In 1968, These Activists Coined the Term 'Asian American'—And Helped Shape Decades of AdvocacyBreaking News
tags: Asian American History
In 1968, University of California Berkeley graduate students Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka needed a name for their student organization, which was aimed at increasing the visibility of activists of Asian descent. As the Black Power Movement, the American Indian Movement and anti-war movements expanded, Gee and Ichioka saw an opportunity. They wanted to come up with a term that would bring together all the different groups of people of Asian descent under one, larger umbrella.
So they named their group the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) — what is believed to be the first public use of the phrase “Asian American.”
“Asian American” is everywhere now, from Asian American studies departments in universities to May’s designation as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, but this wasn’t always the case. Before its rise, people of Asian descent in the U.S. would generally refer to themselves by their specific ethnic subgroup, such as Japanese American, Filipino American, and so on. When a broad term was used, it was often “oriental,” which held racist and colonialist connotations. But “Asian American” wasn’t just a handy umbrella term: by uniting those subgroups linguistically, it also helped unite activists in their fight for greater equality.
“There were so many Asians out there in the political demonstrations but we had no effectiveness. Everyone was lost in the larger rally. We figured that if we rallied behind our own banner, behind an Asian American banner, we would have an effect on the larger public. We could extend the influence beyond ourselves, to other Asian Americans,” Ichioka later said in an interview with Yến Lê Espiritu, author of Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities.
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