“When is change going to actually happen?” Celeste Good asked. But this wasn’t the first time she’d asked that.
Good (senior-women’s studies), who identifies as Asian American, grew up in a household with white parents in a predominantly white community before attending Penn State — a predominantly white school.
She said she thought attending Penn State would introduce her to more diversity, to other members of her race, culture and community. Good said she thought Penn State would give her the sense of belonging she had been craving.
That isn’t what she found.
In recent years, the university has pushed to increase its inclusivity through a series of initiatives. The end goal? A university “free of discrimination, one that embraces differences and one that respects all individuals,” according to its website.
To advance this mission, Penn State established a strategic plan for diversity, through which it hopes to “recruit, support and advance a diverse student body, faculty and staff,” its website said. This would include the hiring of diverse, multicultural faculty members who would “advance” the university’s workplace environment.
Yet Good said she believes diversity in the university’s student body, faculty and staff is still lacking.
“I have not once — in my four years of being here — had an Asian professor,” Good said. “That says a lot about the university. Does it actually have an agenda for pushing diversity?”
Hiring more Asian faculty members, Good said, would be a good first step by Penn State toward showcasing its commitment to inclusivity.
A second step, she said, would be educating white faculty members by providing them with extra training to handle instances of micro and macroaggressions between students, faculty members and combinations of both.
“[We need] accountability for students [and faculty] who are racist or homophobic,” Good said. “[Those behaviors] need to stop.”
Good is a member of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center-based Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Caucus, and said she believes the organization — and the PRCC as a whole — is underfunded and unable to tailor to the needs of the various minority populations it serves and represents.
Good said she believes APIDA isn’t generally acknowledged by people in the Penn State community as its own organization outside of the PRCC, one with its own culture and agenda. And she said this is a problem several other PRCC organizations face as well.
“Penn State treats us as a whole group of people rather than individual communities,” Good said.
She said it was this, among other factors, that motivated her to speak at State College’s Community Diversity Group event titled “Powerful Voices: Asian Americans in Centre County Speak Out” in May.
“I’ve never really been in an Asian space like that before,” Good said. “I had never really felt like a community in the APIDA community, and I did think it was important for students specifically to have a voice at that panel.”
Good isn’t alone in these experiences.
Steven Zhang, an at-large representative in Penn State’s University Park Undergraduate Association and member of APIDA, echoed Good’s frustrations with the PRCC’s lack of funding and APIDA’s lack of community representation — specifically, community inclusion.
“We deserve to be here,” Zhang (senior-economics and political science) said. “If anyone’s feeling like they don’t deserve to be at Penn State or they don’t feel like they’re included at Penn State, there’s something wrong with that.”
A major void in Penn State’s resources for marginalized students, specifically the APIDA community, is a safe space and platform for conversations about hate instances, Zhang said.
Both he and Good said they believe the Asian community receives less recognition and support than other communities at Penn State.
“When George Floyd’s murder happened, a lot of people were talking about it, whereas with the Atlanta shooting, no one talked about it,” Zhang said. “They felt like they didn’t have the space to talk, they didn’t have anyone to talk to, anyone to rant about the issue.”
George Floyd was a Black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis on Memorial Day in 2020 and whose death sparked nationwide protests.
On March 16, eight people were killed in an Atlanta shooting including six people of Asian descent, according to The New York Times.
Zhang said the APIDA community has been silent for a long time about its experience.
“Silence doesn’t mean things are OK,” Zhang said. “We’ve been silent for so long because we don’t have the resources, and we don’t have the leadership that we need at the university to really address these issues.”
However, Zhang said he believes Penn State has the ability to create such resources and appoint such leadership.
“The biggest thing that Penn State can do… is really stop making the APIDA community feel like an outside community to Penn State,” Zhang said. “If we’re not actively fighting for recognition in the APIDA community… it does feel like we are invisible to the campus.”
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Good added that “it isn’t hard” for Penn State to promote and advertise APIDA Caucus and its resources to both current and prospective students through touring organizations, such as the Lion Ambassadors or the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, which could incorporate APIDA — and the PRCC as a whole — into tours, she said.
However, the most frustrating aspect of the Penn State Asian experience to Good and Zhang has been the university’s official responses to incidents of hate.
Following several national occurrences, Penn State President Eric Barron released statements on behalf of the university condemning the actions of perpetrators and expressing support for the marginalized population impacted by the events — including his response to the death of George Floyd and his response to the Atlanta shootings.
To Zhang, the messages are simply “damage control” and serve no purpose to students or the greater Penn State community. He said he believes they simply reiterate what marginalized students have already been pushing through campus organizations like APIDA — and Good agreed.
“It’s the same message every time, and not once have I seen action,” Good said.
Good went a step further and said she believes for instances of hate on campus or in Penn State communities, the university should not only have its president release a statement but also compensate any students or faculty members victimized in the incident.
But both said efforts to achieve such a possibility would be futile — they said they believe the university is more focused on its money and its operations as a business than on its students.
“When Penn State talks about students being first, they have to recognize and accept that it means every student is unique and that every student has needs, and they really need to try their best to meet them,” Zhang said. “They’re not looking at it from the perspective of social justice and human rights and looking at people as people as opposed to the money they can provide the university.”
The root of this problem, Good and Zhang said, is Penn State’s current administration.
“The administration that we have right now is not going to change anything,” Good said. “We are going to stay where we are until we get young voices who actually care about these issues and not the money at the end of the day.”
Good and Zhang agreed there is a lack of listening and understanding by the current administration. Both said they spoke with various administrators on several occasions to discuss diversity and inclusion at the university and said they were ignored or dismissed each time.
“If you don’t recognize that the APIDA community has issues that they’re facing and that they’re suffering silently about, as an administrator — as Penn State — you’re not doing your job,” Zhang said. “You’re not doing your job to understand the community. You’re not doing your job to understand your students.”
Administrators should operate with the wants and needs of the students, faculty and staff they preside over rather than personal aspirations, Zhang said. Some members of administration aren’t elected — with the exception of certain positions on Penn State’s Board of Trustees — but Zhang said he believes each administrator should operate as if they were.
“When you’re running a university and you talk about the importance of students feeling like they’re included, these issues should be right at the front and center of your radar,” Zhang said. “If [they’re] not, that’s something that needs to be fundamentally reevaluated [by] administration, the Board of Trustees, [by] so many of these different units.”
And Zhang said he believes such a fundamental reevaluation is in order.
“It’s just very tiring for advocates,” Zhang said. “Why is it that us students have to be [leaders] in advocating for change? Why does it have to be professors or allies in the administration advocating for change instead of it being a top-down affair?”
According to On-cho Ng, head of Penn State’s Department of Asian Studies and professor of history, Asian studies and philosophy, education is “everything” when it comes to combating racism, xenophobia and general instances of hate — and when it comes to mobilizing actions.
Ng said he believes the first step toward progress is understanding, generically, what Asian hate is.
He defined the term as “a manifestation of a form of xenophobic or racist thinking targeting people supposedly of Asian descent” — but he said utilizing this definition and classifying Asian Americans into a singular term is a problem in and of itself.
“‘Asian American’ is used as an umbrella term, and Asia is far from a monolith,” Ng said. “There are different peoples and cultures.”
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Ng said this is especially true of Asian Americans, whose population totaled roughly 18.9 million in the U.S. as of 2019 — nearly 5.7% of the country’s current population of almost 332.5 million. Because each of the millions of Asians in America have different life experiences, Ng said it’s important “to understand members as individuals with particular backgrounds and particular histories.”
“Every member of a community brings to the community — which is Penn State, in this particular case — certain elements, certain pre-understandings, certain culture,” Ng said.
The opposite of this and a “typical” facet of racist and xenophobic thinking, according to Ng, is stereotyping, a thought process in which “types trump individualities and particularities.” He said the practice is “a way of representing a certain distorted understanding” and a “representation of emotions that are not rationally deviated.”
Yet Ng said he believes stereotyping to be the last step in the formation of racist and xenophobic mindsets — the first, he said, is generally a crisis, which then leads to scapegoating. The latter, he said, is utilized as an attempt to solve a crisis, and stereotyping is born somewhere along the way.
“The easy answer is always to blame certain elements you regard as external to a particular community defined by those people who feel like they are in ascendance or they are in a position of dominance,” Ng said. “It’s just a lazy way of arriving at certain answers — so it’s more essentially an emotional, a psychological salve, a kind of device to placate oneself rather than any concerted efforts to arrive at real answers.”
And Ng said this is exactly what he believes occurs at Penn State.
The anxiety and fear from crises — like the coronavirus pandemic — result in scapegoating practices, which then result in hate incidents, according to Ng. And although Ng said the university is already doing what needs to be done to combat such thought processes, he said a potential solution would be to strengthen the community and Penn State’s existing system for reporting hate and instances of bias.
“It is a matter of Penn State continuing to offer classes, courses and also to continue to create and sustain a culture of tolerance,” Ng said. “At Penn State, what we do is precisely to create a culture that counteracts… this sort of ‘immediated,’ irrational thinking.”
Currently, Penn State’s Department of Asian Studies offers several courses that feature cultures ranging from the far east to the south of the continent in addition to courses in political science, economics and languages. The courses touch upon religion, history, philosophy and traditions, some of the most important factors in understanding people, Ng said.
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“Understanding of these things will also help us understand other human ways of addressing problems — not only one particular way but multiple ways,” Ng said.
The most integral courses the department offers, he said, are its language ones.
From classes in Mandarin Chinese to Japanese, Korean and even Hindi, the department covers a number of major languages found on the Asian continent. Ng said learning any language, however, is “one of the surest ways of learning a culture,” allowing individuals to develop “a more tolerating, capacious view” of problems that doesn’t encompass a “short-circuited” manner of thinking.
Ng said he believes education is the greatest form of defense against any form of bias.
Good, however, said she believes there is still lots of work to be done before Penn State becomes as inclusive as it says it is. By the end of her senior year, Good said she hopes to convince Penn State’s administration to increase advertising of the PRCC and its resources.
More narrowly, Good said she hopes to also incorporate the LGBTQ agenda into that of APIDA Caucus. She said she believes the organizations within the PRCC must work together to accomplish their goals moving forward.
Ng said he and his department work with Penn State’s administration, and his office is one place individuals can report incidents of Asian hate. He said his office hasn’t received any reports recently.
And Penn State administrators themselves also said they are working to improve Asian experiences at the university.
Last month, the university released a statement detailing its stance on Asian discrimination — and on discrimination against any individuals — in the Penn State community.
University spokesperson Wyatt DuBois reiterated this message via email to The Daily Collegian.
“The university stands firmly against racially motivated hate, bias and violence and strongly encourages anyone who is the victim of or witnesses an act of racial bias or violence to report it via the Report Bias website or by calling University Police and Public Safety,” he said.
Although Good said she and her organizations have aspirations to improve the Asian experience at Penn State, Ng said he and his department are already doing so. He said the university now has measures in place for reporting bias and took a stance against hate. Zhang said he wishes the university had taken measures to combat Asian discrimination long ago.
“I shouldn’t have to come into Penn State as a freshman and say, ‘Wow, there’s so many issues that I need to help fix,’” Zhang said. “These issues should be on Penn State’s radar in the first place.”
Good echoed this and expressed her disappointment with what she perceives to be Penn State’s lack of action.
“‘We are… Penn State,” she said. “But the PRCC has its own saying, and it’s ‘We are… all we got,’ because sometimes ‘We are… Penn State!’ doesn’t encompass us.”
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