Unseen No More

For Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to become more visible in the environmental space, we need to challenge assumptions about what it means to be American and build a movement strengthened by solidarity.

Varshini Prakash of the Divestment Student Network leading chants during a protest near the White House

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

I’ve spent a lot of my career thinking about how to build a better, stronger, more unified environmental movement. To consider this issue during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, however, is a tricky matter, because Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been largely invisible in this space—a void where a reflection should be.

This invisibility problem is one that we need to correct—and quickly. The proportion of Asian Americans in the United States grew by 72 percent between 2000 and 2015, making them the fastest-growing population in the United States. And not only does the group tend to hold strong opinions and values on the environment, but it is also growing as a voting bloc.

Further, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders suffer environmental injustices similar to those disproportionately borne by other people of color, despite the myth of the “model minority.” Studies show that Asian communities are being exposed to more harmful substances in the air (such as nickel, nitrate, and vanadium) than white people are. Other research illustrates that neighborhoods with high proportions of Chinese, Korean, and South Asian people have significantly higher cancer risk than do white populations. And the Laotian community in North Richmond, California, must deal with the dangers and health effects of living near a toxic oil refinery.

There are examples of Pacific Islander communities, too, being subjected to environmental injustice, including documented instances of sludge dumping on the Waianae Coast of Oahu and the failure of authorities to limit pesticide exposure in Native Hawaiian communities.

More to the point, the general lack of research into these subjects—especially on the health of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders—speaks volumes about the degree to which they are invisible.

The first step in addressing this issue is to recognize that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders do not constitute one monolithic entity—that there are not only people with East Asian heritage, but also South Asians, Southeast Asians, and those with indigenous ancestors from Hawaii and other islands in the Pacific. When we can make room for more definitions of what it means to be an American, more diverse stories, nuances, and voices can surface.

It’s heartening that recently I’ve seen more faces in the youth climate movement that are rising up from this group, and I’ve witnessed brave acts of resistance. But it’s not nearly enough for a fair representation. We need more people—more of everyone, especially Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of all stripes—in the fight for environmental and climate justice.

At the same time, we also need them to be seen and heard. The responsibility for achieving this falls to those with the power and the privilege—be it organizations like NRDC or other communities within this diverse racial group—to lift up those in the margins and to bring more attention to their stories.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders contain multitudes—quite literally—and will begin to become more visible when we redefine what it means to be American, build strength in numbers, and link arms in solidarity. These changes will also help create a crucial, more unified front, one that’s necessary to face the toughest challenge of our time—addressing the related crises of climate change and biodiversity extinction. We can create the transformative change we need only if everyone can see themselves strongly reflected in the movement.

About the Authors

Rhea Suh

Former President

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