HomeAsian AmericansAsian American Pacific Islander Students Must Claim Their Identities

Asian American Pacific Islander Students Must Claim Their Identities

Saffiyah MadraswalaBy Saffiyah Madraswala

As we closed out 2014 I was humbled to help facilitate Teach For America‘s second annual Asian American and Pacific Islander  (AAPI) Staff Summit. Over 200 staff member from 35 regions gathered in Los Angeles to explore the unique role of AAPI communities in the fight for educational equity. Time and again our discussions focused on the need for data disaggregation, and we must keep this dialogue alive as we enter 2015.

In regards to our youth in schools, this means that AAPI students would have the option to identify as one or more ethnicities from a list of at least 48. This would mean that if I was a student, I could identify not only as Asian American, but also Filipino and Pakistani. And my school and district records would reflect these more detailed identifications. As school systems begin and continue to have conversations about gathering more accurate data, it is critical that we all understand the history of the term Asian American.

In the late 1960s, Yuji Ichioka, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, first coined the term “Asian American” in response to the shared oppressions of various Asian subgroups as well as in recognition of the shared potential to organize and resist as a unified community. In 1960, there were less than 1 million Asian/Asian Americans in the United States. Claiming the term Asian American meant coming together as activists to foster a stronger political will and deciding to stand in solidarity with other communities of color and marginalized peoples at large.

Today, identifying as Asian American, for me, means making my racialization visible – it means naming systemic racism, and fighting for community empowerment. I push for data disaggregation with deep respect for the work of previous generations of Asian Americans who have brought us this far and to carry our community’s fight forward.

Data disaggregation brings to light the socioeconomic and access gaps which exist within our AAPI community. Naming these inequities calls us to work towards intragroup allyship – we must leverage privilege where we have it, and resist oppression where we experience it. Encouragingly, we saw this happen during our AAPI Staff Summit. Our Pacific Islander colleagues, in particular, forced us to ask whether combining “Asian American” and “Pacific Islander” is really the best organizing tactic. We do not have a neat answer for this, but we must continue to listen to each other and work through it.

That is, in my opinion, the spirit behind both claiming the Asian American identity and rallying for data disaggregation – fostering a deeper revolutionary consciousness that leads to purposeful and positive action.

Perhaps most critically for our AAPI students, data disaggregation in schools helps dispel the model minority myth (that all Asians are well-off and inherently intellectually gifted) and stereotypes of Pacific Islanders (as only large and athletic). According to the U.S. Census, many communities – including Korean, Laotian, Pakistani, Samoan, and Tongan – exhibit higher rates of poverty than the national average, and other communities – including Cambodian, Hmong, and Marshallese – experience a poverty rate that is more than twice the national average. Identifying these differences allows us to ensure that students get the resources they deserve, including guidance counseling, scholarship applications, and student groups.

I am proud to be part of an organization that is standing in solidarity with communities pushing for data disaggregation in schools and at large. Teach For America supports Congressman Mike Honda’s “All Students Count Act of 2014,” which would require state education agencies to report more enhanced, segmented data at the K-12 levels for their annual state report cards. Under this legislation, AAPI graduation rates and other accountability measures would be broken into seven Asian American groups, four Pacific Islander groups, and data segmented by gender and disability – helping us identify gaps in academic opportunities so we can close them.

And we have implemented official changes to our corps member application which allow for a more inclusive experience for applicants and improved ethnicity reporting for AAPI teachers. Under these changes applicants choose a primary ethnicity and have the option to choose up to three additional ethnicities (from a list of 103) to further define their identity. This inspires me to work towards making this true for Teach For America staff as well.

When students and teachers have the power to identify as Asian American and/or Pacific Islander as well as specific ethnicities, they can fully claim their identities and write their own narratives. They can say, “I am here. I exist. And I demand to be recognized by an educational institution that once ignored my needs.” It is time that our AAPI students are fully seen.

(Saffiyah Madraswala is a Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusiveness at Teach For America and is a Teach For America alumna.)



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