The casting decisions for Disney’s live-action Lilo & Stitch sparked backlash for exhibiting Hollywood’s tendency to favor lighter skin actors of color (NBC News). Some fans emphasized the apparent colorism and featurism in casting Sydney Agudong as Lilo’s older sister and legal guardian, Nani, noting that the actress’s lighter complexion and more Eurocentric features stray from that of the character in the original animated film. While Agudong is mixed race with Filipino roots and was born and raised in Hawai’i, this was a missed opportunity to represent Native Hawaiians and the diversity of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.
Centering lighter skin and racially ambiguous actors of color who are more “palatable” to white audiences is standard media practice (Refinery 29). Even in AAPI-centric stories and issues, there is a tendency to erase Indigenous and darker complexions and view Asian people and Pacific Islanders as interchangeable. Disney’s live-action Aladdin faced similar criticism when casting a fair-skinned South Asian actress for a Middle Eastern character (Screenrant) and again in the Disney+ show Doogie Kamealoha MD, where a half-Asian American actress was cast in the half-Native Hawaiian leading role (The Blaze).
These recent attempts underscore a long-felt problem within the AAPI umbrella term: those meant to be represented are struggling to be seen.
• Gift the child in your life books like Punky Aloha by Shar Tuiasoa or Colors Of Aloha by Kanoa Kau Arteaga.
• Support organizations like Nihi!, Peak Pasifika, Kanaeokana, Hui o Kuapā, and Purple Mai’a that are creating and strengthening NHPI representation in media, STEM, education, and culture.
• Support organizations like Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian, NDN Collective, Hawaiʻi Peace & Justice, O’ahu Water Protectors, and the Pacific Feminist Fund fighting for social justice.
More than 25.6 million people identify as Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Other Pacific Islanders in the U.S., with 24 million identifying as Asian and 1.6 million as NHPI (Census). The U.S. Census Bureau initially created the “Asian Pacific Islander” category in the 80s to better count those from the Pacific Islands (people of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia) before separating them into two racial categories decades later (NBC News). Still, labels like AAPI, APA (Asian Pacific American), or AANHPI (Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander) continue to group 50 distinct ethnic groups with over 100 languages (NAMI). Given the vast diversity of people categorized under the Asian American label, affixing Pacific Islanders with AAPI ensures that more communities are overshadowed and underrepresented in an already oversaturated group.
The hypervisibility of Asians and Asian Americans, more specifically East Asians, and the invisibility of Pacific Islanders are so prominent in media that even banners and curated lists “celebrating AAPI stories” throughout May for AAPI Heritage Month are heavily focused on different Asian stories, with the occasional movie or show that features the Rock. Even during the White House’s celebratory appreciation event earlier this month, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders were dismissed when the event’s co-host pushed the audience to use #Asianheritagemonth instead of #AANHPIHM (Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month) (Buzzfeed). The “visible together” themed event received backlash and validated in real-time how NHPI people are constantly being sidelined, even in their own stories.
AAPI experiences vary significantly when it comes to financial status, health resources and outcomes, incarceration, poverty rates, education level, homeownership, and more in the U.S., with NHPI faring worse off than their Asian counterparts in all these categories (AAPI Data, KFF). And funding allocated for AAPI groups often fails to reach NHPI people (USA Today). And whereas the experiences of immigration and xenophobia connect many Asian American stories, many Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders frame their struggles with sovereignty, militarization, and colonialism (including from some Asian countries) as more similar to that of other Native and Indigenous people (Vox).
Despite the federal government mandating in 1997 that Asian American and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders data be separately collected, health, employment, and other socially relevant data remains aggregated to the detriment of NHPI. During the pandemic, COVID-19 was “ravaging NHPI communities” despite health agencies reporting low infection numbers (UCLA Newsroom). NHPI communities had some of the highest case and death rates of COVID-19 but were overlooked due to states failing to separate health data. Nationwide, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders died at 1.5 times the rate of Asian people (Covid Tracking Project). In California, they had the highest death rate, whereas Asians had the lowest.
“Agencies used absolute numbers as an excuse to not devote resources to ensuring the NHPI communities knew how to deal with COVID-19,” said Calvin Chang, the data analytics director of the UCLA Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Data Policy Lab. The push for data disaggregation to ensure that accurate and detailed data collection is compiled has been a priority for many pushing for more NHPI representation, as limitations and erasure within the AAPI label cause these disparities to go overlooked and people neglected.
Identity labels like AAPI and NHPI are intended to unite communities of people with commonalities together, but just like with POC, WOC, and LGBQT+, the blanket use without nuance or context is not solidarity (Vox).
People want to and deserve to be named and represented in their fullness and on their terms. Our stories and identities deserve more than money-grabbing movies, blanketed identity labels, or commemorative appreciation holidays that truncate our contributions to merely a month. Instead, we must look into our communities and back the storytellers, innovators, and visionaries who represent us, share and understand our complexities and experiences, and aim to uplift our communities and tell our stories accurately.
• AAPI-centric stories fail to showcase accurate NHPI representation.
• Broad identity labels strip communities of their identities and cultural differences.
• Expecting white institutions to accurately represent and show up for us will always lead to disappointment.