Community has always been CAIS’s X factor, and we turn to community for strength when we face challenges. At CAIS, close to 80% of our families have at least one parent who identifies as Asian or Asian American, approximately half of all CAIS employees identify as Chinese-American, and we have all chosen this school—whatever our identity—because of a commitment to our mission to “Embrace Chinese.” So the documented rise in anti-Asian aggression poses challenges to our community that are urgent and acute. And yet, in this pandemic, we are necessarily less able to come together to gain strength from one another.
It has been a few weeks since we have all observed with sadness and indignation an uptick in acts of violence and aggression against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that have been well documented and widely reported. Weeks ago the CAIS community was subjected to anti-Chinese graffiti directly across the street from our campus on the west wall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Neither the incidents nor the media coverage has abated. Conventional wisdom is that this disturbing trend has been exacerbated in the last year or more by the association of COVID-19 with Mainland China, and the intentional racialization of both a virus and a deteriorating political relationship between two governments. Terms like “kung flu” and “the Chinese virus” have weaponized a global health crisis and have resonated with some Americans who are anxious, frightened, or angry. On a personal note, as a white man with midwestern roots, I have learned so much from our proud and diverse community, yet now all I can do is wave to you through your car windows as you drop off and pick up your children, or scroll through Zoom screens and see grainy, poorly-lit, 1”x1” images of you. I miss the conversations with many of you that help me understand how events are impacting our families. While I have not been singled out and targeted with anti-Asian aggression, when members of our community are threatened, I feel that our values and identities are being threatened.
As our nation’s oldest and most mature Mandarin immersion day school, what should our role be? I have wrestled with this question, and I’d like to frame my evolving thoughts under three banners: Safety, Self-Respect, and Solidarity.
When I interviewed Middle School Director Joe Williamson for his current position in early 2014, he said something that has stuck with me to this day: “The most important job of a middle school director is ensuring the physical and emotional safety of all students.” He went on to explain that only in such an environment will students be able to focus on their studies and learn well. This is indeed first among our responsibilities to our children and our employees—to keep people safe. I assure you that our students have remained safe at all times, despite the news reports of anti-Asian aggression in the Bay Area. In the days following the graffiti and other disturbing incidents in our city, I have had discussions with Daniel Klingebiel, the executive director of NCIS who manages our facilities and security. Daniel and his team are upping their vigilance in this charged environment. Security personnel are on heightened alert, and following the graffiti incident in particular, NCIS has stationed guards in more locations than they typically do. I am confident in the NCIS security team and grateful for the work they do to ensure the safety of our children and employees.
Where I come from there are many people whose parents, grandparents, and great grandparents immigrated from Germany. Interestingly, almost no one speaks German; it was discouraged during and after World War II as German immigrants urged their children to assimilate. There are also small towns with German names whose pronunciations were changed (from New Ber ⬝ LIN, to New BER ⬝ lin, for instance). Some towns changed their names altogether, removing any reference to the old country. At CAIS, not only do we lean in to our emphasis on Chinese, but it is the very reason for our existence; we embrace Chinese and become our best selves. This may mean different things to different people (for instance, this means something different for me than it does for Kevin Chang), but at our school embracing Chinese is actually one vehicle for becoming our best selves. We are proud to embrace Chinese; we wear our mission and values like badges of honor. Our curriculum reflects it, from traditional Chinese themes, to Chinese American history, to contemporary issues with ethnic minority peoples in Mainland China and Taiwan. The recent attention to acts of aggression against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders underscores the fundamental urgency and importance of the work that we have always done at CAIS. Disturbing media images have understandably caused a degree of fear, but one of our school’s core values is courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, courage is walking with fear. As an institution we can choose to face our challenges with self-respect and courage.
“The fate of each minority depends on the extent of justice given all other groups.” These are the words of Ina Sugihara, a native Californian and the child of Japanese immigrants, who in 1943 became a founding member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Sugihara was an early Asian American proponent of the importance of multiracial alliances in the fight against discrimination and injustice. As members of the CAIS community, we need to embrace this spirit as well, recognizing that racially motivated aggression directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders must be properly placed within the broader context of racism and discrimination in our country. Our community at CAIS is diverse with a large majority of Chinese American parents, students, and employees. It is quite natural that many of us feel recent events more directly and personally. But we need to stand in solidarity with all people, as allies with one another. Kim Kaz has written eloquently that,
… [P]ainful but important markers of the Asian experience have frequently been usurped in mainstream commentary by damaging sentiments like the Model Minority Myth, which is commonly erroneously normalized as something that is “not that bad” because “at least it’s a positive stereotype,” when really, it paints a dangerous and monolithic swath across an entire populace of diverse humans, and creates a divisive wedge between Asian Americans and Black Americans. In reality, if we are to have shared hope as a whole, we need to stand together in solidarity and resist the urge to pit one marginalized group against another. We are all deserving of dignity and humanity.
We have done a great deal of work in recent years to deepen our commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but we have far more to do as we go forward. It is in the spirit of solidarity that we need to do this work.