Helen Zia

by Hannah from San Diego

143832Helen ZiaSteve Rhodes - Flickr [Public domain]

"I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to" (Langston Hughes). This quote by Langston Hughes, world-famous African American poet and activist, defines Helen Zia perfectly. Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1952, to parents who immigrated from China, Zia grew up amid the traditions of two very different cultures ("Helen Zia"). Her home life was filled with stories of China and Confucius beliefs of family and the Three Obediences, while her school life exposed her to hot dogs, apple pie and jump rope games. However, as much as Zia's family tried to assimilate, they were well aware of their "foreignness." They were stared at when they walked into restaurants. Zia had to endure the common question of "no really, where are you from?" when she would explain that she was from New Jersey. Zia "felt different from the 'real' Americans ... [T]he joke was on us because no matter how hard we might try to blend in with the scenery, our faces gave us away" (Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People). Because of these experiences of racism as a child, Zia felt compelled to find a voice and, as a result, became an award-winning journalist and a civil rights activist. Her activism has included fighting hate crimes, organizing events for battered Asian American women, and speaking out against ethno-rape, or rape that is motivated by racial bias ("Helen Zia").  Additionally, she has advocated for gay and lesbian rights ("Helen Zia"). During the times Zia first appeared as an activist, America was still shaken by the Pearl Harbor Attack in 1941. A lot of hate was directed towards Asians, even nearly three decades after the attack. Despite it all, Zia continued to share her activist beliefs and fight for the weak. Even today, she has not ceased to defend people's rights when threatened. Through her perseverance and determination, Helen Zia did not allow anything to stop her from standing up for her beliefs.

Helen Zia utilized her perseverance in order to go on and achieve greater things. In June of 1982, Vincent Chin was beaten to death after an altercation in a Detroit bar with two white men. One of the men, an auto-worker who had been laid off, incorrectly assumed that Chin was Japanese. At the time, anti-Japanese sentiment in Detroit was at an all time high, with Japanese auto products being blamed for the ailing U.S. auto industry ("Helen Zia"). At the end of the trial, the two white men were released on probation and had to pay a fine. Because of this, many Asian-Americans considered the verdict to be a "loss," became discouraged and gave up on freeing themselves from the grasps of racism. However, Zia did not let this unfair verdict stop her willingness to fight for civil rights and instead used the case to her advantage. "A documentary film, Who Killed Vincent Chin?, was produced that covered the incident and Zia's role in organizing the protest against setting the two white men free in Chin's case. In the aftermath of the murder, Zia facilitated a collaboration between the various Asian American communities and a rallying around a common cause, a condition that had not previously existed. The film was later nominated for an Academy Award" ("Helen Zia").  Rather than giving up on all her hard work because of a single loss, Zia continued to express the feelings Asian Americans had towards racial violence. Instead of being angered by the situation she was placed in, she used the loss to strengthen her movement. Because she kept on supporting her cause despite the odds, Zia started to speak for the Asian community. She fought the battles they refused to fight themselves. In other words, because of the outcome and her persistence to continue to fight, Zia became the voice of the Asian American population. To fulfill her job as a voice, society had to listen and see the pains Asian Americans went through due to racial violence. In order to get their attention, Zia applied her activist beliefs and her journalistic talents to write Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, a book written specifically so society could see the hardships Asian-Americans went through. The book revolved around two questions: the first being "how can Asians break free from the grasp of the stereotypes?"; the second was, "What does it take to be fully accepted by America?" Zia used her personal experiences, Asian history, and even Vincent Chin's case to form a strong tie with her audience so they could understand Asian-American emotions. This bond is exemplified in one of the reviews of her book: "Somini Sengupta, writing for the New York Times commented that Asian American Dreams is an important book because it seeks to answer the question that few other popular works pose: 'What does it take for people to become fully American?'" (Contemporary Authors Online). When Sengupta asks, "What does it take to become fully American?", he is addressing the fact that the Asian American population was not accepted among the rest of society as being American. Zia left this as an open-ended question in her book so her readers could understand the feeling of trying to strive for what seemed like an unattainable goal for Asian Americans. Zia changed people's perspectives on the situation at hand all through her book. However, she would have never gone on to create this effect on society if it were not for the Chin "loss." Because of her persistence, Zia became a leader of the Asian civil rights movement. Zia's perseverance in expressing her beliefs allowed her to make a greater impact on American society.

Zia's determination in achieving her goals allowed her to have faith in her actions and believe she could inspire her audience to no longer be invisible or silent. After the success of her book, Zia did not stop sharing her ideas with America. She continued to be the voice of people who were voiceless in society: "In addition to her efforts on behalf of Asian Americans, Zia is also active in the feminist and gay/lesbian movements as well as other social justice causes. All of these interests figure prominently in her speeches, of which she may give up to two dozen or so in the course of a typical year" ("Helen Zia"). Because of her undying determination to spread her concerns, Zia utilizes her opportunities to step into the public arena to discuss and publicize her thoughts on movements she is fighting for. Zia understands the dangers that being so vocal provides room for people to criticize and mock her for her beliefs. Knowing how people felt about her, Zia took the risk of being hated her entire life just to express the feelings of others. To be that brave requires incredible drive, and to fulfill that drive takes a lot of determination. Zia's ability to speak her thoughts to the public also exemplifies the confidence in herself. To speak in front of millions of people takes a lot of confidence. But Zia had to believe her ideas could inspire someone to go out and take action. Not only did she believe in herself, Zia believed in strangers who listened to her. Even though she didn't know a lot of these people, Zia had confidence that these strangers could work together to benefit everyone. Her trust in them is shown in an interview where Zia discussed her thoughts on feminism:

"Feminism is not a racist ideology. If someone claims to be a feminist but exhibits exclusionary behavior and is reluctant to change--we all have prejudices, so I'm not holding feminists to a higher level--I expect them to change. What I say to women of color and other young feminists or womenists is this: there is no Women's Movement, capital W, capital M. There are women's movements, plural. And those movements are alive and well in communities of color. Many of the strongest voices in our communities of color are women. We carry our communities on our backs. With or without the label, we're there. To say that women of color are not interested in equality for women is just not true. But many women of color have had negative experiences with individual, white, so-called feminists or with organizations and institutions within a feminist framework. I've had negative experiences. But we accomplish much more together than separately. I don't throw out the notion of feminism because of the negatives. We all have to work on these negatives. We cannot sum up a movement based on individual experiences" ("Helen Zia on Women of Color and Feminism").

Unlike most leaders, Zia did not hold herself or "feminists to a higher level." When Zia states "What I say to women of color and other young feminists or womenists is this: there is no Women's Movement, capital W, capital M. There are women's movements, plural," she means that there is not one strong woman who leads the "Women's Movement"; there are many strong women leading the movement. When Zia says, "Many of the strongest voices in our communities of color are women. We carry our communities on our backs. With or without the label, we're there. To say that women of color are not interested in equality for women is just not true," she means that many women are strong for supporting people other than themselves and believe in the concepts of feminism. In spite of their nature, Zia knows "women of color have had negative experiences" caused by individuals who call themselves feminists, making them unsure whether to join the movement or not. Regardless all the unpleasant experiences, Zia knows "we accomplish much more together than separately." When Zia says, "I don't throw out the notion of feminism because of the negatives. We all have to work on these negatives. We cannot sum up a movement based on individual experiences," she wants people to move past their individual problems so they can work together and transform into an unbreakable force. The confident tone she uses throughout her monologue showcases the amount of determination she has in achieving her goal of uniting women to fight for the greater good. Zia was determined that she could make a change in society and that her audience would do the same by working together.

As a result of her incredible perseverance to continue to fight for her beliefs and her undying determination in achieving her goals, Helen Zia has improved the lives of millions Americans nationwide. Despite all the odds up against her, she did not cease to fight for what she believed in. Even when actions were unfair, Zia persisted to do all she could do to expose hidden problems to the rest of the country. She did not let the hatred of other people distract her from the road of moral courage; instead the hatred fueled her burning determination for her dreams to be achieved. Zia kept a firm grip on her morals--one so strong that she was willing to share her beliefs through all the obstacles against her and sacrificed the innocence of her reputation to speak her thoughts to society. Even though she has done remarkable and noteworthy things in her lifetime, what makes Helen Zia truly a hero was her reaction to the events that disturbed her. As a child, she experienced racism first-hand and was personally bothered by the pain it brought to herself and her fellow Asian Americans. Because of these strong feelings, Zia took action and stood up for her beliefs of equality. There were many other Asian Americans who went through the same events as her but did not take action because of the fear to "cause trouble" with society. Even today, I believe we, the American population, still fear making bad impressions on our peers and disobeying the status quo. Contrasting most people, Zia took action in events that bothered her morally and emotionally and was not phased by the impression she gave society. Zia's first actions led her to discover she could "get almost anywhere she wants to go" because she really wanted to. Helen Zia's ability to take action in her beliefs despite criticism and to go against the status quo of sitting by helplessly proves she is truly a "deserving" hero. 



Works Cited

 "Helen Zia." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 21 Mar. 2012.

 "Helen Zia." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Vol. 18. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 21 Mar. 2012.

"Helen Zia on Women of Color and Feminism." My ecdysis. Sat, Dec 01. 2007

Zia, Helen. Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 15, 2001.







Page created on 5/31/2012 12:00:00 AM

Last edited 3/26/2021 4:58:07 AM

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Related Links

Asian American Journalist Association - If you want to get involved in their movements
Feminist Majority Foundation - For more information on feminism and how you can associate yourself with them if interested
Human Rights Campaign - For more information to support gay/lesbian rights movements