Hyphen APA Heritage Month Profiles: Helen Zia

May 13, 2011

Photo by An Rong Xu

Helen Zia: The Crusader

Helen Zia has been breaking barriers for most of her life. She was among the first women to graduate from Princeton University in 1973 and has long spoken out against racism within the American feminist movement; she came out as a lesbian on national television (she married her longtime partner in 2004 and again in 2008). Zia, however, is most notable for her role in organizing against the racially motivated murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American beaten to death in 1982 by a pair of autoworkers who mistook him for Japanese. At the time, auto industry layoffs -- supposedly caused by rising Japanese imports -- fueled anti-Japanese sentiment in Detroit, and Chin become a national symbol of anti-Asian hate crimes. Zia, who was then working as a labor organizer, managed to unite a wide spectrum of Asian Americans into a cohesive movement. She later found her calling in journalism, becoming the executive editor of the feminist quarterly Ms. magazine and penning a number of hard-hitting pieces for The New York Times, Essence and The Washington Post. She also wrote two groundbreaking books about the Asian American experience: Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People and My Country Versus Me.

An Rong Xu is a documentary photographer based in New York City. New York City native Judy Lei is a student at Smith College.

Check out all of the profiles in our APA Heritage Month series.