Scholar Helen Zia Speaks on Activism, Identity and Hope
Issue   |   Tue, 04/03/2018 - 19:40

Helen Zia, an award-winning activist, journalist and scholar, gave a talk about activism in the Asian-American community and the importance of “breaking the binary” in Stirn Auditorium on March 21. The event was sponsored by the Office of Student Activities, the Center for Diversity and Student Leadership, the American Studies Department and the Asian Students Association.

Zia, author of “Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People,” is known for her activism in and scholarship on Asian-American communities. She was featured in the Academy Award-nominated film “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” for her activism in the 1980s civil rights campaign against anti-Asian-American violence.

Professor Franklin Odo from the American Studies department introduced Zia, saying that “her work has been extremely important to all of us — I think in the best sense — [in showing] that Asian American studies can help illuminate the rest of American society and American history.”

Zia started her talk by saying that she reminds herself that “this is really not a time for people like me … as an Asian American and the daughter of immigrants and a queer person of color, or really any of us … to run and hide.”

“It is more important than ever to stand tall, and link arms, and to raise our voices and especially point to the needs of our marginalized communities: of color, of women, queer communities, immigrants, of Muslims,” she said.

Zia then contextualized contemporary politics, explaining that most students today grew up in a “post-9/11 cloud of xenophobic and Islamophobic paranoia that has enveloped this country and most of the world.”

“It is a time of fear and hatred of anything that seems foreign,” she continued, citing countries such as France, Italy, the Philippines and the United States as examples.

Although most students have grown up in and only know the post-9/11 era, Zia said that “it hasn’t always been that way.” For her, 9/11 was the tipping point, the start of the “global shift toward fundamentalism.” When most people think about fundamentalism, it is in the religious context, but Zia stressed the fundamentalism that began in Washington D.C., from the White House and Congress. This form of fundamentalism views the world as a binary, as just “A or B, you’re either my friend or my enemy.” But, “it’s not this or that,” Zia argued. “There is a whole spectrum in between, and a lot of nuances and complexities.”

Zia then went on to say that it is important to see the historical context and the long view. “It is important to remember that fighting for social justice is not a sprint,” she said. “It’s not just something you do in college for four years, and then you burn yourself out, and you move on. It’s a marathon, it’s something that you can spend your whole life doing.”

“This is only a point in time in a continuum,” she said. “But what really matters is the long arc of history, and what direction it’s going in.”

Zia said that the pendulum has swung back and forth multiple times in her life, “from darkness into light,” from the FBI crackdown during the Hoover administration in the name of national security to the civil rights movement, and in more recent times, from the post-9/11 anti-immigrant hysteria to the election of Barack Obama to the election of Donald Trump — the “whitelash.”

Zia encouraged students not to be discouraged by the current political moment, and to take the long view of history. “History and movements do not move in straight lines at all. They swing, they go forward and backward and in zigzags,” she said. “The thing about this time is: it’s your time. And there will be some time in the future … when others will say, what were you doing in 2018 to make a difference of where we are today?”

Zia then talked about identity politics and her early years as an activist in Boston, where she was part of both an Asian-American collective and an African-American collective, but also the women’s movement. She recounted what she called her “lesbian trial,” in which she had to denounce the women’s movement and deny being a lesbian in front of both collectives.

This experience was part of the reason Zia left Boston and moved to Detroit. She got a job in a Chrysler auto plant, just in time to see the collapse of the automobile industry. Millions of people lost their jobs, “race came into play,” and the finger was pointed at Japan. Shortly after, a young Chinese-American named Vincent Chin was killed at his bachelor party because his attackers thought he looked Japanese. His killers, who had pled no contest, were released on probation with a $3,000 fine.

At a community meeting, people discussed what they could do in response to this ruling. All of the experts said that nothing could be done, and Zia said she “could feel the energy going out of the room.”

Zia raised her hand and said, “We might not be able to change the judge’s mind, we might not be able to do anything about the sentence, but we really have to let people know that this is not okay for the Asian-American community, that you can just have people killed in this climate of hate.” This revitalized the room, leading to constructive dialogue.

“I’m telling you this story because my being there could have been any one of you,” said Zia. “We all have that time where we could say something, speak up.”

The talk was followed by a Q&A session that covered topics such as the fetishization of Asian women, how to balance activism with schoolwork and personal life, affirmative action and Zia’s future work.

In response to Zia’s talk, Olivia Zheng ’20 said, “I think hearing about her experiences in organizing then was really inspiring, especially considering that there is a lot of student organizing that goes on on Amherst’s campus as well that I feel like should get more visibility.”

Sho Young Shin ’19 commented, “A lot of people are inspired by her, especially as we continue to build our foundations as the Asian Students Association on campus. And so to have her is really meaningful but also a statement to the administration that the students are interested and are very much a part of Asian-American activism and are seeking courses in Asian-American studies, and that we have a place in this campus. We’re not just there, we’re very much a voice on this campus.”