By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Biden-Harris administration, in a festive ceremony, celebrated the closing of the first-ever Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month. A panel that was part of the event advised young people to seek to develop their voices.
The hybrid event, held at the Department of the Interior on May 26, was hosted by the White House Office of Public Engagement and the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (WHIAANHPI), in collaboration with the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
It celebrated the passage of an anti-hate crime bill in Congress, along with bills to create a national museum for AAPI history and culture and to enhance education about AAPI history, as well as the appointment of AANHPI officials by the Biden administration.
Speakers included Ambassador Katherine Tai, the first AAPI U.S. trade representative, Sen. Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii, and Rep. Judy Chu of California, the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
President Biden and Vice President Harris appeared in a video address at a ceremony praising the late transportation secretary, Norman Mineta.
The theme of the celebration, according to host, Howard Ou, associate director of White House Office of Public Engagement, was “building legacy together.”
A panel of high-level officials seemed to stress that the way for AANHPI youngsters to succeed was to find their voices as a way out of introversion.
Nani Coloretti, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, said her grandfather had organized unions in Hawaii after emigrating from the Philippines. She said young people needed to learn to be curious, for instance about the people they were working with.
The deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, John Tien, said his father, an immigrant from Nationalist China, had asked him about his future while the two were lifting weights.
“He was a college football player, and I was a high school football player. He had a barbell over my neck, and he said, ‘What do you think of going to college?’” said Tien, who later went to West Point at his father’s recommendations.
But he said his decision to go was all about service.
“I did go to West Point out of an obligation to the nation, an obligation to the country that really put our family into the United States of America that made me an American,” he said.
When asked about advice for young people, he said there was an “unconscious bias applied to introverts.”
But, he added, the most important thing is to “show up.”
Another panelist, Gautam Raghavan, assistant to the president and director of the Office of Presidential Personnel, said he had come out as gay in 2003 in the midst of a national debate on same-sex marriage.
“For me, coming out, I would like to say it was my first political act,” he said.
He gave a slightly different note, saying that young people mainly needed to put their heads down and do good work.
The final panelist, Rohini Kosoglu, domestic policy advisor to the vice president, said that young people needed to find their voices even when confronted with discrimination that might seem trivial.
“For those of you that have been in classrooms or you get nervous like they are about to say my name, and I know the teacher does not know how to say it, and you are holding your breath, I think all of those things lead you—led me to this public service piece,” she said.
While diversity was a major theme of the Biden campaign, critics say the administration fares poorly compared to earlier administrations in its commitment to elevating AAPI appointees to the highest levels.
Though Tai holds a Cabinet-level position, the Biden administration is the first in 20 years without an AAPI cabinet secretary.
As if aware of such criticism, Raghavan said that 15% of overall appointees in the Biden administration were AAPI.
Thai said she had traveled around the country listening to concerns of the community.
“While these discussions involve trade policy, we find ourselves talking about our shared priorities and challenges. I worked to incorporate this into the work and make sure these perspectives are reflected in the policies we develop together,” she said.
Krystal Ka’ai, executive director of the WHIAANHPI, which was formed by an executive order in May 2021, mentioned a project to disaggregate federal data to more precisely understand the needs of the AANHPI community.
“We have been working hard to address long-standing issues that have long plagued our communities, including the need for greater data—we are rebuilding trust in the communities and between the federal government through our outreach and engagement,” she said.
Still, conspicuous progress had perhaps come even more from Congress. Hirono introduced the anti-hate bill that Biden signed in May of last year. The legislation directs the Department of Justice to designate one person to make it easier for non-English speakers to report hate crimes.
Hirono said the next steps, however, were enshrined in other bills—one to build a new museum for AAPI history and culture, and another to ensure that forgotten parts of history, such as the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WWII, were more widely known.
The celebration was interspersed with music and fashion exhibitions that showed the diversity of cultures that constitute the AANHPI community.
However, perhaps because of the attempt to encompass as many different cultures as possible, and fit them in alongside multiple speakers, two panels, and numerous video presentations, the exhibitions at times seemed slightly rushed.
A dancer wearing a traditional Korean outfit, struggled to remove her hat as part of a performance, before twirling it as she spun.
A Chinese woman modeling a qipao trod on the train of a woman in front of her.
Panelists, as well, seemed to become suddenly aware they were running out of time.
“I just saw I’m at the two-minute mark,” said Coloretti.
Kosoglu, following her, said she was aware she had one minute left to conclude.
Still, the organizers were faced at the last minute with figuring out how to effectively honor the dead students and teachers in the most recent school shooting as part of the ceremony.
Ou, in fact, began the ceremony by repeating several recent statements by Biden about the massacre.
Although the heritage month was established in 1977, this was the first time it had formally included native Hawaiians.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.