
have was an unshakeable belief that this country–of all countries–is a place
where anybody can make it if they try.”
In other words, in the Asian American struggle, it doesn’t matter if you were
first generation or fifth, we’re part of the same continuum.
But some in the community still squabble over issues like affirmative action and
race-based admissions to colleges. Such fights make the community lose sight of
what truly makes us great.
And then there are others who use us and our individual successes as a ploy to
split us all apart.
“And I know it can be tempting–given the success that’s on display here
tonight–for people to buy into the myth of the “model minority” and glance over
the challenges that this community still faces,” said the president. “But we
have to remember there’s still educational disparities like higher dropout rates
in certain groups, lower college enrollment rates in others. There’s still
economic disparities like higher rates of poverty and obstacles to employment.
There are health disparities like higher rates of diabetes and cancer and
Hepatitis B. Those who are new to America–many still face language barriers.
Others–like Vincent Chin who we lost three decades ago–have been victims of
horrible hate crimes, driven by the kinds of ignorance and prejudice that are an
affront to everything America stands for…So those are real problems, and we
can’t ignore them.”
Perhaps at the base of our problem is the political term that identifies us all:
Asian American, or the more inclusive Asian Pacific American, or Asian American
and Pacific Islander.
AA, APA, AAPI. Whatever you choose, they’re all about us: Vietnamese, Chinese,
Filipino, Cambodian, Laotian, Taiwanese, Pakistani, Hmong, Korean, Bangladeshi,
Thai, Indian, Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Japanese, Malaysian, Burmese, Nepalese,
Bhutanese… to name just a few.
The president acknowledged the problem.
“And if we’re going to do a better job addressing them, then we first have to
stop grouping everybody just in one big category. Dozens of different
communities fall under the umbrella of the Asian Americans and Pacific
Islanders, and we have to respect that the experiences of immigrant groups are
distinct and different. And your concerns run the gamut.”
There, he said the term. Umbrella.
Our umbrella isn’t perfect. But we certainly shouldn’t throw it away.
It provides cover and strength for us all—when we need it. We just need to use
it better. And not forget who’s under there with us.