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AAPI Heritage Month: AAPI includes hundreds of distinct groups

MPH Student Shelby Rorabaugh

Illustration: Fernando Augusto

To honor Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month 2023, we asked AAPI members of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health community what the month means to them. We will be posting the responses throughout the month.

Today, we feature MPH graduate Shelby Rorabaugh.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are diverse, says Shelby Rorabaugh, a recent MPH graduate in Health Policy & Management, even though American culture sees them as one homogenous group.

“There are hundreds of different diverse ethnic, cultural, and racial groups under the larger umbrella of ‘Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,’” Rorabaugh says. “In an ideal world, we would have much more time than just 31 days out of a calendar year to properly recognize each one.”

As a person of Chinese heritage who grew up with white parents, Rorabaugh says her lived experience may be different from someone who grew up with Chinese parents. But AAPI Heritage Month helps her take time to reflect on her own heritage.

Berkeley Public Health: What does Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month mean to you?

Shelby Rorabaugh (she/her/hers): Like many minorities in the United States, the histories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have often been discounted in schools or glossed over in pop culture with wide, stereotyping brushstrokes that paint the AAPI community in this country as one homogenous monolith when the opposite is true. Asians are the largest growing racial/ethnic group in the United States. There are hundreds of different diverse ethnic, cultural, and racial groups under the larger umbrella of “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.” In an ideal world, we would have much more time than just 31 days out of a calendar year to properly recognize each one.

Nevertheless, AAPI Month represents a time for everyone to celebrate the culture, history, and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in our country that have often been forgotten by the wider public. This month is an opportunity to purposefully center and uplift the diverse voices of local AAPI leaders, artists, business owners, and individuals while also calling attention to the issues that face our larger community.

On a more personal note, as someone who grew up with white parents, I often think about what identity and what being an Asian-American means to me. It is sometimes difficult for me to claim my Chinese heritage in spaces that I was part of as a child. But AAPI Month serves as an important reminder to me that the AAPI community is as diverse as it is historied. Many of us who identify as AAPI have different backgrounds and lived experiences than what is considered “traditional.” So, this month is that vital bridge for me to reconnect with my Asian-American identity.

How do you feel that Asian American and Pacific Islanders are seen through the lens of public health and what challenges might they have?

The “model minority” myth that all AAPI are as well-off as white Americans has fed into a general misconception that AAPI communities don’t face any significant healthcare disparities, which has dangerously allowed real public health issues to go unnoticed, ignored, or—as was the case during the pandemic’s rise in AAPI hate—minimized by the public. People forget that there are millions of undocumented or uninsured AAPI struggling to access culturally competent healthcare in this country and that Asians continue to face significant health disparities in rates of cancer and depression screening.

I also think that academic spaces also have been reticent in embracing a more nuanced approach to discussions about AAPI public health needs. Research studies oriented specifically on AAPI populations of interest receive a minute fraction of overall grant funding from the NIH.The pipeline of funded research to faculty to curriculum, and to new public health graduates has not prioritized an in-depth understanding of AAPI issues. How can we expect the general public to care about addressing AAPI public health needs when the professionals in the field have not?

How do you feel our school could better serve our AAPI community members?

Berkeley Public Health should take intentional steps to prioritize the inclusion of AAPI public health professionals in class curriculum and hiring decisions. Faculty should explicitly incorporate more AAPI-authored journal articles or AAPI-centered literature into course readings, just as many have already done for Black and Latine research. School-wide panels, guest lectures, and alumni events should ensure a diverse representation of AAPI participants working in varied sectors. School funding (grants, fellowships, etc.) must aim to provide equitable funding and promotion to PhD and DrPH research targeting AAPI public health needs.

I would also love to see more AAPI faculty hired to more concentrations within Berkeley Public Health. None of my public health classes throughout my two years in the Health Policy & Management track were taught by professors who identified as AAPI, which sadly speaks to the current lack of diversity in faculty composition school wide. Public health, at its core, is the study of population health and Berkeley Public Health’s faculty should look like the very populations we are trying to serve.