Community psychologist, decided feminist, and childhood refugee Dr. Nghi Thai arrived at Central Connecticut State University after earning her MA and PhD in Community and Cultural Psychology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Consultation Center at Yale University. She teaches graduate courses in community psych for the Department of Psychological Science’s master’s program, as well as an undergraduate course in interpersonal relations and a lecture series called Reducing Bias and Engaging in Difficult Conversations for the Continuing Education program.
We sent staff writer Joanna Heath to chat with Thai about social progress, refugees and immigrants in America, and the fact that not all Asian people speak Chinese.
“I’ve been reading Dr. Thai’s CV and some of her published work,” said Heath, “articles like Substance Use Among Asian American Adolescents: Influence of Race, Ethnicity, and Acculturation in the Context of Key Risk and Protective Factors, and I’m half-expecting a caricature of who she is—the consummate academic. On the morning that we are scheduled to meet, I find a petite and stylish woman with modish fringe bangs tucked away on the second floor of the historic and baronial Marcus White building, in a neatly-organized office full of awards and community engagement pamphlets. There is a Black Lives Matter foam-board propped up on a corner bookcase. She stands to greet me and waves me toward a table and chairs.”
Against the backdrop of the current social and political climate in our country, I think it’s a good time to be speaking to a community psychologist. It seemed maybe five to ten years ago that we were zooming forward, toward more equality and more acceptance of people. The last year or two, there’s been such a backslide.
The course that I teach—Psychology 430, Interpersonal Relations—is about the processes for bias, prejudice, discrimination. And I have to tell you, that class brings me so much joy and at the same time, so much pain. Because I hear what people are talking about, and there’s not a lot of hope out there right now. And that’s been happening since the election. The hope that there is more equality and equity and diversity and inclusion has plummeted and it pains me a great deal, actually. It’s been on my mind so much these last couple of weeks.
Since the election, people are becoming more comfortable and bold – almost aggressively so – in their prejudices.
We’re very pragmatic about the way we approach things, and it can seem hopeless. But historically we bounce back. We’re always moving toward progress, and sometimes it seems really slow and there are all these obstacles and blips in the road. But my hope is, talking about these issues in classes, doing the workshops, is that we are moving in the right direction, even at a time where it seems so conservative, so pessimistic, is that there’s hope there. And part of that is through education. But it’s hard. The things people are going through, it pains me a lot. It makes me emotional.
From a community psychology perspective, can we be optimistic? Do these things reverse themselves?
Community Psychology is about time periods, right? So, progressive and conservative. Not necessarily in relation to political parties, but more so, what is the approach of the particular time? And it seems like we are going through a very conservative time period, because a lot of those programs and services that we would call “helping services” are being cut, and it seems that the people who would be the most impacted—refugees and immigrants, perhaps people of color, high-risk groups—are at the center. We talk about closing that equity gap, helping the people that need it the most, but it seems like instead we’re making the gap bigger right now.
I graduated with my PhD ten years ago, and when I came out of graduate school I felt the same way. I was so optimistic: I’m going to get a job, I’m going to do things that I love, I’m going to work in the community… but ever since then it’s all just changed so much. The economic recession happened, and then since the election it’s been particularly different. I would hope the mood will change. But on the other hand, there are some positive aspects. The thing with community organizing is that people are more passionate because there are so many things coming out, like Charlottesville, white supremacy, all of the backlash against Muslim people in America—which is ridiculous, right? They’re 1 percent of our population; they’re tiny. So I encourage students to do community work. It’s meaningful, it’s impactful, and we need it if we are actually going to work on and try to solve our issues. So, I wouldn’t want you to get disheartened in terms of that. There’s still so much work to do, and we’re not going to get anywhere unless we put in time to do the work.
“We’re very pragmatic about the way we approach things, and it can seem hopeless. But historically we bounce back.”
We have this driving issue right now with refugees. Your parents were refugees.
No, I was a refugee. Myself.
How do you feel about all of this rhetoric and debate surrounding refugee policy?
My family came to the U.S. as refugees from Vietnam. We came in the 1980’s, and it’s interesting because I never shared this story with people until just a couple years ago when all the Syrian refugee issues came out. I started to realize that I needed to share this story so that people have a face to put to it and they can understand that refugees aren’t these criminals or terrorists or whatever these misconceptions are that people have. I wanted people to understand that refugees are here to have a better life. You are escaping persecution or a very terrible government where you lived or whatever, right, and these are the reasons why refugees are coming here. So when I think about everything going on it just seems…it’s so ridiculous. All these fears are unfounded. We already know that the process to get in as a refugee is so difficult.
That the vetting is…what’s the word for it? Extreme?
Yes, the vetting, and even once you come here—to become a naturalized citizen, there’s a certain time period that’s required. You’re tested. When I was younger I would help my parents using a typewriter. We had a typewriter and I would work on their applications with this typewriter, over and over and over. I would help my Mom study for the citizenship test. English is their second language. There are people now who have been in the U.S. for twenty or so years, and they’re still working to get their naturalized citizenship. So it’s not this easy process to come to the United States.
And people think it is.
Right. It’s hard. And I don’t know where it comes from. Part of it is just ignorance, lack of education. This image, you know, of immigrants and refugees taking away your jobs. Immigrants and refugees bring so much to the United States in terms of skills. We already know from history that people have always come to the United States, all throughout history, demand and supply. There’s so much we can learn from history, but sometimes I feel like we don’t truly learn those lessons.
History repeats itself.
It started with the Chinese, when they came over as transcontinental railroad workers and we excluded them, we said they were bad. We made them carry IDs around all the time, and they had to experience that. So all throughout history it’s just been different groups that have been marginalized and pushed out, and then we put these policies into place because we have this fear of bringing down the wages or whatever it is. So it’s just a continual process.
The president said recently that, in terms of immigration, that those who already spoke English would be given priority. You mentioned your parents had to learn English. And we hear people agreeing with this administration, saying, yeah, immigrants should know English. And maybe this is a stereotype—albeit a positive one—but it always seems like those who choose to come to this country and come here on these programs tend to be the ones that do work exceptionally hard to learn, or are more motivated to succeed. I feel like so many of them do go on to be exceptionally well-educated, and that not only doesn’t fit these images some Americans have of refugees and immigrants. It seems like we are moving more and more toward this hardline nationalism, to exclude.
So how can we change people’s perspectives? Right. That’s a hard question. Because it’s not reality. And like you said, most people that come over had none of these opportunities in their country, and they want to learn, they want to get a job, they want to maintain their job. And so I don’t know where…or why people have that misconception.
So what can we do to change those misconceptions?
More exposure. More exposure to these communities. Because unfortunately as much as we say that we don’t, we tend to be friends with and we live with people who are very similar to us. There’s a lack of exposure. There’s confusion, for example, as to the difference of what Islam is and what a Muslim is; you know, one is a religion, one is the follower of a religion. And in community psychology, it becomes a question of who isn’t getting this? Is it certain groups of people? Do people in the cities understand it better? Is there a problem in rural areas where people aren’t exposed as much? So that gets to be another complication—how do we get that information out?
“If you’re human and if you have a brain, you’re going to have a bias.”
You have spoken about confronting bias and having difficult conversations.
I tell people about being a refugee because it’s only when we talk about this stuff that people begin to think critically about it and perhaps get a different image. Because if somebody talks to me on the phone, I don’t have an accent—well, some people say I have a Nebraska accent, but I don’t know what that is exactly! But, you know, different things. I look a certain way. My name is not an American name. I don’t have an accent per se, but there are other things that interact with that biases that people have, and we have to talk about these things. It’s so important.
Something happened to me a couple weeks ago, I was in a Walgreen’s and a man came up to me and said “Ni-hau.” You know, “hello” in Chinese. It was the end of the day, I was already very tired, and I’m tired of people thinking all Asian people are the same and that we’re all Chinese and that I understand this language. There have been times in the past where I’ve just smiled, and walked away, but more and more we need to speak up and speak out. I just said to him, “You know what, that’s not appropriate. You shouldn’t just go around making those comments.” And so I talked to him. So it’s really just about getting people to think. But it’s hard because it is so ingrained. Kids get those messages so early, and there’s so many early consequences already. They’re doing studies that are showing that very small kids already view women as less competent than men, with the subtext of “girls aren’t as smart as boys.” Those things are coming so early. It’s amazing.
The more and more that I read and I learn, I see that you have to actively teach people not to be racist. You can’t just assume that because they don’t have those thoughts or don’t have those experiences that they’re just going to go about life and not be this way. You have to teach people and have these conversations. And it happens in some families more than others but it’s just part of our human nature that we like to categorize and we have biases. If you’re human and if you have a brain, you’re going to have a bias.
And there’s this certain misconception that we should “be colorblind.”
Oh right! Yes, “I don’t care if you’re purple, blue or orange!” Yes! That’s impossible. How can you be colorblind unless you truly are, you know, colorblind. I actively teach why the colorblind approach is not the way to go. Because when you see me, you see my color. Like if you can’t tell I’m Asian [laughing], then I don’t know, something is going on with you!
And the thing is, people think that difference equals something bad, and that’s not true. And so when people are saying I am colorblind, it just goes against rationale. Of course you see who the other person is, but it’s about acknowledging the other person is unique and has a unique history, and difference is not a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with being of a different race or ethnicity, as long as you acknowledge that people are unique in that way. The colorblindness thing makes no sense at all.
So how did you end up in Connecticut? I know you were kind of all over while pursuing your degrees—in Nebraska, in Hawaii. And then Yale.
So I initially started as an adjunct at Central. I think it was the department chair at the time asked me if I would be interested in teaching the diversity course—Intergroup Relations. I knew about the community psych program here, which is not common. There aren’t a lot of community psych programs in the country. I loved the students, loved the nature of the class. It’s really the types of courses I’m passionate about. I don’t mean to be corny—and people, they tend to do, like, the eyebrow when I say this—but for me it truly is the best job I ever had.
No eyebrow from me.
It may sound corny but it truly is a feeling of happiness. The fact that I can do things that I think are meaningful and impactful on different levels, it really makes a difference for me. We all want to feel like we’re doing something meaningful. This is not what I imagined for myself at all.
So you didn’t have a blueprint for your life, where you said this is what you want to do. It’s just evolved?
Everything for me has evolved. From undergrad to taking a year and a half off, to going to grad school in Hawaii, to what I do now. I wasn’t that person with a blueprint or a map, or I had to do a certain thing by a certain age within a certain time. It was all figuring out what was I interested in and what did I enjoy and where did I want to make the most impact. And that’s the other thing—I feel like working with these kind of students in this kind of environment, you can make a difference. Whether it’s in your classroom, or mentoring and advising, or supervising the internships. There hasn’t been any kind of map at all. And I know some people have that, and it’s this is what I’m going to do, and yeah, it just sort of never happened for me that way. I don’t know why. It’s just the way it is.
What do you feel is on the horizon?
I hope to continue my work with my partners in New Britain—that’s something that really means a lot to me. And to continue to teach, prejudice, discrimination, bias—I mean, that’s my way of doing social action. Continuing to do that kind of work. So whether that’s with my students, or with broader audiences, wherever that may be, I feel like that’s my way to contribute. We should be lifelong learners. We can always be learning about these topics. We’re going to evolve in different ways.
End with one thing you can tell me as a community psychologist, with regard to this situation we find ourselves in?
Like I said, there’s got to be hope.
I have worked with Dr. Thai and I am just thrilled to find out more about her personal backstory. And hurrah for Blue Museum to really let Joanna Heath run at length with this weighty Q&A. I loved the example of the man saying hello in Chinese and Dr. Thai’s response to that. Thanks so much for this terrific piece!