The Latest Stereotype Heard ‘Round the District | Nate Neustadt
Updated: Apr 20, 2022
Diversity and discrimination have been hot topics in our school district in recent years. The national conversations about Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate during the pandemic, and the rise in antisemitism have all reached our buildings and neighborhoods and sparked debates, School Board resolutions, and inclusion programming.
Yet the latest race-related controversy came from an unlikely source – the SDUHSD Superintendent. In case you missed Dr. Cheryl James-Ward’s comments about why Asian students are so successful and the outcry that ensued, now’s your chance. But I also want to talk about more than how Dr. James-Ward really stepped into it. Her ill-informed opinions give all of us a chance to explore our ignorance and biases about each other and the bubble we live in (or think we live in). There is lots to learn from the latest in the SDUHSD diversity saga – about our district and about ourselves – if we’re willing to hold up a mirror and admit where we’re falling short.
Here’s what happened: on April 11, SDUHSD held a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training session for the Board of Trustees. During a discussion about D and F grades, Trustee Michael Allman asked the superintendent, “Do we know why Asian students do so well in school?” Her opinion centered around the socio-economic standing of Asian students.
“So here in San Dieguito we have an influx of Asians from China, and the people who are able to make that journey are wealthy,” James-Ward said. “You cannot come to America and buy a house for $2 million unless you have money.” She added that entire Asian families are able to immigrate to the U.S., which allows for a strong support system for students, whereas other minority groups like LatinX families simply “don’t have that type of money,” and have parents who are working much longer hours.
James-Ward’s comments immediately went viral throughout our community, receiving criticism from students and parents for perpetuating a common stereotype and ignoring the Asian culture that values education and hard work. Our Canyon Crest Academy classmates are among them.
Sophomore David John, a member of CCA’s Asian Indian community, believes James-Ward’s comments discredited the struggle Asian families endure in our district.
“My dad came to America as a broke grad student who busted his butt for four years to get a full ride to the University of Michigan,”John said.
Terrence Cao, a sophomore and member of CCA's Chinese community, was offended by James-Ward’s comments and feels she and others in our district don’t understand the stories of Asian families beyond the stereotypes.
“I’m not doing well in school because my parents are wealthy. I’m doing well because they put more pressure on me academically, and I want to make them proud.” Cao said. “My parents were very poor and were able to come to America because they were good students. They had $1000 saved up when they came here.”
Last Thursday, James-Ward got to hear families tell stories like these when she held a restorative meeting at the CCA Learning Commons. She explained in an apology email to the district on April 15 that the meeting was “for me to repair the harm I have done to our community…” In the email, James-Ward talked about how much she learned from the diverse families about the economic struggles and sacrifices that they endure every day for their kids, and that the way they come to San Diego and our district varies greatly from the Chinese family buying a $2 million sight-unseen home in Carmel Valley that she referenced in the DEI meeting.
“Many first-generation Asian families came via various avenues: military, undergraduate school, graduate school, and jobs with little to no money,” she wrote. “Yet all came with the same dream of a better life for themselves and their families. Everyone worked hard and sacrificed a great deal to move to our district to ensure their children could attend the best schools. After the meeting last night, one parent shared that if she has $100, she wants to spend $95 on getting her children what they need, and that she is willing to sacrifice anything for her children’s education. This sentiment was shared by many who attended our meeting and by many Asian-Americans in our community. Families choose to move to our district because of our schools. That is one factor that unites us.”
My initial reaction to James-Ward’s comments was a familiar churning in my stomach – not because I’m Asian but because I’m Jewish and used to stereotypes being flung about. I know how comments like these hurt and can lead to scapegoating and perpetuating the villainization and fear of others.
But after digging into the demographics of our district and learning along with our superintendent, my anger and frustration has turned to gratitude. There's an opportunity in this debacle over our Superintendent’s comments, an opportunity to get to understand my fellow students better.
According to reporting in the Del Mar Times, San Dieguito has 12,700 middle and high school students, and Asian and Asian Pacific Islanders make up 17.4 percent. Overall our district is a wealthy one, with a median household income of $135,000 and fewer low-income families than other school districts. None of this surprised me.
Here’s what did: according to state data, about 12 percent of San Dieguito’s Asian students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, compared to 19 percent of San Dieguito students overall. A higher share of Latino students are socioeconomically disadvantaged (44%), but most Latino students in the district (56%) are not, unlike James-Ward’s characterization in the DEI meeting.
I applaud our superintendent for taking ownership of her comments, admitting her biases, and leaning in to learn, something more leaders should emulate. And the blame certainly doesn’t stop with her. If I’m being completely honest, I didn’t fully appreciate the diversity of our community. Of course, I know how racially and culturally diverse our district is. But it wasn’t until I started researching food insecurity in San Diego for my blog, The Fight For Food, and this DEI meeting debacle happened that I was confronted with an assumption I had about my classmates. I had assumed that the overwhelming majority of students at CCA were affluent simply because they live in Carmel Valley. I shudder to think about how this has influenced my thinking, things I’ve said, and decisions I’ve made.
What assumptions are all of us in the CCA community making and how are they keeping us from understanding each other? I think the solution is to constantly ask ourselves, What can we learn from one another?
My biggest takeaway from all this is that we’ve got to lean into learning. Not just about what’s going to show up on our transcripts, but about each other. I’m sure that’s where we’ll find our most valuable lessons of all.