Asian American producer, actor and civil servant Kal Penn spoke about the empowerment of all students to openly connect and discuss their own ethnic and cultural identity in Bovard Auditorium Monday.
Penn was the keynote speaker at the Asian Pacific American Student Assembly’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Festival. Each year, APASA and its member organizations celebrate their culture with other students and to promote Asian Pacific American awareness as a whole on campus.
Penn, known for starring as Kumar Patel in the Harold & Kumar movies and as Dr. Lawrence Kutner on the TV show House, served as an associate director and liaison for Asian American and Pacific Islander policy in the White House Office of Public Engagement between 2009 and 2011, with a break in 2010 to film A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. He also served as a co-chair for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
Penn said while media is beginning to incorporate a more diversified outlook, the stereotypical cultures shown on everyday television shows still contrast what people see, observe and experience in their daily lives.
“There are still some pretty big sociological differences between what we see in the media and what we see in real life,” Penn said. “The rest of America doesn’t look like what happens when you turn on the TV.”
Though critical of it, Penn acknowledged that the media is slowly evolving to portray diversity in its true forms and dimensions.
“If you look at representation and diversity in the media, you’ll notice that, generally speaking, there aren’t a whole lot of characters who look like me,” Penn said. “Historically speaking, it’s been a lack of willingness by big media companies to produce and cast things in a color-blind manner but, recently, the trend has been rapidly changing in the last five to ten years.”
As an Asian American and Pacific Islander liaison for the White House, Penn said his job was no different than what million of people do everyday.
“It’s not that much different than what a lot of you guys are doing,” Penn said. “Your fraternities and sororities that tutor once a week, or ethnic organizations that organize food drives — all of that was no different than my job of getting every federal agency that had had a program related to the Asian American or Pacific Islander community to regularly meet with a commission from the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.”
Andrew Dippel, a senior majoring in business administration, said he enjoyed hearing Penn speak because of Penn’s experience as a public servant.
“You hear a lot about the Asian Pacific community, but you don’t really hear too many people that have direct experience working to benefit the community.” Dippel said. “It was refreshing to hear someone who has dealt with the issue personally.”
Ke-Lwun Yee, a sophomore majoring in neuroscience, said Penn’s story was inspiring and that, though progress needed to be made, it was refreshing to hear Penn deliver the message.
“[Asian Americans] aren’t really portrayed in the media that often,” Yee said. “So it’s nice to know that there’s someone on the other side that’s willing to come talk to students about his successful journey as an Asian-American figure in the entertainment industry.”