Honoring Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Posted by Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, Natasha Martin, JD on Tuesday, May 3, 2022 at 10:51 AM PDT

Dear Campus Community,

As we mark the beginning of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, designated in this year’s White House proclamation as Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Seattle University affirms the rich tapestry of cultures, ethnicities, and experiences of this diverse and vibrant community – representing a broad diaspora of Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi Americans.

Fostering inclusion means sharing the table to tell our stories from a range of perspectives. To celebrate this rich heritage and amplify voices across our campus, ODI shares the reflections of two colleagues whose authenticity invites us to learn more. In the spirit of LIFT SU, affirming the varied and intersectional experiences among us offers a path toward solidarity and common purpose. We offer deep gratitude to them and trust that you will receive their words with openness.

Dr. Nalini Iyer

Professor, Department of English, Theiline Pigott-McCone Endowed Chair in the Humanities (2020-2022)

South Asian American Identities: A Reflection

I am an immigrant from India who arrived in the United States as a graduate student in 1986. Initially, I identified as an international student/scholar and only years later saw myself as a South Asian American. This was in part due to the nature of my visa status which left me in an in-between space—a sojourner rather than a citizen. For many people who trace their origins to South Asia and who have lived in the United States for many years and may even be citizens, the identification with Asian American/South Asian American is complex and often awkward. In part this is because recent immigrants do not have a sense of the history of the term Asian American and even if they did, the identity covers a vast number of nations and their diasporas and little seems to unite the disparate groups together. Often South Asians (people who trace their origins to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka) prefer to identify through nation of origin or religion because of the histories of conflict amongst South Asian nations. South Asian Americans are often perceived as a high-achieving community with a strong leadership presence in industry, academia, and government. However, this model minority notion overlooks the long history of South Asians in the United States and marginalizes the many working-class people who also make important contributions to American life.

South Asian immigration to the United States, especially the Pacific Coast, began over a 120 years ago when people from British India came to work as agricultural or timber workers or as university students. South Asians experienced exclusion, xenophobia, and violence in their early years in this country. A racist event that the new immigrant South Asians experienced is the Bellingham riots of 1907 when white workers attacked Indian laborers and chased them out of the city with the assistance of the police and local officials. South Asians went on to settle in California and to form a socialist revolutionary political party (the Gadar party) to fight imperialism in India and racist immigration laws in the United States. The increase in the number of immigrants and sojourners since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 brought more educated and upper middle- class people in search of economic opportunities; however, these migrants continued to experience alienation and felt that they were perpetual foreigners. The attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11 increased violence against South Asians who were now targeted as potential terrorists. Although we celebrate AAPI contributions in May and take pride in who we are, we should also recognize the complex history of AAPI people in this country. For me, to identify as Asian American is a political act that acknowledges this complex history and embraces solidarity between different groups within the AAPI community and also with other communities struggling for social justice. It suggests negotiating the differences in nation of origin, language, class, religion, gender, and race and seeing the possibilities embedded in our shared histories to facilitate a sense of community and belonging that counters the traumas of exclusion, violence, and xenophobia.

Dale Watanabe

Director, PDSO & RO, International Student Center

As I reflect on the meaning of an Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I find myself thinking of my own history as an Asian in America and how often I have felt invisible and ignored. Far too often the struggles of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities are ignored in American history books and when race is discussed it is often painted with only two colors. AAPI Heritage Month celebrates over forty countries and more recently has been known as APIDA (Asian Pacific Islander Desi American) Heritage Month to help represent this diverse grouping.

 In Seattle, growing up Asian was neither a cakewalk nor a hindrance. I was fortunate to attend schools that had many BIPOC students and learned about the power of community early. However, it was several years before I heard the story from my parents about the events that affected my family the most: the forced removal and incarceration during WWII. It was not until 2007 during a journey with my parents on the annual pilgrimage to the Mindoka National Historic Site in southcentral Idaho that I finally heard the personal stories of what happened in my own family.

 Our country is built on layers of discrimination and othering. Fear and hate are strong emotions and can lead to bad decisions. It is far too easy for the public and our government to find and blame a target to get ahead.  For a contemporary example, the alarming rise in anti-Asian attacks demonstrates that. According to data from Stop AAPI Hate (www.stopaapihate.org) there were 10,905 reports from March 2020 to December 2021. Although the popular rhetoric may scream “Blame the Chinese” the report shows that in the eye of the perpetrator, “all Asians look alike” and Chinese, Korean, P/Filipinx, Japanese and Vietnamese report the highest number of attacks.

 I am a descendant of a family forced out of Seattle and imprisoned at Minidoka Concentration Camp in Block 14, barrack 10, Family number 11755. I will continue to work to speak out against injustice and not ignore the history of our BIPOC communities. My family never gave up on America and neither will I. I dream of a better vision for America. Celebrating APIDA Heritage Month encapsulates a large community with diverse backgrounds and history that made America.

 Take a moment now to explore the rich history that is a part of our campus. Seattle University was once a part of the historic Nihon machi (Japan town) before WWII. The University helped support Fujitaro Kubota upon his return to Seattle after spending time in Minidoka Concentration Camp and his legacy continues with the beautiful Kubota gardens we have on campus, which includes the Japanese American Remembrance Garden designed by his grandson.  The story of the Japanese American incarceration is just one story of immigrants trying to make a better life in America and suddenly labeled an enemy and guilty by race. If we do not continue to recognize the injustice of this story, it can easily happen again.

To explore more of the texture offered by our colleagues, you are invited to take part in a number of on-campus and external community-based events scheduled throughout the month. Please visit the Office of Diversity and Inclusion for the full list, as well as a range of resources on the history behind AAPI Heritage Month, a toolkit for addressing and responding to anti-Asian racism, and other educational resources to celebrate and learn AAPI history, along with special Zoom backgrounds you can use during May.

As we honor AAPI Heritage Month, let us hold in our hearts deep gratitude for the AAPI community’s rich contributions and sacrifices, as well as determination to work against ongoing racism, xenophobia and violence against those in the AAPI community. Justice takes the courage to listen deeply enough to be changed by what we hear and moved to act in solidarity to build a more just and inclusive world. 


Eduardo Peñalver, President

Natasha Martin, JD, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion