Diverse Voices

Tihda Vongkoth on Anti-Asian Hate, the Music World and the Risk of Speaking Out

'It is possible to be your authentic self, pursue the music that you really believe in and be anti-racist.'

By Cooper Levey-Baker May 25, 2021

This article is part of the series Listening to Diverse Voices, proudly presented by Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Tihda Vongkoth.

"Too many Asian Americans have been waking up each morning this past year genuinely, genuinely fearing for their safety," President Joe Biden said last week, as he signed into law a new measure intended to help law enforcement agencies combat a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes that has occurred in the past year, coinciding with the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, for example, found that while the number of overall hate crimes declined by 6 percent between 2019 and 2020, the number of anti-Asian hate crimes rose by 145 percent during the same period. Between March 2020 and March 2021, the Stop AAPI Hate coalition recorded 6,603 hate incidents, ranging from verbal harassment to physical assault, directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

The daughter of refugees from Laos, Sarasota's Tihda Vongkoth is a professional percussionist and the founder of Modern Marimba, a nonprofit that presents concerts, lectures and exhibitions with the explicit goal of combatting racism and other forms of discrimination. Vongkoth, 34, describes herself as "an abled-bodied cis Lao American woman occupying Calusa territory" who has "deep respect for the land, the Indigenous peoples who stewarded this area before colonization, and the generations of Black ancestors from the African diaspora."

She spoke with Sarasota Magazine about growing up Asian American in Largo, Florida, what it's like to be one of only a few non-white people in an orchestra, and why she has become more outspoken about race in recent years. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was it like growing up in Largo?

"I was surrounded by a lot of white families and my peers were mostly white. I was usually one of the only few Asians in my community. But I also went to predominantly Black schools, because my brother and I were in a gifted program. I ended up sharing spaces with different cultures, but it was all very segregated and weird.

"In elementary school, I was living in a predominantly white neighborhood going into mixed-race schools. In middle school, I was still living in a predominantly white neighborhood but going to a predominantly white school. And in high school, because of the arts, I was living in a predominantly white neighborhood going into an arts school, Gibbs High School in St. Pete, which is historically Black.

"[In the predominantly white schools I went to] people of color tried so hard to assimilate that we didn't group together. That was my experience. Most of my friends were white. But in high school, there were all kinds of people—Latin people, lots of Black people, more Asian people, Tongan people—and we all hung out. It was more integrated and it was so cool."

When did you first become aware of race?

"I knew that I was different, obviously, so it's something I've always known, but it didn't occur to me that it was a problem until I started experiencing people calling me ethnic slurs. That happened in elementary school—not with other kids, but with the white parents in my neighborhood.

"For a lot of my childhood and my adulthood, I was totally unequipped to respond, but I knew that it made me uncomfortable. I didn't know how to talk about it. I didn't understand, because I grew up in the States. I didn't understand my own personal identity and the history of Laotian people. It was very confusing."

Did you bring those incidents up with your parents?

"It was not something that was talked about during my upbringing and childhood. My mom and my dad really wanted both my brother and I to assimilate as best as we could. It was kind of like, 'Just ignore them.'"

When did you begin playing music?

"That came in middle school. As I got older, my parents didn't want me to keep hanging out with the group of people we were living near, because it was a low-income area. I stopped hanging out with the kids in the neighborhood and really focused on school. Practicing music and performing music became a way for me to connect with people, like ensembles, and have a social life, but it was more structured. It was a way for me to deal with a lot of the weirdness and being isolated at home."

Why did you gravitate toward the marimba?

"It's fun. It sounds cool. And it requires different skills. I was not into the whole marching band thing, and marimba was a way for me to get out of marching band and focus on solo and chamber music. It was a way for percussionists to learn how to read treble clef and bass clef and learn about harmony. It's more inclusive."

You studied music at Interlochen Arts Academy, Southern Methodist University and Temple University. What was music school like?

"[Interlochen] was kind of diverse. I started seeing the inklings of, 'Oh, this is a rich white kid pursuit.' And I was all about that, because I thought that was the best thing that you could be. I started feeling isolated the further I got into music but, obviously, that didn't stop me.

"The status quo of audition lists is predominantly dead white cis men, European men. [People would tell you,] 'Well, this is standard. You should learn that solo.' Or, 'You need to focus on this, because that's how you get a job.' You don't see yourself in that at all.

"That was a macro-aggression. Micro-aggressions were people making comments, assuming that I wasn't good at what I do or that I got in because I was a scholarship student.

"Automatically, the vibe of the group changes [when I'm there]. It's not as fun when I'm in the section. With some of my colleagues, who I love dearly and have always felt open with, it's not always like that. But there is a cultural thing where I'm consciously having to police what I say and do in front of certain groups of people that may not be accepting of my race or gender."

Can you give me an example?

"With musicians, part of the gig and playing and performing is also the hang, right? But when the hang is at a dive bar that's full of white people and could be shady, and I'm the only person of color and a woman in those spaces, I really honestly do not feel safe. So I tend to not go. But when I'm in those spaces, [other people] are like, 'Oh, now we can't say this. We can't objectify women in front of Tihda. We can't make fun of Black people in front of Tihda.' You can tell that the other people are uncomfortable with my being there, because they can't say all those really awful things that I know they're talking about behind my back.

"Safe spaces in college weren't created for me. I sublet an apartment from my friends, off campus, at Southern Methodist University, and I was sleeping in the middle of the night, and the police entered my apartment. I did not open the door. I don't know how they got in. They must have had a key or something. It wasn't forced entry.

"They came in and woke me up and searched my apartment. They asked me for my ID, my student ID and my passport. They wanted to make sure I was who I said I was, in the middle of the night, and it was super scary.

"The next day, I went back to school. It was really traumatic, but I didn't have the resources to be able to talk to anyone that I could trust about it, or work through it. I didn't even know to report it or what I was supposed to do afterwards, other than move on."

Did the police ever give you any kind of explanation or rationale?

"No. And I wasn't going to ask. In that situation, I'm only going to do what they ask me to do, because otherwise I could die, go to jail, get hurt. I just complied with them."

What brought you to Sarasota?

"I moved here after I graduated. I didn't have a place to stay. My friends at the time were like, 'Hey, we're going on the road for a year. You can stay here for free and figure it out.'

"And then I started getting work. I definitely had to break in, but my pedigree, coming from certain schools or certain teachers, opened the door in some ways. I used that to my advantage and tried to work as much as possible. Over time, it became clear that it wasn't a welcoming culture. I am still being hired in predominantly white spaces. But are those spaces safe and welcoming for people of color? I would say no."

Why not?

"Because of the toxicity of the structures of orchestras and the power imbalances that happen when you have an orchestra that has several hierarchies of musicians, identity and management. I think the hierarchical model of orchestras is inherently violent. The status quo of style and approach to playing certain music and the elitism of pedigree—that's just not safe.

"And the systems that are available to people of color are not safe. When [human resources] departments decide to investigate somebody, they sometimes involve an employment lawyer, and exposing people of color to the legal systems in the United States, and using that as a threatening thing is not a way to resolve problems. I'm learning, because of my work with Modern Marimba, that using the models of transformative and restorative justice that come from Indigenous roots and are led by a lot of women of color and Black women are better ways of approaching the issues."

Is it risky to speak out?

"[People will find] reasons to not hire you because you are rocking the boat and you're raising important questions about how we are in community with each other, and the lack of accountability when people make mistakes. People are always going to side with the white man and what he thinks about what happened. And that's hard when you're entering spaces that were not created for you and based on old models of colonialism. So it's like, 'Why am I posting something? I literally need money.' I have to navigate this in a way that's going to preserve my sanity and my mental health.

"I'm very active on social media and my friendships with people and my professional relationships have definitely changed. I have been paying the consequences for speaking out. [I get a lot] of emails and messages from white people who just need to see themselves and see the violence that they participate in with their silence. [People say,] 'I've done this for you. I hired you. And now this is what you say about me. You're just doing this to make me look bad.' There's just a lot of fragility, and people [are] not able to acknowledge the truth about themselves."

What made you decide to begin speaking up?

"I started Modern Marimba before the pandemic and before the [George Floyd] protests, just before everything blew up, because I finally was like, 'I need to have an outlet for me to do my own thing.' But I embraced opening up a side of me that that people have probably not seen, ever, because of the protests. Unlocking and unpacking and understanding liberation and speaking up for all people and knowing my silence and complicity with a lot of these music organizations and in general—it's no longer an option."

Hate crimes against Asians have risen since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Have you experience more overt racism in the past year?

"I've stayed home and I've been really careful, so I wasn't exposed to it in public. But my hairdresser is Korean, and I noticed before we started that she locked the door. And it's like, 'Oh yeah, that's what we have to do now.' I'm just being careful as I'm going out. I know that [hate crimes] have happened in other places in the U.S. more than here. There's no outward aggression. But when I make statements about anti-Asian hate on Facebook and in the marimba circles, I definitely get a lot of hate DMs."

How can arts organizations and companies avoid tokenism?

"It's such a big issue. I think having people of color have agency and autonomy in how resources are controlled—resources being money, space, all that—is really important. Just literally putting resources in the hands of people of color without all these conditions is important. It's all about power and hierarchy—dismantling the hierarchies that you have in your workplace.

"I would love to see lists of all the ways that institutions have been limiting to people of color and make it a public thing: 'This is what we've done. These have been our donors. This is what they've represented. We have this money because of this.' It needs to be explicit—like a truth and reconciliation commission. We really need that.

"You can't do that through the legal system. You can't do that by inviting people in the community to speak up. You have to do that with action. You have to actually say the things that happened, because it's an ugly truth. And the system of how to do that is transformative justice, restorative justice. The processes of those are not rooted in the systems that we have today—the systems of hierarchy, the systems of capitalism. You have to actually do it in a different way. And the only people qualified to lead that are people of color who understand.

"It's changing how we interact with each other—our kinship. And people are just not ready for that. But that is the work, and it's dangerous work."

Can you tell me more about Modern Marimba?

"We are trying to create a safe space, and we're giving ourselves five years to do that, or else we will dismantle. Basically, we want our resources—and especially money—to be circling within the community. That affects the kinds of partnerships that we form and it puts pressure on our community to move forward with a lot of these things.

"[During] the pandemic, we did a lot of commissioning new music by composers of color to be added to the Florida Bandmasters' solo and ensemble list so students will have an opportunity to pick solos that represent them, that they can see themselves in.

"The pandemic helped us out a lot, because we were able to livestream performances, do a lot of panels and be an organization that is not afraid to talk about these issues openly. We had a series called Marimba Monday. We would interview artists around the world who are committed to mallet keyboard instruments and interview them and give them a platform to talk about their work.

"We hosted a virtual summer music festival and had a lot of diverse faculty, and we had an end-of-the-week concert that was opened up to the public on Facebook. We did an abolition and percussion panel. We did an Earth Day concert and we openly talked about the issue of Honduran Rosewood being used for instruments and the trajectory of that. We talked a lot about equity in queer culture and having people be authentically themselves and work with us.

"We also did two concerts at the Newtown Farmer's Market and we were able to perform the works we commissioned throughout the year. We're really putting Sarasota on the map for new music, for people who are doing this work."

Any final thoughts?

"I do want to say that I know music educators have had a really tough year, and musicians have had a tough, tough year, and that you don't have to sacrifice your values to be able to make money. It is possible to be your authentic self and pursue the music that you really believe in and be anti-racist.

"I hope that any musician or any person can come to our website and look at the resources for music educators and look at our resources on anti-racism, and use that as a starting point, or even just a check-in to see where people are on their journey in trying to make this world a better place, because it actually really is possible.

"Rocking the boat can be a wake-up call, and people may take it as, 'Oh, cool. I want to work with that person because they actually stand up for what they believe in.'"

For more info about Modern Marimba, visit the organization's website.

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