Sounding Out in a Predominately White Institution: Circulating Asian American Sound for Institutional Change
Contributors: Jennifer Sano-Franchini, Maggie Fernandes, Jonathan Adams, Michelle Kim
Affiliation: West Virginia University, Virginia Tech, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Virginia Tech
Email: jennifer.sano-franchini at wvu.edu, margaretf at vt.edu, adamsj94 at erau.edu, mkjin99 at vt.edu
Released: 15 August 2021
Published: Fall 2021 (Issue 26.1)
This webtext centers on a sonic intervention that took place at our institution and its implications for institutional change. In Spring 2019, the Cultural and Community Centers1 at our university issued a call for proposals for programming to celebrate Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month (APIDAHM). In response, we proposed an event titled “Sounding Asian America: Exploring Asian American Sonic Rhetorics.” Extending on Jennifer Sano-Franchini’s (2018) “Sounding Asian America: Asian/American Sonic Rhetorics, Multimodal Orientalism, and Digital Composition,” this event was a collaboration among one professor, two PhD students, and one undergraduate student—two of us Asian American, two of us white American. It included an audio/visual installation, a short lecture on Asian American sound, group discussions, and a listening session centered on the question, “What does it mean to sound Asian America?” Specifically, we considered this question about Asian/American sound in four contexts:
- as used within YouTube videos about East Asian blepharoplasty, or cosmetic eyelid surgery (Sano-Franchini, 2018);
- in relation to the racialization of Asian accents within the U.S. university focusing on what was at the time a recent example at Duke University where an administrator advised that Chinese graduate students speak English only (Romero, 2019);
- in terms of the fraught issue of Asian and Asian American use and appropriation of Black language;
- in the context of Asian American women in indie rock and the music of the artist Mitski in particular.
Here, we examine this event—and the act of sounding out within an extracurricular institutional space—as a sonic intervention for institutional change within a predominantly white institution (PWI). That is, we consider how the event, as influenced and constituted by the circulation of digital media, reconfigured and reimagined the material environment of our university, while also attending to the ways in which sound and listening are ideological and racialized (Monberg, 2008; Stoever, 2016). Thus, we understand sound expansively as material vibrations that are primarily auditorily registered, and that are always culturally and politically encoded. As Michael Burns, Timothy R. Dougherty, Ben Kuebrich, and Yanira Rodríguez (2018) explained,
In this webtext, we describe our efforts to engage in such an extracurricular soundwriting pedagogy that “brings wreck” to white noise in the PWI. Specifically, we describe an event we organized and facilitated that engaged in a sonic intervention as it and we “sounded out” within an institutional space. When we refer to this event as a sonic intervention, we mean in the sense that it purposefully uses sound to make space for—and to center—Asian American voices and perspectives within a PWI, whether by speaking back against institutionalized norms, by creating contact zones within the space of a PWI, or by amplifying institutionally and systemically marginalized voices in ways that create a rupture within institutional whitespaces. We argue that such amplifications reverberate across not only the walls of the event—thus functioning as a space (re)making event that enables particular interactions and conversations to happen—but also across the people that work and live within it, that they may find something to carry with them as they push back against unjust policies, norms, and designs. In this way, a sonic orientation encourages us to move from an understanding of intervention as a noun—as an event that happens; to an understanding of intervention as a verb—as an action communities engage in. As a result, we resist perceptions of interventions as isolated and exceptional events, but rather understand interventions as always ongoing actions that build upon previous actions and histories while also reverberating across space, time, and embodiments. For instance, in the context of our own event, we participated with already-existing groups on campus including members of the Asian American Student Union and Asian American Coalition, and we recognize that the event wouldn’t have had the same result had there not been Asian Americans on campus having conversations about similar concerns, and had there not been folks who advocated for the space of the Asian Cultural Engagement Center (ACEC), or organized APIDAHM programming in the past.
In the sections that follow, we further theorize what it means to “sound out” for institutional change, situating this term in relation to existing scholarship about sonic interventions. We then describe the institutional context for the event, the process by which it was developed, the sonic circulations that took place during the event, and the reverberations that followed. As a result, we suggest that this webtext offers ways of thinking about how similar events might be attempted and accomplished at other institutions.
“Sounding out” is one sonic strategy for materially intervening in white noise. As Sano-Franchini (2018) positioned the term, to sound out in the context of Asian/America is to “amplify our own communities’ voices...pushing to make our voices, critiques, and perspectives heard.” Asian Americans have a long history of “sounding out” to make change, whether in the example of plantation song in Hawai‘i (Odo, 2013; Yano, 1984; Young, 2013); or in the history of Asian American labor movements in the West Coast and Hawai‘i; or involvement in the Third World Liberation Front movement for ethnic studies in the 1960s and 70s; or in the form of protest songs, as in the 1973 album A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America, among many other examples. We argue that sounding out signifies how sound is both embodied as it emanates from us and also rhetorical as it reflects the spaces around us. We make sound not only to enact our presence and meaning within a space, but also to feel out the depth of experiences that occur—and have occurred—within and around a space, and thus to create new understandings of the institutional environments that we inhabit. We think, for instance, of echolocation, where sound is used to assess a space and its dimensions, in order to navigate previously ambiguous surroundings. For racialized and other minoritized communities, this re-sounding is what in large part makes explicit the disciplining and silencing force of whiteness at predominantly white institutions (PWIs), as racialized and otherwise minoritized bodies and their soundings are often reinterpreted and echoed back in the image and shape of whiteness. As a result, those who are sonically disruptive—in both the material and ideological senses of disrupting vibrational patterns of whiteness—are often disciplined, silenced, and pushed out by the resounding and dampening white noise of the PWI.
In the discipline of rhetoric and composition, Haivan V. Hoang’s (2015) Writing Against Racial Injury: The Politics of Asian American Student Rhetoric, while connected to sound in more implicit ways, is helpful for making sense of the limits of sounding out in PWIs. Specifically, Hoang's (2015) discussion of Vietnamese American student activist publications leads to an important critique of inclusion and diversity discourse in education as she shows how rhetorics of racial injury often upheld by such discourses can overdetermine how folks of color who "sound out" are heard—through a framework of "savior, victim, and injurer" (p. 94) in which individual, personal grievances obscure legacies of systemic racial formation (p. 4). In addition, in “Listening for Legacies,” Terese Guinsatao Monberg (2008) theorized silence as an active strategy for Asian Pacific American women: “Shaping public spheres, enabling the presence of others, and building institutions have not generally been recognized as rhetorical activities, particularly when texts providing evidence of these activities cannot be seen” (p. 89). As a result, Monberg rendered recognizable the limitations of prioritizing sound as a means for changemaking. Read through the frame of an Asian American rhetorical perspective, sounding out brings together sounding, speaking, non-speaking, and writing out as ways of making space and engaging in collective action against racial injury and institutional whiteness.
In addition, areas of scholarship that have made significant contributions to theories of sonic disruption include hip-hop studies and rhetorics, and African American rhetoric (Banks, 2011; Del Hierro, 2019; Mckoy, 2019; Nunley, 2011; Pough, 2015; Rose, 1994). From these areas of scholarship, we learn how “sounding out” involves institutional and sociopolitical changemaking (Pough, 2015) through the prioritization of systematically marginalized voices (Pough, 2015; Rose, 1994), including the “amplification of injustices as well as bodily responses to injustice” (Pough, 2015, pp. 77–89). In addition, oftentimes productive (Del Hierro, 2019) and purposeful but unwelcome interruptions “[break] the linearity” (Banks, 2011, p. 1) of dominant white narratives and white noise. In similar ways, drawing on her study of the social movement organization TRAP Karaoke at three Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Temptaous Mckoy (2019) identified three tenets of amplification rhetorics as practiced within Black communities, which inform our understandings of “sounding out”
- the reclamation of agency (ownership of embodied rhetorical practices),
- the accentuation and acknowledgement of narratives (validated lived experiences), and
- the inclusion of marginalized epistemologies (that add to new ways of learning)” (p. 28).
We understand our event as performing a kind of sounding out in the sense of disrupting white noise through dissonant material vibrations that perhaps lie outside of white expectations about what “civil” and engaged discourse and intellectual deliberation should sound like, especially within the predominantly white university. Finally, these works make evident how sonic interventions are rooted in “the long history of [B]lack cultural subversion and social critique in music and performance” (Rose, 1994, p. 99)2 and must therefore be contextualized as such.
Thus, in using the term “sounding out,” we, like Burns, Dougherty, Kuebrich, and Rodríguez (2018), are inspired by the work of scholars like Tricia Rose (1994), who showed how rap music disrupts and dampens white noise by amplifying Black urban perspectives, voices, and sounds (p. 2), as well as Gwendolyn D. Pough (2015), who theorized how Black women rappers “bring wreck,” or bring “disruptions that somehow shifted the way Black people were viewed in the society at large” (p. 77). As Pough (2015) further explained, “bringing wreck” is “a rhetorical act that can be written, spoken, or acted out in a way that shows resistance” (p. 78). Although Pough described examples of “bringing wreck” that are multidimensional in nature—visual, conceptual, sonic, textual, for example—here, we are particularly attentive to the sonic elements of these disruptions. As a result, Pough teaches us how Black women rappers engage in sonic rhetorical disruption or what we might think of as a kind of “sounding out” within racist and misogynistic spaces. Pough (2015) also explained that “bringing wreck” is a term used in hip-hop “to connote damage already done” as well as “anger and a desire or intent to do real damage” (p. 77). Thus, an understanding of “sounding out” that is informed by the example of Black women rappers recognizes how acts of “sounding out” include purposeful disruptions to white noise through the amplification of injustices, including the sounding of bodily responses to injustice via anger and “desire or intent to do real damage” as a form of retribution for injustice (Pough, 2015, p. 77). As a consequence, rap has been taken up multiculturally and globally to denounce and speak back against injustice with different effects, as in the example of the song “Us,” described below.
At the same time, Vorris L. Nunley’s (2011) work teaches us that “sounding out” is but one approach within a multidimensional framework of what it means to engage in a sonic intervention. It is in some ways distinct from African American hush harbor rhetorics, a tradition of "risky speech, hidden transcripts, and productive and subjugated knowledges by and for African Americans" (p. 23), and thus is distinct from soundings that are in some ways more internal to the African American community. By placing “sounding out” next to Nunley’s work on hush harbor rhetorics, we understand that “sounding out” implies soundings that are external to a particular community, perhaps occurring primarily within intercultural contexts. In addition, while hush harbors functioned as safe spaces, a public event at a PWI cannot be such a space. As Nunley further explained, “hush harbors were necessary to the maintenance, circulation, and affirmation of African American knowledge," "[privileging] African American knowledges, worldviews and rhetorical forms, not just Black bodies" (p. 24). In certain ways, sounding out performs similar functions for minoritized communities within white institutional spaces, and something akin to hush harbor rhetoric is often a critical part of building more public or intercultural events. At the same time, we are careful not to conflate our experiences as white and non-Black persons of color with the unique experiences of Black folks in the United States, and we note that the workings of sonic rhetorics and power dynamics more generally in the U.S. are context dependent and informed by assumptions about race and racism, which impacts different racialized communities in distinct ways. In other words, public responses to racialized noise are often distinct and contingent on stereotypes associated with race, and responses to sonic uprisings are often dependent on who is seen as threatening, violent, hostile, dangerous, or unpredictable, and these associations are racially predetermined (Stoever, 2016). Because context is important for understanding the nature of sonic interventions, we describe our own institutional context in the section that follows.
The event we proposed and facilitated took place within a large, predominantly white, research intensive state university in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. When we say PWI, we mean not only in terms of student demographics. Our university bears the history of having been an all-white, all-male military institution situated within a predominantly white and rural part of the U.S. We have a plantation on campus and several buildings named after Confederate soldiers and officers. Among the 213 buildings on campus, only two are named after African Americans: Peddrew-Yates Residence Hall, named after Irving Linwood Peddrew III, the first Black student to enroll at the university in 1953, and Charlie Lee Yates, the first Black graduate in 1957; as well as the Fraction Family House, named in 2019 after an enslaved family who worked on the former plantation. Perhaps not surprisingly, none are named after Asian Americans, indigenous peoples, or other folks of color to our knowledge. Many of these buildings and locations are named after past institutional presidents and leaders, demonstrating how these names are not simply the names of buildings, but representative monuments to the pervasiveness of predominantly white authority throughout campus history. They represent the white voices that had access to power to make change—voices that reverberate through the institution, silencing others who have been in attendance.
Asian students have attended our university since at least 1914, not long before women were first allowed to attend classes full time at the university in 1921, but nearly four decades before the university would enroll its first Black student, Irving L. Peddrew III, in 1953. Blacksburg Chinese School was established in 1979, as was the Vietnamese Student Association. The Association of Chinese Students and Scholars was founded in 1982, and the Chinese American Society was founded in 1984. While these entities were specific to particular ethnicities, organizations that work for Asians and Asian Americans across ethnicities became more visible with the establishment of the Asian American Student Union in around 1991, and later, the Asian/Asian American Faculty and Staff Caucus in 2015 and Asian American Coalition started by Sora Ko and Anu Sharma in 2016. The ACEC, where our event was held, was established in 2017. According to the Office of Analytics and Institutional Effectiveness at our university, as of Fall 2019, Asians comprise 10% of the undergraduate student body and are thus not considered “underrepresented” at the university. At the same time, only 5% of graduate students self-identify as Asian, and there is currently no Asian American studies program. Within the last few years, courses in Asian American literature, rhetoric, and history were offered.
In Spring 2019, when our event took place, Jennifer was teaching a graduate course on Asian American Rhetoric and Representation, which was offered for the first time on our campus. Jon and Maggie were students in that course. Jennifer and Michelle had just worked on a library exhibit (Fralin et al., 2019) on Asian American history, for which Michelle created a panel on Asian American music. Given the relation of this topic to Asian American sound, we invited Michelle to be a part of this collaboration. Together, we decided to propose an event titled, “Sounding Asian America: Exploring Asian American Sonic Rhetorics” centered on the question, “What does it mean to sound Asian America?” (see Figure 1).
We found this to be a compelling question for several reasons. First, we found the question to be a difficult one to answer, perhaps in part because of how Asian/Americans are often heard as either silent on one hand, or dissonant on the other. In addition, Asian/Americans are rarely, if ever perceived as contributors to the soundscape of U.S. music. How many people can think of an Asian/American singer/musician who is thought to have made a significant contribution to our understanding of sound? More often, Asian/American artists are seen as copying existing approaches, and they tend to be seen as having a relatively stronger presence within classical music. Thus, beneath our focusing question lies another rhetorical question: Why isn’t there more recognition of Asian American sound within the U.S. popular imagination?
As a broad concept, sound offers many possible avenues for conversation. Following one of our facilitators’ recent research on Asian American sound, we centered our event on sound as a way to discuss a wide range of topics relevant to Asian America. As mentioned in the introduction to this webtext, our event featured discussions of an historical and theoretical approach to Asian American sound based on a study of YouTube videos, Asian languages, and accents within the university using examples of the recent racist language policing at Duke University in which a white administrator advised Chinese international students to speak English only; Mitski and the rise of Asian women in indie rock; and Asian American appropriation of Black language in rap music. Each of these topics presented a type of sonic intervention or an intersection of sonic forces where the need for intervention was brought to the forefront. By having a conversation about current issues relevant to Asian American rhetoric and Asian American sound in particular, we interrogated the question, “What does it mean to sound Asian America?”—in all of its paradoxes, nuances, and complexities.
As shown in the wide range of topics we discussed at our event, the theme of sound is open and malleable to account for the interests of multiple people. Those interested in making a sonic intervention at their own institution might consider how sound exists—physically, aurally, conceptually—on their campus. However, we believe that any theme works best when it is important, relevant, and personally motivating and inviting for those facilitating and attending the event.
Reflections on Positionality
We consider in this section how our racialized and institutionalized identities and commitments informed the design and our approach to this event. In doing so, we disrupt whiteness and the white noise that is amplified within PWIs, as whiteness is presumed to be natural and neutral and is thus often not explicitly identified or reflected upon. Because we represented a range of experiences at the university, we also found ourselves communicating with different—yet perhaps complementary—expectations about the purpose and audience of the event, especially given the diverse backgrounds of attendees. At our event, there were some 15 attendees present, including several Asian American undergraduate students, graduate students from within—and at least one from outside of—our university, several white women faculty from the Department of English, and family members. For instance, while Jennifer discussed content from an article she had recently published, Maggie and Jon discussed questions they had pertinent to ongoing research. At the same time, Michelle was most interested in speaking to her peers about an issue that was important to her. In addition, Jon and Maggie—as the two white Americans—felt some surprise about being asked to facilitate an event on Asian American sound in the ACEC. We ended up discussing what it means to use the role of facilitator to take part in a conversation, as opposed to presenting from a unidirectional position of assumed expertise. Thus, we endeavored to break down the presenter-audience divide by speaking from a range of positions. For example, we worked to position ourselves as co-learners with and among a group of participants that consisted of undergraduate students, faculty, and a couple of graduate students. In doing so, we shared our own thoughts about our topics not as experts but as individuals interested in participating in a conversation. We believe the discussion about the roles of facilitators that we had prior to the event encouraged us to interrogate the question of who should participate in discussions about racialized sound and how they might do so.
Upon reflecting on our experiences with this event as well as its work as a sonic intervention within a PWI, we outline four practices that may be applicable for those interested in organizing similar events at their own institution:
- building on existing relationships, knowledges, and concerns to come together around a shared purpose;
- establishing sonic goals;
- using space to set the tone;
- allowing for reverberations.
Building on Existing Relationships, Knowledges, and Concerns to Come Together Around a Shared Purpose
While our event represents a meaningful sonic intervention at our university, its impact would have been lessened had we not connected with already existing Asian American communities and initiatives on our campus. In calling our event a sonic intervention, we do not suggest that it is the first of its kind at our university. Although there was limited programming for APIDAHM at our university for the 2018–2019 academic year, the previous work of the Asian American community on campus laid the foundation for our event to take place. At our event, undergraduate members of the Asian American Student Union and the Asian American Coalition comprised the majority of our audience. Our event created the space for conversation while also recognizing how much people across campus can bring to our own understandings.
Establishing Sonic Goals
A critical moment in the process of making a sonic intervention is to establish the goals of the event. The goals for our specific event emerged organically through a series of conversations about current institutional and political concerns and personal interests. Questions we considered included:
- What do we want to accomplish with this event?
- As an institutional intervention, how can the event lead to lasting, meaningful change, as opposed to being a tokenizing one-off?
- How can we deliver the event in a way that takes our various racial, institutional, and other privileges into account?
- What are our limitations for the event, whether in terms of budget, time, space, personnel, etc.?
- Are there other local individuals or organizations that might be invested in similar issues with whom we could collaborate?
- What is the context and what are the political affordances of our institution, and how might that contribute to our goals?
In answering these questions, it became clear that we weren’t just seeking to initiate or lead an event of some kind but rather to invite collaboration and participation from the attendees. Using the theme of sound as a guiding premise, we hoped to engage in a conversation that would have resonance beyond the event. We were, of course, limited by budget and time, so we adapted our goals to the material spaces and methods that were both available and cost effective.
Using Space to Set the Tone
Because we hoped to foster an intervention within the institution, we selected a place that could both serve as an anchor within the institution and as a launching point for comfortable critique of it. We selected the ACEC because it is familiar to Asian American members of the university community, the primary audience of our event, and discussion-based events had taken place at the ACEC in the past. The ACEC was an intimate space that allowed the bodies of the room to fill and circulate in the space as they felt comfortable, unlike auditoriums, which are often set up to rhetorically privilege the speakers on stage while discouraging collaborative discourse and sonic reverberations from the audience. Additionally, it was possible to rearrange the room to seat participants in a circle that would not put any one person at the head of the conversation. Moreover, holding this event in the ACEC required white facilitators and participants to go to a location on campus that they may have otherwise never visited and to experience this PWI from a perspective perhaps atypical to white Americans. The ACEC has within it material signifiers of Asian American culture: for instance, a framed image of “mahal kita” on the wall, a lion dance head, and maneki-neko decorating the space. To re-orient white people by re-situating them within spaces identified as being for folks of color (in this case, Asians on campus)—in a palpable space of both difference and familiarity, as this was nonetheless a university space—our initiative can help white folks recognize that they are walking into an ongoing conversation on campus, and be prepared to listen to unfamiliar perspectives.
In considering space, we aimed to create an immersive experience through the manipulation and use of space, visuals, and sound. Specifically we borrowed projectors, screens, and a speaker from our university’s Classroom Audio Visual Services, and we set them up around the room to create a multisensory embodied experience of Asian/American sound (see Figure 2). One screen was positioned as a kind of focal point at the front of the room, where we projected visuals in relation to the topic under discussion. A second screen was set up off to the right but toward the back corner of the room so as to limit sensory overload: This screen displayed a slideshow that was intended to communicate the range and depth of Asian/American sound as it played in the background and in-between spaces of the event, positioning it as a kind of physical and conceptual backdrop (see Figure 3). In other words, while our conversations centered on the four aforementioned topics, we also sought to communicate the idea that Asian/American sound is historically much larger and much richer than we had the time and space to address. Finally, we had planned for a third screen—the television mounted in the room positioned further off to the side—to display an audiovisualization application called Magic Music Visuals so as to further emphasize the role of sound in the event; however, we ultimately decided against it, as we felt it might be overstimulating within the relatively small space.
Many of our spatial considerations resulted in movement and multiple opportunities for interaction throughout the timespan of the event. Upon entering the space, participants encountered a large sticky note that invited them to respond to a question about Asian American sound. Another sticky note was positioned toward the back of the room so as not to crowd the entry area. In addition to enhancing the interactivity of the event and serving as places where participants could contribute to the conversation and the shape of the event, these sticky notes functioned to disrupt the spatial dynamic typical of many presentations. By posting the two large sticky notes with the question, “What is Asian American sound?” on one and “What is your favorite Asian American song?” on the other, we invited participants to offer their perspectives about a variety of sonic topics relevant to the discussion through handwritten means, positioning them as co-contributors; we planned to listen to at least one of the songs contributed by an attendee together during the last fifteen minutes of the event, which were set aside for this purpose. In addition, the sticky notes communicated to attendees that their ideas and contributions were invited and welcomed, thus hopefully setting a tone conducive to open dialogue and conversation.
Additionally, we provided food purchased from local Asian vendors with the hope that the practice of eating during the event would create a more relaxed atmosphere. As the event started and the attendees began getting food and taking their seats, we began setting up a conversation around sonic intervention. When the more formal presentations began, we placed ourselves somewhat dispersed throughout the room so as to disrupt the sense of a central focal point. Although we arranged the chairs in a series of arches to foster conversation and interaction, the environment we created became one in which presenters and participants alike moved throughout the space at various points during the event, either to get food or to get a closer look at the slideshow off to the side.
Allowing for Reverberations
Acknowledging the power of our institution, we were mindful to consider how to invite sonic reverberations from the audience, whether in the form of responding to the topics presented, re-contextualizing the topic of Asian American sound in relation to their own experiences, or bringing in their own knowledges about Asian American sound, including Asian American musical artists to the conversation. Such reverberations within the material space of an institution can only happen when representatives of the institution recognize the intellectual contributions of those who inhabit the institutional space but who may not be in positions of institutionally sanctioned authority. We prioritized facilitating an audience-centric conversation, in certain moments positioning ourselves as listeners. In such moments, students expressed, for example, frustration about the lack of courses focusing on Asian American topics at our university, functioning as a kind of reverberative moment that extended beyond the topics presented by facilitators.
Another kind of reverberation came about from talking about music and from collective listening. Toward the end of the event, we looked back at the collaborative sticky note where attendees wrote down their favorite Asian American songs, and we participated in a discussion to decide what songs we would listen to during our listening session. Then, we listened, reacted, and responded to two songs for the remainder of the event. Throughout this time, ideas and affects reverberated across all participants, including us as facilitators. Moreover, the listening session, including the reverberative process by which it was created enabled us to have more developed conversations about Asian/American sound. That is, while we had listened to Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl” during Maggie’s presentation, and while Michelle had brought up Asian American appropriation of Black language in hip-hop, by engaging in collective listening of Ruby Ibarra’s “Us,” we were able to have more nuanced, sustained, yet still unresolved conversations about hip-hop, language appropriation, and responses to oppression across subjectivities.
Listening to “Us”
In discussing our experiences of the event, we each pointed to the same moment as the most significant sonic intervention at our event. During our listening session, one of the attendees requested Ruby Ibarra’s song “Us” from our list of songs. While the song itself is important as Pinay American art created in resistance to American imperialism, here we highlight how significant it is that collaborative discussion made it more resonant. While we can imagine productive conversation about this song if a facilitator had introduced it, we felt that there was something powerful about sharing this embodied experience of the song in and through our conversation. The majority of event attendees had not previously heard this song, which made the collective moment even more powerful as we shared our immediate reactions in real-time.
Takeaways and Material Impact
The process described above provides a way for students and faculty to make a sonic intervention, where dissent and deliberation might come to the forefront of discussion in a way that privileges those who sound out for institutional change, rather than the institution that serves as the exigence and background for diversity initiatives. As students and faculty are encouraged to create and share sonic experiences, events like the one described above allow their views and understandings to reverberate together and form new resonances that can be heard throughout the institution. Several facilitators and participants said during the event that the space of the event encouraged listening in ways that actively discouraged PWI colonizing practices overriding the voices of minoritized students. Too often, events like this become a space for universities to appropriate the labor of people of color, namely women of color, working against institutional whiteness and to say, “look, we’re doing diversity, good for us,” which thus safeguards the institution from active criticism and, in turn, meaningful change. In contrast, events like this one make the intervention of university spaces the primary goal; the curated space serves to reject the appropriation of the larger university infrastructure.
Although we are unable to say with certainty what individuals in attendance took away from the event, we believe that it created a powerful if temporary space at a PWI for intercultural exchange. In addition, it positioned Asian/American sound as an important topic worthy of its own event, without centering white perspectives or prioritizing white education on Asian/American experience. The white facilitators, especially, commented on the ability of such a crafted space to break down institutionalized hierarchies and the silencing powers of the PWI that often constrain open expression of the perspectives of racialized minorities. Maggie and Jon noted how our preparation seemed to encourage more contributions from the predominantly Asian/American audience, specifically contributions that sounded out against unjust institutional practices. During the listening sessions, the white facilitators and faculty attendees commented on how their roles shifted to the background in a manner that they described as both beneficial and outside of the norm. This shift, while subtle, is responsible for opening up these new avenues of discourse.
It may seem intuitive to think about institutional change or the impact of an event like this solely in terms of what it did for participants; however, we suggest that it is important to also reflect on the impact of such an event for ourselves as facilitators, as members of the university community, and as individuals who are affiliated with the PWI. In doing so, we continue to conceptually shift assumptions of knowledge flows within institutionalized spaces, collapsing dominant knowledge structures, and recalibrating disempowering dynamics. Thus, we observe how this event enabled for us new ways of connecting with and navigating the PWI in manners that are perhaps spatially disruptive to how we might have done so otherwise. For Michelle, a sophomore at the time, it was empowering to be able to speak at a campus event about a topic personal to her. She hadn’t envisioned that her experience as an Asian American would translate to an event, in part because narratives about Asian Americans so often position us as bystanders as opposed to active participants, and as side-pieces to the “bigger story,” which is often a story that centers white Euroamerican perspectives, as opposed to having our own presence and being. As a result, it was unexpected to her that an event on a topic as seemingly niche as Asian American sound would even be possible at the university. In these ways, she felt moved and empowered to be an active participant, a position she didn’t previously think would be available to her.
After our event, Michelle became more involved in the Asian American Student Union, serving as Education Advocacy Chair in 2019–2020 and as Vice President External in 2020–2021, a position through which she will dialogue with organizations outside of the Asian American community, including the Black Student Alliance, Jewish Student Union, and Latinx Association of Student Organizations. In Spring 2020, Michelle additionally served as a panelist and speaker at several Zoom teach-ins, including one titled Anti-Asian Panic and the Pandemic: A Virtual Teach-in, and another film discussion of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite as part of APIDAHM. In these ways, her participation in the Sounding Asian America event both builds on her previous experiences with the Asian American Coalition and working on the Asian American History Exhibit at Newman Library, while also extending to other speaking roles in the university. Despite these experiences, however, Michelle finds herself still needing to work through a persistent sense of inferiority and doubt rooted in her experience as an Asian American woman in which she repeatedly finds herself positioned as part of a narrative that’s not entirely one’s own (Hoang, 2015) and that does not entirely welcome you to its fullest capacity. She still finds herself questioning whether the things she has to say about Asian American experience and issues are really important or of interest to those listening but she works through those moments, and realizes that yes, it really is that deep.
Since arriving at the university that same year, Maggie had not engaged with any of the cultural centers on campus, nor had she been in any spaces at this PWI where she, as a white PhD student and instructor, was not in the racial majority. Being present for Asian/American sounding out granted her access to perspectives that otherwise she would likely not have experienced. While the primary function of events like these should not be the education of white instructors or faculty, this type of event has the capacity to be a temporary displacement of the PWI experience for white individuals. In much the same way, Jon, through informal conversations with students at the event became aware of several digital spaces that he had previously not considered for moments of engagement. Since attending the event, he has joined the ACEC’s Facebook group, which allows him to follow their future events and find new ways of participating.
For Jennifer, this event may have opened up opportunities to connect with the larger Asian American community on campus. That same semester, Jennifer was asked to serve on the search committee for the Director of the ACEC, and in the Fall, she was invited by the new Director, Nina Ha to serve as the first ACEC Faculty Fellow, with support of the Office for Inclusion and Diversity. Through this position, which included a course buyout, she was afforded the time to attend more of the programming organized by Director Ha, and to co-facilitate with Director Ha an undergraduate research project with six Asian American students from across campus that was meant to curate and amplify the long but largely unknown history of Asians at our university. As a result, it might be said the event opened up for Jennifer, as an Asian American woman and faculty member, an avenue to contribute to the university on a structural level, as well as a greater sense of belonging on campus.
This sonic event was a powerful reminder of the work that still needs to be done to redress systemic racism against Asian Americans within PWIs. Though the future implications of the event within the larger university remain to be seen, within this institutional community, feedback was generally quite positive. This event helped to extend previous efforts to amplify minoritized voices within our PWI, and may have inspired recognizable and lasting change to auditory practices in group settings.
In highlighting the importance of sound for institutional change, we have emphasized auditory practices as means by which marginalized voices might push back against oppressive institutional forces. We believe this event speaks to possibilities for racially collaborative and coalitional work within institutionalized spaces, in the service of social change. Within other institutions, similar events may provide spaces and moments for both Asian and non-Asian collaborators alike to sound out their own needs and feelings about institutional oppression.
At the same time, we believe it is important to push the metaphor of sounding out against oppression to be more inclusive so as not to reproduce institutional exclusions. The event described here is by no means a perfect execution of a sonic intervention. For example, in putting on our event we did not fully consider or enact accessibility measures for d/Deaf and hard of hearing participants. While we did provide printed transcripts for the more lecture-based part of the presentation, we could and should have done more to purposefully center accessibility. In this webtext, we have drawn on the works of Sean Zdenek (2018) and Janine Butler (2018), which call upon us to consider how dynamic visuals and text and consideration of embodiment might make our piece more accessible. For instance, we have endeavored to present the captions alongside the audio, while also including an audiovisualizer to provide a sense of embodied voice and the dynamics of speech. Based on our reflections of the event, we have identified the following practices as critical, while maybe not comprehensive, steps for future interventions:
- Have a conversation during the planning stage of the event about accessibility and different ways of hearing among facilitators as well as potential participants.
- Include as part of the discussion some prompts or points about different ways of listening and its relationship with Asian American sound.
- Ensure all videos are equipped with conventional, enhanced, or embodied captions.
- Include speech to text transcriptions for individual presentations.
- Be conscientious about how promotional materials such as flyers may include or appear to exclude d/Deaf or hard of hearing participants. For instance, when advertising the event, one might include a question about how d/Deaf or hard of hearing individuals experience (Asian American) sound.
- Provide printed handouts of all text, including large print copies.
- Consult directly with the disability office on campus, or with any relevant student groups.
Our reflections on this event affirm the value of these measures in all spaces, but these recommendations should be considered a starting point to a more accessible approach rather than a checklist or finishing point. Indeed, if we are committed to facilitating sonic interventions, normalizing accessibility measures and continuing to reimagine accessible design, including nonlinguistic forms, are essential to what we have described as meaningful change.
Sonic interventions create rupture. By amplifying systemically silenced soundings, this type of event is an act of space (re)making. Further, sound functioned as resistance as it “[amplified] the silences” that PWIs often push onto students and faculty of color (Wargo, 2018). While resistance against institutional injustice is greater work than an isolated event can perform, these sonic interventions create resonances within the institution that aid the work of resistance going forward. Individual reverberations, like the ones we felt as facilitators and participants, continue to sound and circulate throughout institutions as individuals move through those institutions in their various roles and positionalities. It is our hope that this webtext will speak to readers/listeners interested in creating spaces for sonic interventions within their own institutions, as an example of extracurricular “soundwriting” pedagogy (Danforth, Stedman, & Faris, 2018).
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“Highlander” by The Wonderfeel is licensed under CC BY-NC
1. The Cultural and Community Centers is a unit housed under Student Affairs, and its mission is to “support underrepresented and underserved students through education, advocacy, advising and leadership development.”
2. Tricia Rose (1994) explained, “Slave dances, blues lyrics, Mardi Gras parades, Jamaican patois, toasts, and signifying all carry the pleasure and ingenuity of disguised criticism of the powerful” (p. 99). In other words, “Rap’s contestations are part of a polyvocal black cultural discourse engaged in discursive ‘wars of position’ within and against dominant discourses” (p. 102).
Prompts for Post-Event Reflection