After her comments stereotyping Black and Latino families caused a political firestorm in San Francisco, school board member Ann Hsu chose to stay away from media interviews and public spotlights for more than two weeks.
On Wednesday, Hsu sat down with The Standard for an exclusive interview, her first since the controversy erupted last month.
The uproar traces back to a candidate questionnaire in which Hsu wrote that she sees one of the biggest challenges for Black and brown students in SFUSD as a “lack of family support.” Her remarks prompted fierce backlash and calls for her resignation.
Though Hsu issued an apology and joined the SFUSD board in a unanimous vote for her own admonishment, Hsu has made no indication she plans to step down or call off her campaign to keep her seat in the November election.
In her talk with The Standard, Hsu reflected on her controversial answer to the questionnaire, what she’s learned from the backlash and what she’s planning for the future.
Below is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and length.
What have you been going through since this whole controversy erupted? Who have you turned to for guidance during this time?
Being in public life is very new to me. So these past two weeks have been a whirlwind and it seems like much longer than two weeks.
But I’ve had a lot of conversations that have been very eye-opening, and there are very educational conversations that I’ve never had before with anybody. It’s been a very steep learning curve, and I’m grateful for it.
I would say I talked to a lot of people. I spoke with fellow commissioners, like two fellow mayoral appointees. Those were the very first conversations I’ve had. And I’ve had conversations with my friends, including some African American friends, just to seek their guidance and their counsel to educate me on why [what I said] was hurtful.
I really did not understand the extent of the impact of my words. If I did, I wouldn’t have said it that way. So they helped me to understand how they felt when they saw my words.
When you answered that questionnaire, what was your thought process?
I was approaching it from a very engineering, business way of trying to understand a problem, because I saw some data, whether it’s absenteeism, achievement gaps, or reading literacy rates, there is a dramatic difference between racial groups in SFUSD.
I was trying to understand what is responsible for those. And I mentioned housing insecurity, food insecurity, and the large buckets of what I thought may be responsible. And if those were the reasons, then we could try and solve that problem. That’s where my head was: trying to identify the problem and then think about some potential solutions.
You mentioned that you’re grappling with your own biases. How does it feel when people call you racist?
I am not a racist. I know that. Other people, if they just saw my response and they don’t know me, then I can understand why they think that I may be a racist. But I know I’m not.
I want to understand a problem and solve a problem.
How do you respond to demands that you step down, that you call off your campaign?
I understand how they feel. Just in the last two weeks of conversation, I do understand and I really am sorry for hurting them. I really did not intend to. So it’s going to take some time to heal.
I also believe that I have a lot of value to add to this board and to this whole district.
Since I’ve been on the board, I’ve been able to do a lot of good things with my fellow board members.
We hired a great superintendent who’s very student-focused. We’ve passed a balanced budget. We’ve actually led the effort to restore JROTC. And we’ve authorized the high school task force that’s going to take a look at the high school portfolio across the whole district so that we don’t have a concentration of AP courses all in Lowell High School and not in any other high schools.
And I intend to continue to do that work with my fellow commissioners.
Many people are comparing your remarks to your predecessor Alison Collins’ racially offensive tweets and Supervisor Shamann Walton allegedly using a racial slur against a sheriff’s cadet. What similarities or differences do you see among your situation and theirs?
Public officials are held to a higher standard. I think everyone should be treated with respect everywhere. No one should be using racial slurs toward anyone.
I did not use any racial slur or intentionally use anything to harm anyone.
Kids will be going back to school soon. How do you think the district can help them bridge that achievement gap—especially on the heels of a disruptive pandemic?
Two weekends ago, the seven board members, plus the superintendent, were talking about setting goals and guardrails for our schools. We settled on three very specific goals for our school district.
For example, one of the goals is likely to be third grade literacy. That is for everybody. So if there’s a gap right now, we need to close that gap in third grade.
The other two goals would be addressing middle school and high school issues.
Speaking of kids, many people are upset that, in a public meeting, you described your son’s classmates as “riff raff.” What’s your response to that criticism?
Maybe I shouldn’t have used those words. By “riff raff” I meant just disturbances, social conflicts when people and kids are together.
I have two sons who are polar opposites. One is more introverted, the other one is part of the group that would disturb other kids. My son could be one of those “riff raffs.” And I actually want my more introverted son to go back to school so that he can handle different social situations. He needs to learn how to deal with social situations.
Let’s talk about the campaign. It sounds like you’ve split with two other mayoral appointees. What happened?
First of all, I think all three of us are still very committed to doing what’s right for San Francisco kids. That hasn’t changed at all. I’m fully confident that my fellow appointees are as committed as I am to doing what’s right for SFUSD and for our kids.
We’re three very different people. Our lived life experiences are very different. I think it gives us some freedom if we don’t have to show up all together at the same events.
It is what it is and I don’t think it’s necessarily bad. The mayor and the SF Guardians (formerly the school board recall group) are still supporting all of us.
Do you think you will win in November after all this controversy and divisiveness?
I’m pretty confident that we’ll have the support of a lot of people behind me, whether it’s the Chinese and Asian community, or the recall supporters.
Many in the Chinese community are still strongly supporting you. Do you have anything to share with them?
Maybe two things.
One is that people of every culture really need to do more listening to each other. I’ve listened a lot in the last two weeks and I think the Chinese community needs to listen to the others—and vice versa, other communities need to listen to the Chinese community, too.
Second thing is that, actually, we all want the same thing. We all want what’s best for our kids, whether it’s Chinese, or African Americans or Latinos, anybody. And we all want a functioning, great public education.
Han Li can be reached at [email protected]