By Jonathan Kwan
(Editor’s Note, by Steve Villano)
There are people you encounter in life who are such good humans, you wish you could clone them many times over. That’s Jonathan Kwan.
I met Jonathan a decade ago, when he married my wife’s former colleague and close friend, Darya Larizadeh, a “ badass” public policy attorney in the South Bay, as Jonathan describes his spouse and mother of their two, mixed-race children. Carol and Darya worked together at Demos, one of the nation’s premier think tanks built by Miles Rapoport, past President of Common Cause, immediately after the election of 2000 to keep the flame of progressive policies alive. More recently, Demos gave the nation Heather McGee (Miles’ successor) whose new book on race and economics in America, The Sum of Us, is flying off bookstore shelves.
Jonathan, born in the South Bay to two college-educated parents who came to the US from Hong Kong in the 1970’s, is in his 13th year of teaching at Los Altos High School. A social activist who participated in a number of Black Lives Matter protests, Kwan is a leader in his school district’s Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District Alliance — a group which works to examine school policies and practices to advance racial equality. An English teacher by training, Jonathan is also an AVID teacher — a college prep program which serves first generation students. At Los Altos, he co-founded a group called “Teachers in Solidarity,” a network of educators working to fight racism, sexism and homophobia in the community.
His work in fighting racism and xenophobia, and teaching his students to respect each other regardless of their differences, made his writings about the recent slaughter of Asian American women in Atlanta all the more poignant. I am sharing Jonathan Kwan’s comments here on my Medium account, so his sense of violation and outrage can be seen to be as unique, and universal, as it is.)
Reflections on Anti-Asian Violence
By Jonathan Kwan
Like most of you over these past several weeks, my social media feed has been flooded with outrage, support, concern, solidarity and various hash-tagged responses to the violence targeting Asians seen in headlines. There is no justification for such cruelty. Full stop. However, it’s taken me a minute to formulate my sentiments on this growing conversation. Initially, I wasn’t sure what to say. But, I’ve done some thinking lately so here it is:
In my adolescence, despite my every effort (I spent an embarrassingly substantial portion of my time in middle school trying to gel my stubbornly thick and straight black hair in the style and manner of Beverly Hills, 90210 actor, Jason Priestly. All American. I never felt like I was part of america.
And while living in the Bay Area has provided some cover, a place with a healthy Asian population, Ranch 99 supermarkets, and visible corporate leaders that share my complexion, I am convinced that I am and always will be viewed through the primary prism of my Asian-ness replete with all the historical weight that this bears: Model minority. Math god. Long Duk Dong. Docile. Emasculation. Silent. Small dick. Speak English. Micro and macro aggressions. All of it. This isn’t new. I am, despite all of my proper English etiquette, still and always will be foreign to america. Sometimes, I wear my Asian-ness as a badge of honor, as a bridge to peoples made outsiders and othered. Lately, it’s been a source of inner shame.
White america manipulated us to feel like we have a seat at the table. Work hard and be quiet, they said. Meritocracy first, they said. Play by the rules, they said. Don’t get it twisted, we were always america’s punchline. From “me so horny” to William Hung to Kung Flu, the whole time that my parents and grandparents were convinced that we were the exception, we were the laughing stock (cue racist gong chime here). My parents and grandparents never really took notice. They just made sure to talk to me after I brought a Black friend home to kick it in high school.
That’s the genius and terror of white supremacy: to convince the marginalized into believing in the structures that perpetuate violence and division amongst one another. What these recent hate crimes remind us is that despite our academic and professional achievements, white america was never meant for us. This is an illusion. A tall tale. A myth. We will always be viewed as outsiders but what I find so troubling now, is how so many of my own people have bought in and internalized white dominance and at its worst, weaponize white power tropes to gain an advantage.
I see it in the anti-affirmative action sentiments fomented by Asian-led action groups clamoring for meritocracy and color blindness in times of convenience. I saw it four years ago during a student organized walkout on my campus in response to Trump’s 2016 election — when, after consoling my AVID class of aspirational first generation Latino students in shambles over this existential threat, walking by a predominantly Asian and white populated classroom and witnessing not one student join or even look up from their exams. I see it when observing how many of the Asian students I teach seem to lack the vocabulary in discussions of race. I see it in my own family, many of whom in my generation have married white partners.
How can we be benefactors and punching bags at the same time? Play by the rules, they said.
Now, everyone finds themselves at a place where some are shocked, some are outraged, I am too! You have to be some kinda fucked up to beat up an 85 year old elderly man or shoot up a room filled with innocent mothers, sisters and daughters. Still, my hope is that these events have awakened my Asian community in a real and meaningful way. We will never be white america. We are no exception. We have more in common with our Brown and Black brothers and sisters than you were taught and I pray that we may have the courage and wisdom to push past the dominant narrative. Stop Anti-Asian hate.