Keynote speaker Zia discusses Wen Ho Lee accusations, Asian-American identity

Author and journalist Helen Zia gave the keynote address for Asian-American Awareness Month on Sunday night in Brooks-Rogers auditorium. The topic of her talk was “Notes from an Asian-American Journalist: Wen Ho Lee, Racial Profiling and Building Bridges across Post-9/11 American Fundamentalism.” Zia is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Asian-American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. She also co-wrote the book My Country Versus Me with Wen Ho Lee, a researcher at the government laboratories at Los Alamos who was wrongly accused and jailed for being a Chinese spy in 1999. She is a former executive editor for Ms. Magazine and her articles and essays have been featured in numerous publications.

Zia began her discussion by highlighting how pivotal our time is in the context of American history, because rapidly changing demographic trends indicate that there soon will be no majority race in America. She also noted the various anniversaries relating to Asian–American history that fall during the year 2002, such as the 60th anniversary of the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II, the 20th anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin, who was killed simply for looking Japanese during the recession of the early ’80s, and the one-year anniversary of the American spy plane being forced down by Chinese fighter jets.

Zia then talked about how important Asian-American voices are in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, especially when it comes to racial profiling. She discussed the case of Wen Ho Lee, who was falsely accused as a “spy suspect,” and then falsely accused of spying for China. She claimed that he now has a “scarlet ‘S’ on his forehead” that will never go away.

“Racial profiling for national security doesn’t work,” she maintained. “Any policy targeting any people has a terrible impact.”

Next, Zia discussed how such racial profiling contributes to the hate crimes that have occurred in the wake of the terrorist attacks. In addition to its “war on terrorism,” Zia hopes that the U.S. will start a war on domestic terrorism. She noted that after the destruction of the World Trade Center there were 700 hate crimes reported against Arab-Americans, Sikhs, Muslims, Southeast Asians and other people of color, all “in the name of patriotism.” Zia decried such crimes, calling them “a continuum of hate.”

She cited examples of various hate crimes that fell into the category of domestic terrorism. She singled out Eric Rudolph, who bombed the Atlanta Olympic games hoping to incite a “race war.” He too, Zia said, is a terrorist that authorities should be looking for, even though he does not fit the stereotypical image of a terrorist. She also mentioned the “perverse situation” of communities that have been victims of hate crimes committing such crimes themselves, citing the example of a group of East Asian-Americans committing a “patriotic” attack against Southeast Asians.

Zia discussed how everyone has “markers,” or pieces of themselves that people treat as different or discriminate against. She then talked about her childhood and how, because of her Asian-American status, she often felt “invisible.” As an Asian-American growing up in New Jersey, she talked about how she was “not thought of as a part of New Jersey, but as an alien…I felt like one in a bazillion.” When she was growing up there were only 400,000 Asian-Americans in America, as compared to the 10 million that live here now.

“Even though we have changed in numbers, public understanding always lags behind reality,” she said. She noted that even though a quarter of the American health care workforce is Asian-American, rarely does one see an Asian-American featured on TV shows like ER or Chicago Hope. On the other hand, Asian-Americans are often portrayed as the “model minority;” that is, they are affluent and do not need public assistance. In actuality, 1 out of eight Asian-Americans live in poverty.

Zia noted how, when she was growing up, she never knew about the accomplishments of her fellow Asian-Americans. Such information is, as she called it, M.I.H. (Missing in History). She then discussed more about her childhood, how she was taught to be seen and not heard , and to be obedient because of her female status. She related a story about how her gym teacher from the time she was seven to the time she was 18 called her by the wrong name. Because of her feeling “invisible,” she never corrected the teacher until someone did it for her. “I had no voice to raise,” she said. “But then I went through a process of transformation, to raise my own voice.”

She then talked about her time as an activist in Boston. She discussed how she was once put on “trial” by her fellow activists because she was suspected to be a lesbian. Even members of the Asian-American community did not want to accept her, and because of her concern that her extended family would disown her, she denied her sexuality. She noted how, by eventually coming out to her Asian-American community, she was able to “combine two parallel universes.”

Zia then talked about how racial profiling is “an erosion in the principles that made our country great.” She related the current situation, with the decision to not broadcast information from the enemy for fear that it contained “coded messages,” to the innocent Wen Ho Lee, whose simple spoken “hello” was feared to be a coded transmitter to coconspirators. She also compared it to WWII, when Japanese- American farmers were thought to be planting their tomatoes in such a way that the stems pointed towards US air force bases in order to aid Japanese fighter planes. “It’s sad, but people believed it,” Zia said.

“The Wen Ho Lee case illustrates that racial profiling for national security does not work,” she said. “The FBI was so busy trying to fit Wen Ho Lee as a spy that the real person who committed those crimes is still out there.”

Furthermore, she noted, the tremendous resources expended in the Lee case could have been directed in following up the early warning signs of the Sept. 11 attacks. At the time of the Lee case, the terrorists were plotting their attack. Zia ended by discussing how “Asian-Americans must assert how we see ourselves. We don’t have to accept stereotypes. We must build bridges and share stories. We must break down these parallel universes.”

She noted the many M.I.H. examples of how all the American minorities have been connected over the years, how Asian Americans have not been given a major place in history. She expressed her hope that the students of today would carve out a place in history for the Asian-American community. Zia concluded by rallying the crowd. “Claim your rightful voices to be heard,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to speak them…Let [America] know that Asian-Americans have a lot to say.”