The Burden of Asian And Pacific Islander Month Under the White Gaze

An Asian woman looks at the camera.

Can API Month be extricated from the white gaze? (Photo credit: Canva)

By Gabes Torres

I have always dreaded Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. As a Filipino, I brace myself for a month of urgency and big expectations to make the most out of a short-lived time of recognition, which ends up making me emotionally and mentally depleted. 

There was a time when I thought that API Month was meant for us to celebrate and reconnect with our wide array of identities, expressions, and histories. But over time, the month became a rigid incubator in which we are lumped into reductive categories of what it means to be Asian and Pacific Islander—as if we are the same people. Additionally, the sense of responsibility to educate others, especially White people, on racism and anti-Asian violence increasingly grew into an expectation, or even a demand, since the start of the pandemic. This level of pressure drew me away from what I thought was the purpose of this month, which was celebration and connection.

Representation is important. Telling our stories is key in the work of liberation, and yet visibility is not always enough. For instance, it can sometimes be physiologically distressing for me to speak at public events whenever I revisit and retell the cases of racialized trauma endured by Asian communities. Parts of my body become inflamed, and I find it difficult to stay present and motivated on a daily basis due to the reminders of racially charged discrimination and violence—mine and that of my community’s. 

An Asian woman in a red sweater looks away.
Gabes Torres writes how she wants API Month to represent more than just educating white people about various Asian cultures. (Photo credit: Canva)

When the reconnection to roots and culture is prioritized, we’d have more time and energy to explore and deepen our understanding of our collective stories.

Even if I am compensated for speaking on these platforms, it makes me wonder whether the paycheck is worth the reopening of my wounds. This is not to say that anti-oppressive educators and speakers shouldn’t be invited to present their research and tell their stories to public events. But I wonder: What is it like to imagine other forms of support beyond monetary compensation? I cannot speak for every anti-oppressive educator of color, but for me, there are times I wish the invitation to speak involved aftercare support, or even a check-in after the event. This feels appropriate to me given the emotional toll it takes to re-engage the difficult topics and lived experiences of racism, because more often than not, it takes weeks for me to recuperate from AAPI Month. I wonder who this month is meant for in the first place. 

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Ji-Youn Kim addressed this tension of API month by asking, “Since when did API/Asian Heritage Month turn into Anti-Asian Racism Education Month for White People?” She invites us to turn to the joy and histories of our respective cultures instead of accommodating the perpetually extractive demands of White people and corporations. When the reconnection to roots and culture is prioritized, we’d have more time and energy to explore and deepen our understanding of our collective stories. Can we imagine the possibilities when we choose not to accommodate the White gaze? 

I imagine we’d have the capacity to explore the intergenerational transmission of medicine and artistry (and not just trauma) among our peoples. I imagine we’d be able to make more room for the anthologies of loneliness and belonging among mixed-race people with Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry. I imagine opportunities to discuss and practice dismantling and defying systems of oppression within our own communities, such as anti-Blackness, settler colonialism, classism, fatphobia, ableism, etc. And perhaps most importantly these days, I imagine that if we do not accommodate to the White agenda, we could have more capacity to get to know our respective homelands, and to find practical and sustained ways to be in solidarity with them—our homelands that are presently suffering from imperialism and resisting against it. 

An Asian woman looks morosely out of a window.
Torres imagines that API Month could be a reclamation of culture, identity, and self-love if taken out of the white gaze. (photo credit: Canva)

It is astounding to also witness the multidimensionality of the Asian and Pacific Islander identity and experience.

The majority of media platforms have attempted to amplify the importance of API Month, yet have collectively failed to amplify the tragedies in our respective home countries in the global South—all of which are more vulnerable to and injured by the inequitable policies and industrialization spearheaded by the Global North. A major example is how the Global North is primarily responsible for the climate crises in the Global South. Bangladesh has been constantly recovering from massive flooding and cyclones, and wealthy countries are wary of averting the damages “because it opens up the prospect of vast financial liabilities for their decades-long greenhouse gas emissions still lingering in the atmosphere,” according to Al Jazeera. Another example is the hyper-militarization and industrialization that contaminate the waters of Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands while violently exploiting and displacing Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and Oceania peoples from their ancestral lands. Cultural Survival (an Indigenous-led NGO) and Hawai‘i People’s Fund (a grassroots community) are a couple of the many movements that lead resistances to defend their lands. With all of this, it is fascinating to observe the devastations that are given more visibility versus the ones underreported during API Month and even beyond.

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In relation to this, there has been a lack of media coverage concerning the political climate in the Philippines. My home country has recently undergone a historic election season, where the leading presidential candidates were between a dictator’s son and a human rights lawyer. And the former won: Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., was presumed to be the next president of the Philippines. Behind the success of his presidential campaign are alleged cases of vote-buying and the rapid spread of disinformation that discredited Vice President Leni Robredo, his main opponent during the race. This is no new story, as the issues of propaganda and alleged vote manipulation are a continuation of the Marcos legacy. (Last Week Tonight gives a helpfully succinct and appropriately satirical report on the historical 2022 Philippine elections here.) 

With this turn of events, I’ve realized that so much of the corruption and class struggle in my country did not come from a vacuum, but from decades of scheming by family dynasties and powerful people in my homeland—and U.S. and European colonizers, from centuries of occupation, served as their best teachers.

These global issues not only show our connectedness, but also our collective sense of responsibility for how we, in varying degrees and forms, have been participatory and complicit to many peoples’ centuries of suffering. This is one of the reasons why it can get exhausting for API community members to tell our stories, because our stories don’t stand alone, but are constellated to that of our ancestors and kin around the globe. We feel their pain from oppression and the longing for freedom deep in our bones, while also holding our own. 

Within all this, it is astounding to also witness the multidimensionality of the Asian and Pacific Islander identity and experience. Try as the White gaze might to reduce and stereotype us, we have created beauty, medicine, artistry, and powerful friendships out of adversity and violence.


GABES TORRES is a psychotherapist, organizer, and artist. Her work focuses on anti-colonial approaches and practices within the mental health field. She also focuses on abolitionist organizing on a global scale. You can find most of her work on her official website, www.gabestorres.com, and social media platforms, including Instagram.
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