Understanding What the Term AAPI — Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders — Means

Want to be an ally? Start by better understanding the language we use to describe the community.

By Shanon Maglente and Minhae Shim Roth


In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, take this opportunity to learn more about the large and diverse cultural group that includes “all people of Asian, Asian American or Pacific Islander ancestry, who trace their origins to the countries, states, jurisdictions and/or the diasporic communities of these geographic regions,” according to the Asian Pacific Institute.

The AAPI experience is as diverse as the constellation of cultures that form it. AAPI is an umbrella term that includes over 100 languages in addition to English, and includes nearly 50 ethnic groups from East and Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Pacific Islands and their diasporas. Asia is the largest continent and consists of around 50 countries with more than 4 billion people, and the World Bank’s Pacific Island member countries have a combined population of about 2.3 million people.

In order to recognize and understand the contributions of this multicultural group of citizens, it’s helpful to start by educating yourself on who makes up the community and the proper terminology to use, which will help you be a better ally and show support to BIPOC communities.

Understand the meaning of AAPI

Dawn Lee Tu, Ph.D, faculty director at de Anza College and former director of Asian Pacific American student development at UC Berkeley, explains that the term “Asian American” was first coined by student activists in 1968 to replace the outdated and derogatory term “oriental” to refer to Asians in the United States. Under the U.S. Census Bureau, that term officially evolved to “Asian Pacific Islander” in the 1980s and early 90s. In 1997, the White House Office of Management and Budget split the terms “Asian” and “Pacific Islander” into two separate racial categories.

“AAPI is meant to be an inclusive term to define the umbrella group of people who can trace their roots to the continent of Asia or the island nations of the continent of Oceania. Currently, it is the term that is used most to describe this group,” says Kevin Nadal, Ph.D., the author of Filipino American Psychology and a professor at the City University of New York who researches multicultural issues in psychology and education.

He says that the term used to describe the vast and multifaceted group has continuously changed and shifted to accommodate and respect various identities. “Previously, it was common for people to use Asian American only, which excluded Pacific Islander experiences. Some people have used Asian Pacific American, but many Pacific Islanders disliked this term because they didn’t consider themselves American, especially for those residing outside of the continental United States. Some South Asians add Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) to connote that South Asian experiences are often excluded when using AA or AAPI alone… Some Pacific Islanders will remove themselves from the umbrella altogether and identify only as Pacific Islander, Pasifikans, or some other term,” says Nadal.

Remember that language designed to encompass such a large cultural group has its limitations, and terminology has shifted over time based on changing sociocultural conditions and shifting identity politics. One way to show respect to someone with AAPI heritage is to listen to the language they use to describe their personal cultural identity.

Some people resonate with the term AAPI, while others may choose to identify more specifically or broadly like “Korean American,” “of Asian descent,” or “Asian American.” The most important thing is to approach the subject of cultural identity and history with openness and curiosity with the intention of self-education.

Who may identify as Pacific Islander?

The Pacific Islands are island nations in the Pacific Ocean that are located in the geographic region called Oceania. It helps to look at Pacific Islander countries’ geographic location. Pacific Islanders are people whose heritage is connected to origins belonging to one or more of the 15 nations included in the census, which are divided into the subregions of Polynesia, Micronesia and MelanesiaThis classification includes, but is not limited to, people from Samoa, Tahiti, Guam, Fiji and Papua New Guinean.

Native Hawaiians are Pacific Islanders from the islands of Polynesia. “The U.S. federal government has used the term AANHPI (Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander) to make overt intentions to include Native Hawaiians and to center their experiences, especially in response to the U.S. colonizing their native land and making it a state,” says Nadal. “However, when using AAPI, it is presumed that Native Hawaiians would be included.”

Who may identify as Asian?

Today, the U.S. Census Bureau classifies Asians as “having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent,” including, but not limited to Korea, China, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

While Filipinos are Southeast Asian, some have aligned historically with the term “Pacific Islander” more than “Asian.” Nadal explains, “When the Asian American umbrella identity was first used in the 1960s, many Filipinos felt excluded because most associated ‘Asian’ with ‘East Asian,’ like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. As a result, many Filipinos formed alliances with Pacific Islander groups who felt similar sentiments about the Asian American umbrella. Some Filipinos might identify with the term ‘Pacific Islander’ to protest the lack of inclusion in the Asian American umbrella. However, they are still considered Asian. Some Filipinos have connected to the term ‘Brown Asian’ to connote that their experiences as Asian Americans are influenced by their skin color.”

In addition, there are many global Asian diasporic communities that include different languages, religions and cultures. For example, people from Central Asia — which includes countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—may or may not identify as Asian due to their geographic proximity to Europe.

People from West Asia, also known as Southwest Asia and part of the Middle East — which includes countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Georgia, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen, some of which are included as nations of the Arab League — may or may not also identify as Asian.

Cultural and ethnic identities are complex, intersecting and constantly in flux. While it is impossible to completely categorize and organize all aspects of cultural identity, the effort to learn and understand is an important educational journey.

Glossary of AAPI countries and geographic labels


asian american vs pacific islander


Countries that are included in the AAPI umbrella include those in the simplified reference glossary below, which will help you organize geographical terms related to Asian and Pacific Islander identities. Keep in mind that this list is a simplification and that cultural identities often overlap.

  • AAPI: Asian American and Pacific Islander. This term generally includes all people of Asian, Asian American or Pacific Islander descent.
  • Asian: A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent.
  • East Asian: A person of Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Hong Kong, Japanese or Mongolian descent.
  • South Asian: A person of Indian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Nepal, Pakistani Maldivian, Iranian, Bhutanese or Afghani heritage.
  • Southeast Asian: A person of Filipino, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Laotian, Indonesian, Burmese, Malaysian, Thai or Singaporean descent.
  • Central Asian: A person with origins in the original peoples of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tibet.
  • Pacific Islander: A person with origins in the original peoples of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, including Carolinian, Chamorro, Chuukese, Fijian, Guamanian, Hawaiian, Kosraean, Marshallese, Native Hawaiian, Niuean, Palauan, Papua New Guinean, Pohnpeian, Samoan, Tokelauan, Tongan, Yapese.
  • West Asian: A person with heritage from in the original peoples of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Georgia, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.




The article was first published by the Conversation

  • Shanon is a writer and editor who specializes in best-of product roundups and deals. She has over six years of experience, including almost three years as a Good Housekeeping product and reviews editor, covering the best sales and products across home, appliances, health, beauty, parenting and more.
  • Minhae Shim Roth is a writer and reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area. 



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