State College’s Community Diversity Group hosted “Powerful Voices: Asian Americans in Centre County Speak Out” Monday evening, a panel discussion focused on highlighting Asian discrimination in Centre County.
The discussion followed an anti-Asian hate incident reported Wednesday in Ferguson Township in which an Asian woman alleged a white man threw an object at her and told her to “go back to where she came from,” according to a Ferguson Police Facebook post.
Featuring six panelists and over 140 attendees, the event began with a black and white narrated film detailing several statistics and incidences of anti-Asian hate in the U.S., beginning with the recent shooting in Atlanta, Georgia.
The video segued into a short presentation by panelist and event host Shih-In Ma, a State College activist. Ma led attendees in a breathing exercise before launching into her personal story of growing up in State College as an Asian American.
According to Ma, she was one of 10 individuals of color in a graduating class of 600 from State College Area High School. She said she was bullied and spoke of her personal research into the mindset of those who bullied her — a mindset she said all humans share to varying degrees.
“Our ego, self-centered way of processing means we tend to dismiss, disbelieve, minimize [and] pathologize things that are not in our experience,” Ma said.
However, she said self-reflection is the most important step toward diminishing personal biases and becoming a better ally to those of other ethnicities and minorities.
Nalini Krishnankutty then took the virtual stage and spoke of her experience attending college in the U.S. after growing up in Mumbai, India.
Krishnankutty presented many historical facts about the Asian American community, including the prevalence of seventh, eighth and even ninth generation Asian Americans in the U.S. Some, she said, were responsible for famous inventions throughout the centuries, including skyscrapers, the filter in the N95 mask and Zoom.
According to Krishnankutty, Asian Americans often do not receive the recognition they deserve for their achievements, and she told audience members to “find these untold stories. Celebrate them… they are just the tip of the iceberg.”
Centre County magistrate, former mayor and borough council member Donald Hahn followed Krishnankutty, speaking of his experience as a second-generation immigrant.
Hahn said he experienced slurs in his middle school years, but this improved as he aged. Continuing to serve Centre County, Hahn said he hopes "State College and Centre County remains a welcoming community.”
Hyeseon Kim, a first-generation South Korean immigrant, spoke next about her journey to the U.S. for post-secondary education and of raising her family in sometimes unwelcoming environments.
A large aspect of Kim’s presentation was her investment in the Buddhist religion, to which she is an avid subscriber. She said her religion helped shape her into the person she is today.
“I’m a unique being with my own set of beliefs and [my] own issues, and [I was] still brave enough to come here [to the U.S.],” Kim said.
Kim was followed by Celeste Good, a current Penn State student heavily involved in the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Caucus, Queer and Trans People of Color and, more generically, the Paul Robeson Cultural Center on campus.
Good (senior-women’s studies) spoke about her upbringing as an adopted Asian with white parents, having been adopted with her twin sister from China.
“There is no one way to be Asian,” Good said, referencing her feeling of isolation and exclusion from the Asian American community due to her upbringing.
She spoke at length, however, about the work of the APIDA Caucus, QTPOC and the PRCC and how her involvement impacted her tenure at Penn State.
At-large University Park Undergraduate Association representative Steven Zhang concluded the panel presentation.
Zhang (senior-economics and political science) spoke about the work of UPUA but focused mainly on his personal experiences with Asian American stereotypes.
“For the longest time, I felt like a statistic,” Zhang said. “I felt like I was perceived by everyone as nothing more than my GPA or my SAT score or the medals and accolades that I would have. I’ve been told many times that my path would lead to great financial security but never that I would be a change-maker or a leader.”
Zhang attributed this stereotyping to American generalizations of Asian culture in America, specifically referencing the stereotype that Asians are seen by many to be the model American minority.
“This model minority myth is entirely backward,” Zhang said. “I feel like we’re very siloed into this narrow section of society and the American experience because we aren’t given the support we need to enrich our lives in other directions and other ways.”
In the Q&A session that followed Zhang’s presentation, each panelist spoke about their own experiences with Asian American stereotypes.
According to Hahn, ignorance and a lack of educational effort are causes of many stereotypes. He encouraged those wishing to be allies to educate themselves in any way possible.
“There’s always room to reach out,” Hahn said.
A problem Hahn said he has often faced is being labeled as different, something he said isn’t necessarily bad but he wishes was done to highlight strengths rather than fears.
“I was hoping for a day where I didn’t have to feel like I was different,” Hahn said.
Krishnankutty agreed with Hahn and shared similar experiences.
“Can we just say that [something] is just different, but one doesn’t have to be better than the other or worse than the other?” Krishnankutty asked.
Detailing a different form of stereotyping, Good recounted experiences in which she felt some Penn State minority organizations were used simply for a false image of diversification.
“There’s a lot of performative activism out here,” Good said. “A lot of people are doing it for the clout or to be on TV or to have the big headline. It’s not about that. I think that being an ally is sitting back and listening.”
To Good, such fake action by non-minority organizations dehumanizes the members of the minority ones.
“I don’t want to be tokenized, and I don’t want people in my community to be tokenized,” Good said. “Being an ally is more than showing up at Pride or showing up at a march.”
The discussion ended with a short documentary titled “Stand Together in Solidarity,” a production detailing the story of the Sikh people.
In the film, the silence of onlookers was emphasized as the greatest contributor to the issues of the Sikhs — and it is a contributor many of the panelists, specifically Hahn and Zhang, blamed for several of the issues faced by the Asian American community.
Hahn said what hurt the most when he was bullied in middle school was not the daggers thrown by the 10% who bullied him but the silence of the 90% who looked on and did nothing.
And Zhang agreed.
“The silence on the Asian experience in America is tangible, and many of us feel like we’re treated like outsiders,” Zhang said. “It’s no wonder no one wants to speak out, because we can’t be sure that there will be anyone out there to support us or listen to us.”
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