This weekend I attended Helen Zia’s keynote address at Northwestern University’s symposium celebrating 10 years of Asian American Studies. Helen Zia is awesome. Absolutely awesome. I have always been a little bit in love with her, ever since the first time I saw an interview clip, but actually being in her presence was overwhelming. She is brilliant and smart and funny and gorgeous. Not that I am shallow enough to notice anybody’s physical appearance. But really.
Unfortunately I wasn’t there in time to see the Angry Asian Man speak the night before, but you can read about it here. I did see him at the reception following the keynote and told him how much I like and appreciate his blog. Like he hasn’t heard that a million times before. If I ever see him again, I will need to apologize for my major dorktitude. But anyway. He was very nice.
Helen Zia’s talk was titled “Possibilities, Choices and Bending Towards Justice.” She started by telling an anecdote about Northwestern University’s Asian American Studies director, Ji-Yeon Yuh. I realized I had heard this story before, only I had never realized it was Dr. Yuh. She must have been in her mid-twenties or so at the time. Anyway, it was about Dr. Yuh’s encounter with Jimmy Breslin. She criticized him for sexism, he responded with a volley of sexist, racist slurs. In the linked article, Yuh is quoted as follows:
“I don’t think ‘Newsday’ expected the Asian community to respond so strongly to this because the Asian community has a reputation for being quiet, for not being well-organized, and for, in general, not making much of a fuss,” says Yuh.
Zia related this to how we are often seen as the “model minority” and how that expectation sometimes includes the belief that we will think like “conservative white people.” She also talked about the “rise of conservative voices in Asian clothing.” Among her hall-of-shamers were Viet Dinh, John Yoo, Michelle Malkin, Dinesh D’Souza and Elaine Chao. (I have to admit to boo-ing Malkin. It just slipped out. How embarrassing.)
“Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” is a famous quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. “But it doesn’t bend on its own–it depends on you,” Zia added. She talked about how the average American, the average journalist is beginning to realize that the global center is shifting and how that raises white people’s feelings of anxiety.
Yet so often the Asian American voice is neglected entirely. In the Proposition 8 debate, Zia quoted one San Francisco Chronicle headline that read “Blacks seen as central to same sex marriage debate.” The high Asian American population in that city was completely ignored. (I wrote a little bit about the black focus here.)
And yet nobody in power is going to wake up and make change for us. We are going to have to do it ourselves. We are going to have to include it in the realm of possibility. That reminded me of what Charles Payne has said, how social movements can only begin when people believe they are possible. Zia urged us to think of the possibilities. To put a face on them. To imagine.
She stressed that we have the possibilities, but we have to make them real. And this involves choices.
Zia recounted a pivotal moment in her life in which she was confronted about whether she was a lesbian. (And I was struck by how many times white people have told me that Asians aren’t gay.) Her response? “I stepped into the closet and slammed the door shut.” She denied that she was a lesbian. And she said, “I did not have a voice.”
I thought this was a great way of reinforcing that the choices we have made in the past do not have to be the choices we make in the future. We can change. We can make change. Zia herself is evidence of this.
She stressed how many opportunities we have to make our voices known. Because of course these types of things happen continually. She talked about the Vincent Chin case, and how she felt she had to speak.
“Your voice might make a difference.”
Simultaneous she warned us to recognize the types of unconscious privilege we all hold and the responsibility we have to understand our privilege.
And in closing she said, “Asian Americans do have to stop being so fucking polite.” Which goes back to what Dr. Yuh said about the Asian American community’s “reputation.” I believe that this is imposed on us as a means of control. (Why else would people say that they don’t think of me as Asian?) Because despite the number of Asian Americans I know who use their voices, I still hear white people say that Asian Americans don’t protest. Because of course they have nothing to protest against. Say it over and over and maybe people will believe it’s true.
We must raise our voices. Be outrageous. Be heard. Claim our voices.
And that is the awesomeness of Helen Zia. And hopefully an inspiration and a motivator for the rest of us as well.