“No. I’m sorry, no. This is my event, so no. Thank you anyway. Thank you for being here. I appreciate your support.”
–Kathy Watanabe, 31 March 2021
That was the response I received from Santa Clara Councilmember Kathy Watanabe when I asked to say a few words at a #StopAsianHate event she helped stage with Mayor Lisa Gillmor this week at the Northside Branch Library. Although this was organized days earlier, other councilmembers, including myself, were not officially notified or invited until about 24 hours before the event itself. I work during the day and try to be present for my family, but it seemed beneficial for as many minority members of council to support the event as a show of solidarity against recent hate crimes against members of our Asian community. So I went.
In addition to a number of elected guests, including including County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, Assemblymember Alex Lee, and former Assemblymember Kansen Chu, Councilmembers Anthony Becker and Suds Jain were also in attendance, along with several members of the council-appointed diversity task force. After the guests and task force members gave short messages of support, Councilmember Watanabe made motions to wind down the event. I was not sure if other councilmembers would be given a chance to speak, but there were still about ten minutes left and I had hastily written down a few words. It made sense for a councilmember of the AAPI community for whom the event was held to say something.
Given the dynamics on council, I was prepared to be rebuffed when I approached Kathy, but it was her manner that surprised me. I was not sure how much other people heard at the time, but Susan Ellenberg and Alex Lee were the first to approach me with their condolences. Supervisor Ellenberg was shocked at Kathy’s “tone deaf” comments and feared that they had undermined the messaging of the event. These kinds of comments were not unusual from Kathy, so I took little notice, thinking that only a few people had heard. I had a community meeting to go to and a family to attend, so I took a polite leave and went about my day.
It soon became clear that words matter, and they have repercussions. A flurry of calls and text messages lit up my phone. The next few hours were spent juggling my family and my phone as I tried to piece together what had happened and was happening. After a few media interviews, I took time to reflect. For people who are curious, here are the words I had put together while at the event:
“I am Asian by background. I was born in the United States. The first language I learned, and my primary language, was English. It is funny, but until about five years ago, I considered myself Asian American. But after marrying my wife, who comes from Korea, and having a young daughter whose first language is Korean, I realize I am American Asian, with the American first, and in capital letters. I am learning more and more every day as it is not easy to actually understand their situation.
“And it is not enough to ask, or even demand respect. We must support the processes that make people equal, not just repeat the social acknowledgements that we SHOULD be equal.
“STOP ASIAN HATE — and BLACK LIVES MATTER — are current and historic movements, centered around events that highlight the race and ethnicity of victims, based on the history of our country and our culture of immigration, inviting the “tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But let’s be clear. Equality and the political issues that enable, prevent, and surround it, will always be a struggle.
“Let us find ways to find be inclusive and find similarities, proud of our differences, but united in equality. Equal respect. Equal opportunity. Equal protection. And, eventually, equal representation.”
Kathy said it was “her” event, but that is not really true. We will never have change if we allow politics and politicians drive our social causes. This happened because we allowed an event like this to be led by politicians with many secondary and tertiary concerns.
What we can do to make events like this more impactful and less politicized is to put citizens at the forefront and have politicians be the guests supporting such movements.
People have asked if I would set up another event — or have “my own event” in District 4. But having similar events at different times in a city the size of Santa Clara actually detracts from the larger message: Unity. Rather than have politicians host events, even in pairs or groups, it seems better to support citizens and citizen groups, and help their efforts get more reach by using our positions to invite everyone. We should note the elected officials in support, but let the people speak. Of the People, by the People, for the People.
I am reminded of the observation in the song “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie: if only a few people do something, it may look crazy and people may not take it seriously; but if lots of people do it, it can look like a movement. And that is what we need for society to progress: movement.
Stop Asian Hate. Black Lives Matter. We do not need more ways to divide the victims of prejudice. Equality needs to be more than just a movement, or even a series of movements with uncertain paths. Hate needs to be a point in time, with a definitive end. And when that happens, it certainly will not be Kathy’s event.
For all minorities who have experienced discrimination and hate;
For all people who are committed to equal time, representation, and voice;
For all friends of oppressed people everywhere:
This Is Our Event.