'A Slap in the Face': SFUSD Students Respond to Ann Hsu's Racist Comments

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A young black woman wearing a black parka sits in an audio studio, a microphone pointed toward her mouth and headphones on the table in front of her. She holds two fingers up, pointing them toward her face. A tangerine-flavored La Croix fizzy water is on the desk in front of her.
SFUSD student Selser Seth in a KQED study for an interview. 'If you're going to work for the kids, you should work for all of them,' she said.  (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/KQED)

Adults, from parents to city officials, have weighed in on San Francisco School Board Commissioner Ann Hsu’s comments disparaging Black and brown families as not valuing their children's education.

But the voice of students has been glaringly missing from the conversation.

“If you work for the Board of Education, you shouldn't be making comments like that,” said Selser Seth, a Black 17-year-old. "And if you're going to work for the kids, you should work for all of them."

Last week, the San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously to admonish Hsu for her racist comments. It is also considering an official censure.

At the board meeting, parents shouted over one another, prompting commissioner Jenny Lam to call for a recess. Black and brown parents yelled “racists!” while Asian parents yelled “support Ann Hsu!”

Three teenagers who attend San Francisco Unified School District high schools spoke with KQED to share their reactions to Hsu’s comments. Uniformly, the teenagers felt her characterization of Black and Latinx families was simply untrue – especially when it comes to their own families.

What did Hsu say?

As part of a school board candidate survey Hsu filled out for a parent advocacy group ahead of the November 2022 election, she wrote that Black and brown families do not adequately support their children's educations.

The statement came in response to a question about how she would improve outcomes among marginalized students in San Francisco. Hsu wrote:

"From my very limited exposure in the past four months to the challenges of educating marginalized students especially in the black and brown community, I see one of the biggest challenges as being the lack of family support for those students. Unstable family environments caused by housing and food insecurity along with lack of parental encouragement to focus on learning cause children to not be able to focus on or value learning. That makes teachers’ work harder because they have to take care of emotional and behavioral issues of students before they can teach them. That is not fair to the teachers."

Hsu apologized for her comments on Twitter as soon as they surfaced publicly. At last week’s board meeting, she apologized in person and even voted alongside her colleagues for her own admonishment. More than a dozen organizations and city officials have called on Hsu to resign from office. A growing number of organizations and officials, including Mayor London Breed, have publicly said Hsu should remain in office and use the opportunity to grow and learn from her mistakes.

Students reflect on Hsu’s comments

The youth leaders we spoke with work with two organizations: the Chinese Progressive Association and Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth. Neither organization has taken a position on whether Hsu should resign, though Coleman Advocates has issued statements condemning the remarks. The organizations often take their cues from their youth leaders.

Each student expressed concerns that harmful stereotypes would influence Hsu’s decision-making on the San Francisco Board of Education, imperiling their peers through bad policies.

Selser Seth wanted to correct the record — Black families absolutely value learning. Her mother cares a lot about education, she says, and always pushes her for high grades.

Seth says she enjoys both music and science. She was a DJ spinning tracks for dancers at the Carnaval San Francisco festival in May, and she also shared a story of academic delight — when she recently got to dissect a pregnant shark.

“We had a scalpel, and we had a little tray, and just cut the stomach and cut the tissues,” she said. She enjoyed learning about the baby shark in a hands-on way, although, she admits, “it was pretty messy.”

Seth felt Hsu’s comments not only failed to describe other Black students, but made her feel she had less representation on the board.

Briseis Portillo, a 16-year-old Salvadoran American, felt the Latinx community was unjustly judged.

“It was kind of like a slap in the face,” she said.

Portillo says Hsu understands she was wrong, but it still caused harm.

“I think racism should not be tolerated at all,” she said.

Portillo said she met Hsu through Coleman Advocates about a week prior to her racist comments surfacing in the public. After they surfaced, students from Coleman Advocates have said they hope their current proposal to allow SFUSD public school students to vote on Board of Education proposals would counterbalance any policy choices Hsu made that would run afoul of Black and Latinx communities.

Last, Yvonne Dong, a 17-year-old Asian American of Chinese and Vietnamese descent, worried Hsu may not be able to understand the needs of various communities of color.

“While she is on the Board of Education, she is able to make a lot of powerful decisions. And people on the board are intended to represent all the communities in San Francisco,” Dong said. “It's really concerning to know that she would write that when she's supposed to represent all communities.”

Dong recently read “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire, and says dealing with racism should always involve restorative justice, which means reflection and action.

"The apology is only part of the process," she said. "I just feel like it's only part of the reflection. And there hasn't been any. There hasn't been enough action yet to really complete the transformation."

The reflection part, she says, means asking oneself why — why would I do something racist? What are the root causes within myself of these comments?

“And then action is,” Dong said, “holding yourself accountable to changing your values to help everyone around you and to be more open to other communities.”

An Asian woman with short black hair and holding a microphone wears a red leather jacket, red sunglasses on top of her head, and a red, yellow and purple scarf.
Ann Hsu speaks during a press conference held by the Chinese/API Voter Outreach Taskforce on the steps of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Pushing back on hurtful stereotypes

Dong noted her community wasn’t singled out by Hsu’s comments. Nonetheless, the ongoing controversies at the Board of Education do take their toll on her.

“As a student, it's overwhelming to hear. Like there's always something on in the news about them,” she said. “It’s hard to trust my future and education with this school board because at this point, it's hard to figure out what's really happening.”

Two of the students — Dong and Portillo — agreed they had seen stereotypes at play in their own schools. And they worried Hsu’s views would exacerbate those divisions.

Dong says that, as an Asian person, she has been given some favorable treatment by teachers over her Black and Latinx peers, and often sees racial tensions between ethnic groups in her neighborhood, Visitacion Valley.

“I definitely feel like I have more privilege over certain communities,” Dong said.

Portillo said she had a favorable experience at schools that were largely Latinx. But when attending other schools with more mixed populations, she felt like she was often under a microscope due to her ethnicity.

“It kind of feels like your education isn't valued because you're always being targeted or you're always being pushed out," she said. "Or there's something always happening instead of actually you getting your education."

Seth didn’t feel as if she’d seen racial stereotypes in her daily life, like the other students we spoke to. But she knows the sting of hate, having been bullied in middle and elementary school by kids who didn’t approve of her being a girl with romantic interest in other girls.

“I think that's me personally, it didn't affect me as much as it affects the average person,” Seth said, of Hsu’s comments, partially because she’s a person who tends to “go with the flow.” But even though the comments didn’t affect her personally, she said, that doesn’t mean it didn’t affect her community.

“Bottom line,” Seth said, “I just think it's wrong.”

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