Stanley Chang went to a Stop Asian Hate Rally at the State Capitol Saturday to lend his support to the cause but left with many wondering if it’s the state senator himself who needs to be canceled.
Chang, a Democrat representing East Honolulu, was one of the speakers scheduled to speak out against “white nationalist extremism and hate crimes” against minorities and women. It was part of a series of rallies and marches across the country prompted most recently by the mass shooting in Atlanta earlier this month that killed eight, including six Asian American women.
But a portion of Chang’s remarks, captured on video and posted on the Honolulu Youth Liberation Front’s Twitter account the very next day, did not go over well. Trying to make a point about hierarchy and privilege, as Chang explained to me in a phone call Tuesday, he told the crowd about his once having been accosted at a convenience store:
“And as I opened my bag I realized, ‘Oh, wait a minute. This guy thinks that I stole something from this store.’ And in that moment he didn’t see all my fancy degrees, he didn’t see that I was an elected official in the state of Hawaii, he didn’t see that as a light-skinned East Asian person, I was actually higher up on the totem pole than he was.”
The Twitter thread that followed has not been kind to Sen. Chang.
“When he started I turned to my boyfriend and said what the fuck did he just say?!?!” Leilani Maxera wrote. “Worst person at the mic.”
“Can we talk about @stanleypchang for a second?” posted AngryAngryHawaiian. “Yesterday at the stop hate against Asians rally he showed up late to speak, and then when he did claimed he shouldn’t face discrimination as an Asian because he’s ‘higher up on the totem pole’ than other people. The fucking elitism.”
Said Palauan Rebel, “This literally took my breath away … ‘He didn’t see that I was higher up on the totem pole than he was’ is an incredible admission of one’s racism and classism. This is legit something that makes me want to run against him next election.”
And said Sun Goddess, “I was SO shocked and pissed off that he said that, and even more worried that onlookers would adopt that way of thinking. Sickening. Like pls don’t alienate darker skinned POC.”
The outrage is not just on Twitter.
“I think Stanley Chang owes a prompt apology to the people of Hawaii who don’t appreciate elected state officials, especially those with fancy Harvard degrees, thinking they’re better than the rest of us simply because of their lighter skin and East Asian ancestry,” Jonathan Okamura, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, told me. “It is the kind of racist statement that contributes to anti-Asian hate.”
To his credit, Chang admitted on the Twitter thread that he screwed up his messaging royally.
“You’re right to call me out on this,” he posted that same day. “I was wrong, and I apologize for what I said yesterday. I know it caused pain. What I meant was, as an East Asian man growing up in Hawaii, I thought I’d never be attacked because of the color of my skin.”
But I wonder if the fallout from Chang’s unfortunate remarks might metastasize.
It probably doesn’t help that the convenience store incident, which Chang said occurred several years ago, took place in Paris. The senator also said he does not recall the race of the man who confronted him, although he thinks he worked at the store and seems to insinuate had darker skin than Chang.
With the rare exception of Donald Trump, making inflammatory statements about race and class are often career-enders. Todd Raybuck, the police chief of Kauai, is still in hot water for mocking people of Asian descent.
Chang seems well aware of the damage he has caused.
“I am very sorry for what I said,” he reiterated to me. “I spoke very poorly and a lot of people were very hurt by what I said, and I deeply apologize to them.”
Chang said he was trying to make the point that, growing up in Hawaii, “certain people experience privilege. And I did not truly understand the magnitude of that privilege until the tables were turned on me later. And that experience taught me that hierarchy and privilege are wrong no matter where they are and who they benefit.”
Chang, 38, certainly appears to have led a life of advantage. He represents Senate District 9, which runs from Hawaii Kai to the Diamond Head area and includes several of the wealthiest zip codes in the state.
Born and raised in East Honolulu “to hardworking immigrants from China,” according to his legislative webpage, he attended Wai-Kahala Preschool, Kahala Elementary School and Iolani School.
At Harvard College he graduated magna cum laude and at Harvard Law School cum laude. Before being elected to the Honolulu City Council in 2010, Chang practiced law at Cades Schutte in Honolulu, where he specialized in real estate law.
In 2014 Chang finished third in a seven-candidate field that sent Mark Takai to Congress. Two years later he upset longtime Republican incumbent Sen. Sam Slom and easily bested him in a rematch last year.
In that last race, Chang’s campaign boasted of endorsements from no less than three Democrats who ran for president in 2020: Pete Buttigieg, who has known Chang since they were freshmen at Harvard in 2004; Elizabeth Warren, a former law teacher; and Andrew Yang.
“From helping at a rally for Vice President Gore after the presidential debate in Boston in 2000, to watching the Kentucky Derby with a Kentucky Colonel, we’ve shared a lot of adventures together,” Buttigieg said.
Chang’s pedigree stands in contrast to his work at the Legislature, where his priority has been trying to foster the creation of more affordable housing. He has also demonstrated sensitivity to marginalized groups in the islands, introducing resolutions to recognize the discrimination but also the contributions of Micronesians.
Another state lawmaker at the rally, Rep. Adrian Tam, was far more focused in his remarks than Chang. Tam, a second-generation Taiwanese American, spoke directly about the Atlanta shooting, Asian American women and immigrants.
“I told the crowd my own story, how my parents and others came to this country for opportunity similar to them” he said. “Some could have been fleeing violence and for them to die the way they did just goes to show how much work we have to do.”
For his part, Chang urges support for Senate Concurrent Resolution 66, introduced by Sen. Bennette Misalucha and backed by Chang. It condemns all forms of anti-Asian sentiment and all acts of racism, xenophobia, intolerance, discrimination, hate crime and hate speech against Asian Americans and Asians in the U.S.
SCR 66 lists historical incidents ranging from the massacre of 10 Chinese men lynched in Los Angeles in 1871 to Japanese American interment camps during Word War II, to attacks on Hindu, Muslim and Sikh South Asians following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and to the reference of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus” and “kung flu.”
That last example was most famously broadcast by our former president. Words matter.
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