Helen Zia on the Asian American Movement | Facing History & Ourselves
Asian American Dreams book cover beside Helen Zia headshot.

Helen Zia on the Asian American Movement

This article examines the rise of the Asian American movement through the leading voice of Helen Zia, a Chinese American author and activist working at the intersections of struggles for racial and LGBTQ justice, who helped provide a foundation for AAPI-led resistance against racism and violence.

Violence against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) peoples has persisted for centuries in the United States, but it was not until a constellation of events in the 1980s that the Asian American movement as we now know it emerged onto the public stage. A leading voice in this movement for many decades has been Helen Zia—a Chinese American author and activist working at the intersections of struggles for racial and LGBTQ justice, among other issues. Zia is the author of many works including Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People (2001) and Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao's Revolution (2020). Zia initially came to prominence in 1982 when she became the public spokesperson and a primary organizer of the campaign that sought justice for Vincent Chin—a Chinese American man who was brutally murdered in a hate crime in Detroit, Michigan. These events and others that followed would galvanize a pan-cultural Asian American movement, providing an essential foundation for AAPI-led resistance to the racism and violence that continues to besiege the community into the present.

In an exclusive interview on The May Lee Show, Zia framed her path into this work by discussing her upbringing as the child of Chinese immigrants to the United States. There, she indicated that she was often met with bafflement by her peers as a young person. Distilling her experience as a Chinese American person and how it shaped her career trajectory, she said: “Either you were invisible or you were not human… I wanted to tell the stories of all invisible people.”

One such person was Vincent Chin—a Chinese American man who had been living in Detroit and was ultimately murdered in a brutal hate crime by two white men. In conversation with May Lee, Zia explains that these events unfolded at a time when the U.S. automobile industry was collapsing and millions of Americans were laid off because Japanese automobile manufacturers were outcompeting them. This, Zia notes, fomented racist hatred against Japanese Americans, though there were relatively few of them in Detroit. Chin would be targeted in this brutal crime not because he was Japanese but because he purportedly “looked” Japanese. Chin had visited a bar as part of a bachelor party in the lead up to his wedding only to be chased down with a baseball bat and, later, had his head smashed open by a white man who served as a supervisor at the local Chrysler plant.

As Zia explains, the judge decided not to send Chin’s murderers to jail but instead gave them probation and fined them $3,000 on the grounds that they “don’t look like the kind of people who should go to jail” in predominantly Black Detroit. This verdict was a watershed moment that prompted more Asian American people than before to consider their interconnected experiences, as well as the broader implications of people being able to kill Chin so brutally and not be held accountable. Zia explains:

“Up until this point, the Asian American community wasn’t even ‘Asian American.’ It was... Japanese American, you’re Chinese American, Filipino, Indian, Korean. Everybody was their own little ethnic community; there were no national advocacy groups, nobody to stand up about hate crimes, but here was a Chinese who was killed because he looked Japanese.”

Zia goes on to explain that it was the release of the documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? that would expand the Asian American movement to an unprecedented level. “It was the first mass community Pan-Asian coming together for a political reason. There had been student movements before, the Asian American Studies movement...but not on a mass community level. [Here] you had waiters and cooks and laundry people who were out on the streets carrying banners and pushing people in wheelchairs and baby carriages alongside engineers and scientists,” Zia said. Following these events, communities around the U.S. formed advocacy groups, and an entire generation of activists and lawyers emerged around the country.

The story that Zia tells is important not only as a historical primer on the Asian American movement, but also as a window into the anti-Asian racism that has grown increasingly visible in recent years. She notes that Asian Americans have long been an “existential threat to America,” evidenced by phenomena ranging from fears about Asians taking Americans’ jobs to racist theories of contagion that scapegoat Asian people for somehow provoking illness around the world. Understanding the roots of these deeply damaging ideas and being able to chart their continuities with present-day rhetoric is crucial to disrupting anti-Asian racism and violence in our communities. With this information, we can move from unthinking acceptance of racist notions that are pervasive within our society to a deeper understanding of their content and consequences. We gain insight, for example, into the consequences of allowing taken-for-granted concepts like “The China Virus” that have heightened anti-AAPI violence to go unchallenged.

Facing History invites our entire community to view our on-demand webinar with author and activist Helen Zia in which we explore the history that undergirds the present climate of anti-AAPI racism and violence. The event also engages the resistance, perseverance, and pride that persist in AAPI communities alongside the violence that its communities continue to face.

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