‘I don’t deserve to be called that’: Asian American teens in Santa Cruz County talk race, identity, pain
With an ongoing national reckoning over the treatment of Asian Americans, Lookout assembled a group of Santa Cruz area teens and tweens to come together for a discussion about their experiences.
When Jeremy Lin of the Santa Cruz Warriors told the world he had been called “Coronavirus” by an opposing player in February, it sparked a discussion around the treatment of Asians and Asian Americans — particularly over the past year as presidential rhetoric brought racially loaded terms such as “Kung Flu” and “The China Virus” into our cultural vocabulary.
The recent spate of violence across the U.S. — unthinkable acts that might seem far away from Santa Cruz even though they are occurring right nearby in the Bay Area — hadn’t even begun to boil over into the national tempest we face now.
But for teenagers glued to their social media channels, and isolated from a normal school routine, sports and other activities, there is even more time to ponder the craziness of the world around them.
As Santa Cruz County inches out of the pandemic, Lookout is chronicling the changes in our lives and the accomplishments of everyday people. “People in the Pandemic” is one of eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of life amid COVID. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, and sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here.
The impact of last summer’s Black Lives Matter movement, combined with a year of divisive speech from our nation’s top leadership, has left teens of Asian American descent looking inward and to those around them for answers about race.
That’s especially true in a county that is predominantly white (57%), with only a 4.7% population of Asian descent.
Lookout connected with a handful of kids who have attended Santa Cruz County public schools — Natalie, Lucas, Jayden, Taylor, David, Jenny and Lisa — mostly in the Capitola-Soquel and Westside Santa Cruz areas, who were willing to talk about those issues in an hour-long group Zoom call.
It was facilitated by a Capitola mom who has been hearing bits and pieces of conversations from her kids and others during her minivan carpools and felt a group discussion might be helpful and informative. A few parents also listened in, but the kids did most of the talking.
It wasn’t an easy discussion for many of them. And several asked to go by aliases because of fear of being singled out. Several more who weren’t comfortable participating asked to watch a replay and offered up anonymous insights.
While none have faced or feared the type of physical threats that have politicians and activists moving swiftly into action, the psychological wounds from years of racial name-calling are apparent — things that had been said over the years by classmates, strangers and, perhaps most shockingly, their closest friends. Emotions they had just brushed off or swept aside. All of that has clearly bubbled to the surface the past year, often painfully.
Called "’Corona’ for no reason”
Jayden, 16, whose mom is white and dad is Filipino, started off the conversation by describing how the past year’s hateful rhetoric has sparked a personal awakening.
“I didn’t realize that I had experienced racist remarks until COVID happened. It opened my eyes and made me realize it’s a serious problem,” she said. “People started calling me and many of my friends ‘Corona’ for no reason. And I was very confused. Especially since I’m not fully Asian, I feel like I don’t know where I belong. It’s hard to explain but I think I don’t deserve to be called that since I did nothing wrong to these people.”
For Natalie, 15, the conversation sparks thoughts of how frequently she or her brother Lucas, 12, get asked “So, what are you?” Heads nodded among the mixed-race kids on the call. “It’s like they think we’re all either Chinese or Japanese,” added Jenny, 13. Are light-skinned people “all from Europe?” Natalie said.
Jenny’s parents are both Korean immigrants and she remembers “racist jokes and stuff” starting around the second grade. “At first it bothered me a lot for sure because I just didn’t like being different. I guess I looked so different compared to other people in my class. Throughout the years it just happened so much I didn’t care anymore. I got used to all the jokes.”
Many of the teens talked about normalizing stereotypical tropes said to them over the years — many from their closest friends. You should do my homework … Be my personal tutor … You can’t do badly on a test or get a bad grade — you’re Asian … You play the piano, right? … Are you an anime? Then there were the comments about their eyes or facial shape or rice or chopsticks and worse.
“The whole nickname thing became really normalized I guess because I would always be called things. It would be ‘Oh look it’s my personal tutor’ or ‘Oh look it’s the dog eater,’ Jenny said. “I felt like since they’re my friends I can’t really tell them to stop or they’d think I can’t take a joke.”
Worse, she said, was that when such words were spoken in classrooms, and teachers alerted, they didn’t intervene. “I guess my teachers didn’t really care because they just thought it was like a fun nickname, (for kids) to call me ‘Their Asian.’ I would be called that in any setting, in school, in public — it just became normal.”
Most shocking to Heajin Kamalani, the mom who helped arrange the discussion, was 1) how frequently these kids were hearing this language directed at them (the kids said weekly when it wasn’t daily) and 2) that their own friends were the most frequent perpetrators.
“It’s coming from your own comrades,” she told them. “That just breaks my heart.”
David, 15, spoke about a physical fight he got into with a friend during lunchtime at school in the eighth grade over the ugly words the friend refused to stop using. He said his reaction was uncharacteristic, that he hit a breaking point.
“Since my parents are both Korean, they immigrated here, they both thought it would be best if I didn’t get all emotional and just ignored it. When I was in elementary school I got super emotional,” he said. “Over time, I just think I thought I shouldn’t let these words affect how I feel.”
The need for ‘empathetic leaders’
The Santa Cruz County Office of Education was one of many entities issuing a statement of support for the Asian American community and a denouncement of racism and bigotry this week.
That statement — and the hundreds of others across the state like it — coincided with a final push through of a long-in-the-making, highly controversial ethnic studies curriculum for California high schools.
While county superintendent Faris Sabbah applauds that the long-overdue curriculum was finally added, he noted one of its key deficiencies: It’s a single elective course to be offered to primarily ninth and 10th graders, so it will not be mandatory. “The kids who need it most probably won’t be the ones signing up for it,” he said.
And Sabbah, as a person of Middle Eastern descent who at age 9 immigrated to the U.S. from Iraq with his family to escape the Iran-Iraq War before leaving for his mother’s native Ecuador two years later, understands the importance of cultural understanding. He says it will take more leadership to do it well.
“To me, that is what education is really about is having a better understanding of ourselves and our experiences and developing a sense of empathy with people,” he said. “There’s a greater need in education to develop empathetic leaders, people who want to bring change and want to say, because I’m empathetic I recognize that where we’re at is not where we should be, and I want to invest my time into making my community a more just place.”
As part of the COE’s ongoing equity series, it will host a “Focusing on supporting LGBTQ+ youth and families” event from 6-8 p.m. on March 25. He said a conversation about what Asian American kids are dealing with locally would be a logical next addition.
To Kamalani, there are obvious deficiencies in an elective ethnic studies curriculum that isn’t an option till high school. When asked if they had been provided any outlet at school to have any dialogue about race, all the kids on the Zoom shook their head “no.”
“There needs to be kind, nonjudgmental, safe places for conversation around this difficult topic much earlier,” she said. “As these kids said, most of this started before 2nd or 3rd grade. You want the kids to wait seven or eight years before they talk about it? Or train teachers how to handle such situations? No wonder it still goes on.”
‘How to talk about race’
Colette Cann, an associate dean and professor at the University of San Francisco’s School of Education, commended the “powerful” conversation had by the Santa Cruz County kids this week. It works in lockstep with one of her most passionate initiatives, a course for parents and educators called “How to Talk About Race.”
There are several sessions scheduled for April and more in the summer, Cann said, and the goal is to raise awareness about race, racism, representation, and resistance in schools. The talking points:
- Learn how to engage in conversations about race
- Gain confidence in talking about race and racism
- Learn how to organize for racial justice in schools
She also referenced a set of curated resources (copied below) that were put together by Dr. Cathery Yeh of Chapman University, and a virtual high school program called “Making Us Matter” put together by USF doctoral students in response to COVID-19.
Cann said conversations like the one had in Santa Cruz County this week are the kind that need to happen everywhere. The takeaways were still reverberating with Kamalani and the parents she’d been talking with about it days later.
“While it broke my heart to hear how often these comments came from those closest to our kids, all the moms I talked to afterward were also surprised by how frequent and common the racial comments happened,” she said. “We all had no idea.”