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AAPI Heritage Month: A reflection on reader responsibility

May marks Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month — or as the U.S. government calls it, “Asian/Pacific Heritage Month.” The name alone suggests a recognition, perhaps even a celebration, of what AAPI people inherit as a community: the diverse cultural practices, languages and religions that American Asians and Pacific Islanders bring to this country.

But the month means something more for the American public in 2021. Non-AAPI people have been forced to confront another inherited reality for AAPI people in light of news coverage of rising anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. It can be easy to frame this violence as an isolated wave, the result of immoral but understandable frustration about COVID-19. 

But this is unacceptable. The truth is that anti-AAPI racism has existed in America for centuries, and it will not go away after non-AAPI people stop talking about it during this wave of violence. And the month of May passing will certainly not make it go away.

So, what antiracist work can Americans do? There are myriad ways to combat racism on a macro scale, with organizations like Stop AAPI Hate listing their research-informed approaches. And there are perhaps even more ways for individuals to work in antiracist ways on a micro scale, in their own lives.

One common suggestion is to consume pro-AAPI media, especially that by AAPI creators. Books feel like a logical starting point for many people; they are available for purchase (which supports the authors) and are usually long enough to include nuanced perspectives. Many lists thus exist online of some of the best pro-AAPI books in English, and these can be a good place to start. 

Take “Minor Reckonings: An Asian American Reckoning” by Cathy Park Hong, for example, which many major media organizations have been including on their lists. The book has a high score of 4.3 stars on Goodreads, and the page describes it as a blend of “memoir, cultural criticism, and history.” Essay collections are popular choices for antiracist reading, in large part because their authors can write candidly and honestly in first person about their own experiences. 

AAPI essayists like Hong have the opportunity to speak their truths and connect them to larger-scale racist issues — the Goodreads description notes that Hong grew up with internalized negativity about her Korean heritage, and through her essay writing expresses that “American optimism” and American cultural lies about being Korean caused this, which many Korean readers will be able to relate to.

But essays and other books on lists that organizations assemble are not the final step in pro-AAPI reading. Readers who enter with performative intentions, who read these books to know and have others know that they read them, might very well move forward to create change as a result of their reading. But many will not. What about the books by AAPI authors that do not seem to be “about” race? What about books by much less famous AAPI authors?

The truth is that there is no verifiable reading list for a holistic pro-AAPI education; readers cannot “finish” by checking off a set amount of boxes. Antiracist reading is a lifelong commitment, especially as new issues develop and our culture recognizes more systemic oppression that AAPI people face.

But another part of the commitment is recognizing and celebrating AAPI authors in all genres. AAPI authors do not have to write “about” race (in a way that non-AAPI readers can easily recognize) in order for their work to be valid. And their work does not have to center on the suffering of AAPI people and characters. 

Just as it is not the responsibility of individual members of any marginalized group to educate those outside of it, AAPI authors do not have to accommodate readers by forgiving them for the systemic racism that we all perpetuate. Their books are important across genres. 

And it is especially crucial to read diversely; AAPI does not just mean Japanese American authors, for example. It includes Japanese American authors, but also Vietnamese American ones. Pakistani American authors. Read books by non-American API authors. Authors who talk about their skin across the spectrum, the intersections of their cultures, the languages they worked hard to speak.

Celebrating AAPI Heritage month — and every month — by reading means making a concerted effort to read widely. It means talking about what you read. It means reading the excellent literature that AAPI (and non-American API) authors write.

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