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Celebrating Contributions and Enduring Racism: Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month

05/07/2015 11:53 am ET | Updated May 06, 2016

The month of May came rushing in this year with news from around the world. A deadly earthquake devastated Nepal; protests occurred in Baltimore after Freddie Gray's death: individuals put themselves forward as U.S. presidential candidates; and a royal birth took place in England. These big stories led many of us to forget that May is the Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Heritage Month.

Congress designated the first ten days of May as Asian-Pacific Heritage Week in 1977: a time to remember the long legacy of historic, economic and social contributions made to the building of America by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Observances continued and in 1992, Congress passed a law designating May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

This year the White House will be celebrate AAPI Heritage Month with a White House Summit on AAPIs on May 12. This Summit is unprecedented and historic. It will present the Obama Administration's policies and programs that have helped AAPIs during his administration and consider what lies ahead in the years to come.

It is exciting to reflect on these national observances during this month. But we also need to also recognize some of the deep-seated racism towards Asian American Pacific Islanders, especially women from those cultures. My forthcoming book, Embracing the Other outlines in part some of the problems that AAPI women face.

In the book, I discuss how many of us are familiar with the story of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly, not only as an opera but also as a reality for many people of color in America. The underlying story is true, based on an autobiographical novel, Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti. The story of Madama Butterfly begins with a U.S. Navy officer named Pinkerton, who wishes to marry a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl, Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) for convenience until he finds a proper American wife. This story sheds some light to how AAPI women are often viewed as and treated by the dominant white society.

Shortly after they get married, Pinkerton leaves. Butterfly waits for him faithfully, and gives birth to their son without him. After three years, Butterfly receives news that Pinkerton is coming back to see her. Her heart swoons, but little does she know that he has married a white American woman.

The tragedy is not only that Butterfly was used as a temporary wife in a marriage of convenience, without her knowing it, but also that as a result of marrying an American, she became alienated from her own family. The tragedy is also that Pinkerton and his new wife are coming back because the American wife has agreed to raise the Japanese-American child. Once Butterfly realizes the true meaning of Pinkerton's visit to take her child with him, she is devastated, agrees to the request, blindfolds the child, and commits suicide.

This is a tragic ending to what Butterfly thought was her love story, when in reality she was only used as a sexual partner while the naval officer was lonely and far from home. To Pinkerton, Butterfly was a commodity, not a person in her own right. He gave his young bride the name "Butterfly" because he did not even know her Japanese name! By relegating her to the world of nature, she became an object in the "background" of his story and an object to be used and discarded. To use Rudolf Otto's terminology, Pinkerton viewed Butterfly as an "it" rather than a "thou."

We are all too familiar with this narrative. It is the story of a white man marrying an Asian woman out of convenience for his pleasure. The white man can throw away the Asian woman, exiling her from both American and Asian cultures. At the same time, it is the story of how a white person treats, or rather mistreats, a person of color as the Other and does as they wish to them.

Today, AAPI's encounter racism, prejudice, and stereotyping in all aspects of life. The color of a person's skin still determines one's place and role in society as well as the expectations others have of the person.

In the United States, AAPI women, simply on the basis of their skin color, are often treated as foreigners. AAPI women who have been living in the United States for many generations continue to be singled out because of physical differences, such as the size and color of their eyes, the size of their nose, and their skin color: all of which are unlike the dominant (white) women. They are viewed as "perpetual foreigners". It does not matter how many generations they have lived here, because they look different and will remain different. That many consider them the "model minority" or "honorary whites" is no relief. It is further evidence of racism.

As a result, AAPI women may be mistreated and subordinated by the dominant society then discarded when they are no longer useful. The trope we see in Madama Butterfly is familiar to us. Women of color are oftentimes treated as the Other, disposable objects who find themselves at the mercy of the White dominant culture.

As we celebrate our rich AAPI history during the month of May, we remember the story of Madama Butterfly and the lessons it teaches. We must keep in mind how destructive racism and sexism can be towards AAPI women. AAPI women hope that we do not become like her and share her tragic end. Rather, we seek to define, mold, and pave the way for interracial justice, shalom and equality.

For further reading and discussion, please read Embracing the Other; The Transformative Spirit of Love (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), forthcoming.