Ithaca College Class Helps to Promote Activism in the Asian American Community

Written by Sandra Aguirre

Photo 1
Sara Kim introducing the guest speakers.

For their third year straight, the Ithaca Pan Asian American Film Festival (IPAAFF) was held on Thursday April 20th through Saturday April 22. IPAAFF had several performers, workshops and screenings to share the stories of Asian Americans. One of those several performers was Ithaca College’s Asian American Counter Spaces Class.

During the film festival, the Asian American Counter Spaces Class preformed Spoken Word. The class is taught by Phuong Nguyen, Assistant Professor for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity. According to a booklet handed out at the event, all semester the students learned about the “history of Asian American self-representation” and struggles against oppression in the United States and abroad through literature, independent films, literature, oral history and political organization.

Nguyen’s class was broken into two groups, the first group started with a photo campaign where the class turned quotes from their interviews with the Asian American and Pacific Islanders community about their representation in media photos to create a monologue. The second group recounted an interview they had with Asian American hip hop dancers on how hip hop helps them break stereotypes.   

Nguyen says his class had creative freedom to create their project in a manner they saw fit. Nguyen said the interpretation of the projects presented at the festival are based off their life history, those they interviewed and class readings.  

Photo 5
Members of the audience watching the performance.

The first team was lead by Angela Poffenbaugh, a junior journalism major. She  believes that picture is worth a thousand words and so she wanted to create an image that would stick with the audience.

“I really wanted people to visually understand how Asian Americans are misrepresented rather than having to read something and they get their own image in their head,” Poffenbaugh said.  “I wanted them to see a set image and say ‘oh I understand because I see it from my own eyes.’”

IPAAFF was created as a counter space to share Asian American stories. Much like the purpose of the film festival Nguyen said the purpose of the giving Asian Americans a voice that has often been silenced by mainstream media.

“We [Asian Americans] don’t have these opportunities to hear ourselves speak whether in popular media in here and obviously we’re not going to necessarily found it in Asia either,” Nguyen said.

Photo 4
Data from the PBS NewsHour.

According to an article published by The New York Times, it has been hard for Asian-American actors to find work but with the help of social media the issues of Asian American representation has been brought to the forefront. Asian representation lack in media and if they are present usually a ‘white’ actor plays them. Asian Americans make up about 5.4% of the U.S. population while more than half of TV shows, films and “streaming properties” do not feature any speaking or named Asian characters. As well, about 1.4% of leading characters in studio films released in 2014 were Asian.

Nguyen said that media feeds into the Hollywood stereotypes of Asians because it sells and are “safer bets” than telling real stories. As well, he states that Hollywood were to publish “real stories” of Asian Americans that it would produce large quantity of money.

“Capitalism is based off profits, number one and reducing risks, number two,” he said. “I think Hollywood executives and media executives know that stereotypes are safer bets at this point then telling real stories.”


Photo 2
Nguyen’s class performing a Spoken Word piece.

Nguyen said it’s important for Asian Americans to have events like Ithaca Pan Asian American Film Festival to exist since Asian Americans lack counter spaces unlike other cultures. As well, it’s an opportunity to let others know that for years everyone has had the same feelings of not being heard.

“From generation to generation, everybody keeps thinking they’re reinventing the wheel, so I think, for us, this venue here is I think is really eye opening — it’s a revelation,” Nguyen said. “It’s an opportunity for people to say ‘I’m not the only one who has these thoughts.’”

He believes that the spoken word performance is a great example of activism to inspire others to speak up.

“We’ve been ignored for so long and not allowed to really speak our voices that just being able to speak up to hear ourselves and to hear others is extremely affirming and uplifting and it’s something that we have been thirsty for so long,” Nguyen said.


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