Helen Zia

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Helen Zia

A second generation Chinese American who is an activist and journalist, Helen Zia (born 1952) advocated against racism and hate crimes that affected the Asian American community. She also involved herself with gay and lesbian and feminist issues.

In many ways, Helen Zia's activist work has served to strengthen and build coalitions among various Asian American cultural backgrounds. She was a leading voice in protesting and organizing Asian Americans after Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was killed in 1982 after a racially motivated bar fight. Zia's activism has included fighting hate crimes, organizing for battered Asian American women, and speaking out against ethno-rape, or rape that is motivated by racial bias. Additionally, she has advocated for gay and lesbian rights. Zia also served as a journalist, holding editor positions at Ms. magazine and publishing work in a variety of national newspapers and periodicals.

Early Years

"I am not exactly sure when it happened, but somewhere during my childhood I decided I wasn't American," observed Zia in Essence. Born in Newark, New Jersey, to parents who immigrated from China, Zia grew up amid the traditions of two very different cultures. "I liked hot dogs, Kool-Aid, apple pie and the two-tone Chevy wagon my dad drove," she has said. However, by the time she was eight, she and her family had encountered racial prejudice because of their perceived "foreignness." Zia concluded, "America didn't want me, and in that case I didn't want to be a part of it." During her teenage years, she very much identified with the black civil rights movement and its leaders.

After receiving her bachelor's degree from Princeton University in 1973, Zia worked briefly for the U.S. Department of State as a public affairs specialist before enrolling in the Tufts University School of Medicine, which she attended until 1975. She then headed to Detroit, where she pursued graduate studies in industrial relations at Wayne State University and was a factory worker for Chrysler Corporation from 1977 until 1979. During this same period, she began her career in journalism, contributing pieces to local and national publications.

Led the Fight for Hate Crime Sentencing in Asian American Case

Zia was one of the co-founders of American Citizens for Justice (ACJ), a group that was formed after a 27-year-old Asian American man died as the result of racially motivated violence. Vincent Chin was beaten to death in June of 1982 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. Of the events surrounding Chin's assault, Zia commented in Asian Week that "the mood was totally anti-Japanese. People who had Japanese cars were getting their cars shot at, and it didn't matter if they were white. If you were Asian, it was assumed that you were Japanese; there was personal hostility toward us."

The two suspects were initially charged with second degree murder; they eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter. However, they were given sentences of probation and fines, and the Asian American community perceived these sentences as a slap on the wrist. Asian Americans reacted with outrage at this unjust outcome. Members of ACJ circulated and helped raise funds for legal expenses to challenge the Chin decision. Zia served as the campaign's national spokesperson and was elected president of the group for two terms.

After a long and disheartening legal battle which included an FBI investigation, both men escaped serving any jail time. Later in 1987, a civil suit was filed against one of the men who was ordered to pay $1.5 million to Chin's estate. Despite this less-than-satisfying resolution to the case, Zia and other Asian Americans counted it as a partial victory because it marked the first time they were able to demonstrate a direct link between anti-Asian prejudice and increasing rates of violence against Asian Americans. However, the money was never collected as the man sold his assets and evaded law officials.

A documentary film, Who Killed Vincent Chin?, was later produced that covered the incident and Zia's role in organizing the protest. In the aftermath of the murder, Zia facilitated collaboration between the various Asian American communities and a rallying around a common cause, a condition that had not existed previously. The film was later nominated for an Academy Award.

Zia saw a need for a concerted national effort to address hate crimes against Asian Americans. She claimed that a national organization would streamline dealing with hate crimes as they happened in different parts of the country. A national organization, she said, would lend greater credibility to the fact that hate crimes against Asian Americans were part of a larger trend and not isolated, insignificant events.

Journalism Career

Zia moved into the field of journalism on a full-time basis in 1983 when she joined the staff of Metropolitan Detroit magazine as an associate editor. She left in 1985 to become executive editor of Meetings and Conventions magazine, part of the Murdoch Magazines/NewsAmerica group located in Secaucus, New Jersey. She remained with the company for the next four years, serving as editorial director of Travel Weekly from 1986 to 1987 and then as editor-in-chief of Meetings and Conventions magazine from 1987 to 1989.

In 1989, Zia moved to New York to become executive editor of Ms. magazine, a post she held until 1992. She then headed to San Francisco, where she was vice president and editor-in-chief of WorldView Systems (an electronic publishing company) through 1994.

Advocated for Asian Political Presence

Zia spoke in favor of a larger role for Asian Americans in U.S. politics and policy setting. In a 1997 National Public Radio interview, she pointed out that Asian Americans had little success in establishing a presence in American politics. This was in part, she claimed, to an emphasis on raising funds rather than what any Asian American individual might have to offer, and the fact that Asian American donations to the Democratic party were being scrutinized under a campaign reform initiative. Speaking for the Asian American community, Zia said that Asian Americans felt singled out first for what they could offer monetarily, then as the sole cause of the campaign scandal.

Protested Racist Journalism

Zia served as the president of the New York Chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA), an organization devoted to fighting media stereotyping against Asian Americans. AAJA encouraged members to advance in their field, and publicly protested specific acts of racism, often in the journalistic arena. The organization tracked incidences of racist and stereotypic journalistic reporting. Some of her accomplishments as AAJA president included organizing a community protest against a journalist who made racist and sexist remarks about a Korean-American reporter.

Under Zia's leadership, the AAJA also succeeded in grabbing the attention of the national media during protests which decried the cast choices for the musical Miss Saigon, a situation where Caucasians were being cast in Asian roles. As another example, on August 27, 1992, Zia was in Washington, D.C., to deliver the keynote address at the annual convention of the Asian American Journalists Association. The subject of her talk was media coverage of Asian Americans-particularly by other Asian Americans.

Social Activist

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. Zia's activist interests extended beyond protesting racism or stereotypical journalism. She served as a board member of the New York Asian Women's Center, an organization that provided shelter and services for Asian women who had been victims of physical abuse. According to an article in A. Magazine, battering of these women was often ignored, since the majority of the battering was instigated by Asian men. Zia organized around other feminist issues as well. She carried out an investigation at the University of Michigan on date rape which incited a demonstration on the grounds and a restructuring of the university's administration.

Continued Work as Journalist

In addition to activist organizing, Zia continued to work as a journalist and published articles in a number of well known periodicals, including New York Times, Essence, Washington Post, Arizona Republic, and Ms. Zia served as managing editor and contributing editor for Ms. She served as executive editor for Notable Asian Americans and Who's Who Among Asian Americans (both publications of Gale Research). In the late 1990s Zia remained involved in a number of activist fronts; continuing to serve on the boards of Asian groups such as the AAJA and an Asian women's shelter in San Francisco. She continued her involvement in gay and lesbian causes, and family violence prevention.

Further Reading

Daniels, Roger, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850, University of Washington Press, 1988.

A. Magazine, April 30, 1992.

AsianWeek, June 19, 1997.

Essence,, May 1993.

Weekend Sunday (NPR),, November 23, 1997.

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