The Asian American and Pacific Islander community is diverse and flooding with cultural vibrancy. And did we mention the group is reaaally big? Like, that might be an undersell actually because more than 25 million people identified as being AAPI, according to recent Census intel. And by 2060, that number is expected to surpass 45 million.

AAPI is the acronym that is typically used to describe this growing population and represents a super-wide range of ethnic backgrounds. And sure, while it’s great to have a label that expresses cultural pride and similarities, it’s also not that great to lump a bunch of different ethnic groups together because it can lead to erasure of specific identities and the experiences that come with them. So keep in mind that, like any racial group, there are nuances around this term.

But! May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPIHM), and it’s a time to celebrate and acknowledge the beautiful variety within the AAPI community. As we officially step into this jubilant time of year, it’s only fitting that we deep dive into the term’s history, who can fall under its umbrella, and how you can be a genuine support to the AAPI community during their historical month and well beyond.

So which ethnic groups are in the AAPI community?

According to the Asian Pacific Institute for Gender-Based Violence, the group 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.”

To break that down even more, there are about 50 (!) individual ethnic groups that are a part of the AAPI community, with people from a slew of different countries and territories, like India, China, Japan, and Hawaii. The Pacific Islander category alone includes Samoans, Guamanian or Chamorro, Fijian, Tongan, or Marshallese peoples and the people of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. That’s a range. And among all those different groups, there are about 100 distinct spoken languages. So don’t get it twisted: Just because they’re all under one identity marker doesn’t mean they’re all the same.

Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the distinctions between AAPI ethnic groups. “Prior to the 1960, the word that was used to describe people of Asian descent was ‘orientals.’ [The term ‘AAPI’] is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Asia is the largest continent, with the most number of languages spoken, so it’s challenging when you boil it down to one identity. But I think the intention behind it was to really try and create a unified political power.”

When did we start saying AAPI?

The origin story of this term goes back to the 1960s, which isn’t all that far in the past if we’re taking the United States’s full historical timeline into consideration. In 1968, two college students, Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, were the founders of the Asian American Political Alliance at UC Berkeley, and they birthed the term “Asian American” in order to advocate for the rights of people of Asian descent living in the States.

By the time the ’80s rolled around, the U.S. Census Bureau began to group Asian Americans with Pacific Islanders for data collection. Which, annoying. But by 2000, the government agency made Asian and Pacific Islander two distinct racial categories, instead of just “Asian Pacific Islander.” But for that to happen just 23 years ago is pretty wild.

What can I do to support the AAPI community?

During AAPIHM (and every other day before and after it!), there are a number of big and small moves we can all make to ensure that the AAPI community is being accurately represented and supported.

“Learn something new about AAPIs that you didn’t know,” suggests Choimorrow, adding that reading about one of the communities is a good place to start. “Spend a little more time thinking about your life in relationship to Asian American Pacific Islanders. Go beyond just thinking about Asian Americans when you want to eat Asian food. Think about our history—learn a little more about how different folks ended up in the U.S. and our contributions to building America.”

Also! If you’re a major nerd like me, these free resources below are great way to dig deeper into the rich and super-fascinating AAPI history:

Organizations like NAPAWF and the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance are also so valuable and definitely worth looking into. They advocate for intersectional AAPI issues, so for those interested in cross-community experiences (which should be all of us, let’s be real), they’re groups worth following and supporting.

Beyond reading, researching, and financial support, Choimorrow says that backing up AAPIs on the day-to-day can be as simple as just using your voice. “Speak up when you hear stereotypes, jokes, or misconceptions being spread about Asian Americans,” she said. “During COVID, we saw a spike in violence publicly because of lies and stereotypes about Asian Americans, that’s just one extreme. I encourage people to disrupt the narrative.”

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Annabel Iwegbue is an assistant editor at Cosmopolitan who covers entertainment, lifestyle, career, beauty, and astrology. Just, you know, all the things. You can check out some of Annabel’s work here and, also find her on Instagram and Twitter.

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