Thoughts on Theses: Phillip Pang
Issue   |   Wed, 10/05/2016 - 00:37

Phillip Pang ’17 is a Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought major. His thesis explores the shaping of Asian-American identity through language and the power of language to alter the concept of self in society. His advisor is Professor Martha Umphrey.

Q: Can you give me an overview of your thesis?
A: I am studying the development of Asian-American identity through periods of civil unrest in the 1970s, 1990s and the 21st century, but the majority of my work will hinge on language. How do we identify and recognize ourselves and others through language, and where in hate speech and denigrating language is the power to harm? What changes do we make or attempt to make in language through social movement? For example, what meaning is there in the adoption of the term “Asian-American” as self-referential, or the erasure of the term “Oriental” from government language? There is a power in language to build and to shatter worlds, and I want to explore that as much as I can.

Q: Why did you choose this topic?
A: There are a lot of things that led me to this moment, but the largest was researching affirmative action last fall at around the same time that the Amherst Uprising happened. I had already begun to see that Asian-American positions on affirmative action are quite fragmented despite referencing the same history of deep marginalization in the United States, and when Uprising happened, there was this surreal moment of realizing that none of the voices around me were coming from people who looked like me or shared similar experiences to my own. I realized that as the son of immigrant parents, I am very disconnected from Asian-American history, yet I have to face its legacy every day, and that automatically sets me on the back foot when speaking about race and identity. This thesis is an attempt to understand myself, in a lot of ways — how I have been built up, almost without knowing it, through the law and language and culture of this country.

Q: Why did you choose to study these specific time-periods?
A: Well, these are really specific times in Asian-American history with regards to language. The 1970s really brought along the phrase “model minority” and “Asian-American.” But in general, the ’70s were a time fraught with protest and civil unrest, particularly anti-war movements against the war in Vietnam, which really sparked a wave of Asian-Americans entering political dialogue for the first time. I chose the 1990s next because that’s when critical race theory became mainstream. So a lot of good texts that I’m using on this subject were written in the ’90s. It really marked a major time when hate speech on campuses was analyzed — particularly because college campuses were becoming much more diverse at that time. As for the 21st century, I’ve just really been inspired by the student movements happening on college campuses around the country. Like I said, my interest in this subject was really sparked by Amherst Uprising here on campus, so I really want to understand this 21st century moment of civil unrest and its attempt to lament tragedy.

Q: How do you think Asian-Americans internalized, through language, a sense of being the “model minority?” How did this type of language change how Asian-Americans viewed themselves?
A: In some ways, I believe we latch onto it. Asian culture tends to value an “If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything” type of attitude, and this seems to be quite similar to commonplace American cultural values. So Asian-Americans really attached themselves to this sense of “model minority” in hopes of assimilating into the general society. However, there is this disconnect because harmful language such as “Jap” or “chink” were used to create this sense of non-belonging in the Asian-American [community] that really forced them to try to legitimize their very existence. If someone calls me an “Oriental,” I have to work to justify myself and prove my existence as an American, or even a person, before the dialogue can continue.

Q: How do you compare language used against Asian-Americans to the language used against other minorities?
A: In many ways, it is the same. It always references a sense of non-belonging — of not being American or American enough. If I’m told over and over again that I don’t belong here, I’m going to start believing it. To a large extent, Asian-Americans, like many other minorities, are also pressured to act in certain ways. For Asian-Americans, the concept of “model minority” is one we joke around with playfully within Asian-American communities, but this language undoubtedly has placed greater pressures to work harder and to be “models.” In many ways, it’s hard to separate words from actions — they are very intertwined. And this unfortunately is a reality for minorities of all kinds.

Q: How does your own identity as an Asian-American inform or direct your research?
A: For Asian-Americans, we occupy now this in-between space, where we’re not really part of the norm but we’re not truly part of the marginalized groups in many respects either. It’s a confusing place to be, and I understand in certain respects what that means. Being Asian-American basically helps inform my research because anything that I personally have questions about through my own experiences, I can use that as a starting point for my research.

Q: How has your relationship with your advisor developed throughout your thesis?
A: Professor Umphrey is in large part the reason I became an LJST major. For me, it means a lot, and I’m really grateful for the fact that Professor Umphrey is really open. She’ll take my thoughts and walk me through more theoretical understandings, but at the same time point me back towards other sources. For me, I have this vast source of knowledge at my disposal, which is really great to have. But more than that, she’s the type of professor who, if you’re writing a thesis with [her], makes you feel as if you can actually accomplish what you’re trying to do. In a lot of ways, she lets me take my ideas in whatever direction I want and makes me explore that to its limits — and it’s been really reassuring, seeing another person have that type of confidence in you.

Q: What advice do you have to those considering writing a thesis?
A: I’d say to them that don’t think at all about writing a thesis just to write a thesis. You’re going to get burned out. It’s really hard to fill out a hundred-plus pages on something that you’re not particularly interested in. You shouldn’t do it to graduate with honors or to have something on your résumé. Those aren’t good reasons to write a thesis. If you find something that you’re really passionate about — something that makes you want to go to the library to read up on it, that makes you want to talk to people about it, the kind of subject that keeps you up at night — if you find that, then you have a thesis.