Representation Matters

As a youngster in Indiana, Chris Kang belonged to one of only a few families of color in his town – and like most children, he wanted nothing more than to fit in, “not to be picked on for my slanty eyes and for kids not to make fun of the way my parents spoke.” Once he crossed the threshold of his house each day, he would leave all Korean influence behind and try to push back against stereotypes, embracing jazz and theater and community service.

By describing his personal journey of identity to the school community on May 16 – as part of Middlesex’s celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month – Mr. Kang hoped to inspire conversations about race beyond a simple “black-and-white” paradigm and to encourage everyone to reflect on their own journeys. “All of us have stories that are valuable,” he noted. “Think about yours and start sharing it.”

Mr. Kang’s path eventually led him from Indiana to Washington, DC, where he is the co-founder and chief counsel of Demand Justice, an organization focused on building a progressive movement to restore ideological balance and legitimacy to U.S. federal courts. Previously, he served in the White House for nearly seven years as deputy counsel to President Obama and as special assistant to the president for legislative affairs. Mr. Kang has also served as national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans and worked for Senate Democratic Whip Richard Durbin. He currently serves on the board of advisors of the American Constitution Society and the People’s Parity Project.

While attending boarding school and college, Mr. Kang said, he began meeting more Asian students, both American and international, but still found it difficult to fit in. He bristled at some people calling him a “banana” – saying that he was “yellow on the outside and white on the inside” – while others viewed him as a “perpetual foreigner,” telling him, “You speak English really well,” and asking him, “Where are you really from?”

Rebelling against the idea of being labeled a “model minority” who is focused solely on scholastic achievement, Mr. Kang instead prioritized extracurricular activities over academics. When he was then told during a law school interview that he was “not the typical Asian American applicant with high grades and no activities,” Mr. Kang stated, “This was a pivot point for me.”

Once he got to Washington, DC, he recalled, “I was no longer concerned about fitting in; I was concerned about not being heard. Representation matters. To be heard in government impacts our lives. And when you don’t see yourself reflected, it’s harder to dream.”

For Mr. Kang, “The real revelation was when I saw how Asian identity fits into the larger picture of being a person of color in America,” he said. The term “AAPI,” he observed, lumps 50 different ethnic groups into one label, masking the differences among them – including their different needs. And when the social construct of race is reduced to “black and white,” he wondered, “Where does ‘Asian’ fit in, and how does that create a hierarchy of race? If we are the ‘model minority,’ who are we being compared to?” All these notions, he stressed, only reinforce a narrative that people of color are competing for scarce resources, and those who are perceived as being closer to success must not have any needs or require resources.

Ultimately, Mr. Kang realized, “I needed to break free and see myself as building a new identity that is working toward justice.” He then fielded questions from the audience that concerned the future of affirmative action and the importance of seeing people of color represented in government, staying to continue discussing these issues with students over lunch.