What Does AAPI Mean?

Aditi Ramaswamy
3 min readApr 12, 2021

If it means anything at all…

I have a vivid middle-school memory of being confronted with the question ubiquitous to every immigrant child’s experience: “Where are you from?”

“India,” I said (not strictly true – technically, I am from Pennsylvania). “I’m Asian American.”

My classmate squinted at me. “No you’re not,” they said decisively.

“Yes I am,” I insisted. But my classmate did not back down, no matter how much I argued – not even when I held up a globe to point out India’s location in Southern Asia.

That was when I truly internalised this: I do not embody the image conjured up by the term “Asian American”. In essays about “Asian American” or “AAPI” concerns, I so often see Asian Americans posed as a separate group from “brown” people – despite the fact that a significant portion of Asia’s population, diaspora and otherwise, is brown. Even more ridiculously, “AAPI” is often used as shorthand for “Asian American” while Pacific Islanders’ voices are completely ignored. Nowhere is that more evident than in an event hosted by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum advertised on Twitter. Touted as an “#AAPI Women Strong” meeting, an “evening of allyship and solidarity”, the panel features three East Asian American women, one South Asian American woman, one Southeast Asian American woman, and… Hillary Clinton.

Image Description: an advert for an “AAPI” panel on April 21st, depicting a list of speakers which includes no Pacific Islanders and does include Hillary Clinton.

How dare this be advertised as “AAPI”, when Hillary Clinton’s presence is deemed more essential than the attendance of any Pacific Islander panelists? Why not elevate someone like Dr Noelani Goodyear-Ka’ōpu, a professor at the University of Hawai’i Manoa? Why are there three East Asian American participants, but only one South Asian and one Southeast Asian – as if the rest of us brown people are mere afterthoughts in the realm of Asian American representation?

I’m not the only one who thinks the terms AAPI and Asian American are, in many senses, reductive. Pacific Islanders and South Asians are often left out of discussions, as the latter article points out. In fact, even within South Asian circles, representation is overwhelmingly Indian and Hindu – many Americans remain ignorant of the fact that South Asia contains eight nations (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Nepal). Some Pacific Islanders, such as Māori Americans, share our immigrant experience. Others – Kanaka Māoli, or Native Hawaiian people, are indigenous to territory claimed by the United States, and still struggle against colonialism perpetrated by America.

Why should we reduce such immense diversity of ethnicity, of experience, into a four-letter acronym? Even when we are discussing issues which affect a larger Asian community in the US, such as the brutal attacks perpetrated against East Asian Americans in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s racist comments regarding “the China virus”, the phrases Asian American and AAPI are still too reductive. Why not say East Asian American, or Pacific Islander, or South Asian American, when we talk about the struggles unique to each community? Just as many Black writers and activists have pointed out their frustrations when people use “PoC” instead of Black, “AAPI” is too broad and too prone to erasing certain communities’ narratives while maintaining a pretence of inclusivity.

I’ve used Asian American to describe myself before, but of late I prefer simply using Indian American. It’s perfectly accurate and far more descriptive. Let’s retire “AAPI” and “Asian American” – and stop valuing Hillary Clinton over communities which have been affected firsthand by discrimination.

––Aditi Ramaswamy



Aditi Ramaswamy

Software engineer; emerging author; almost certainly not a changeling. I write about the uncomfortable parts of Indian & American history & culture.