Activist Helena Wong on Asian Organizing and Racial Solidarity

On the 11th of April, Helena Wong—co-director of Seeding Change: A Center for Asian American Movement Building—spoke at Bond Hall at a talk titled “Beyond Racial Solidarity: Asian Organizing & the Reactionary Right". The talk examined the history and the future of Asian and Asian-American activism, as well as collaboration with other racial minority groups. Student groups SAO, SASS, Enlace, SEASA, Multi, along with the Asian Studies Department and the Intercultural Center co-sponsored this event with the Asian and Pacific Island Heritage Month committee.

A New York City native and second-generation Chinese-American, Wong opened the presentation by talking about her own personal history with social justice organizing. A huge problem, she mentioned, was gentrification in her neighborhood. She has been involved in organizing since she was a young teen, and has over twenty years of experience.

Aside from her personal history, she went deeply into the history of Asian-American activism, and specifically activist actions completed in solidarity with other racial and ethnic minority groups. An example of this are the wars that took place in Southeast Asia, commonly known as the Vietnam War. She mentioned that it was important to emphasize how other regions, namely Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, were also victims of these conflicts. Another example was the alliance between Filipino and Mexican migrant workers led by Cesar Chavez, and the boycott of the grape company.

Two major points in her talk, in reference to the title, were the ideas of “beyond solidarity” and “the reactionary right.” She pointed to examples of not only the white reactionary right, in which names like Milo Yiannopoulos and Stephen Bannon come up as examples in American media. However, what often does not get as much attention is the Asian reactionary right. Wong brought up the murder of Akai Gurley by the hands of police officer Peter Wong. Many Chinese and Chinese-Americans protested with signs such as “One Tragedy Two Victims” implying that both the murder of Akai Gurley and the indictment of Peter Liang were unfair outcomes of this interaction. Wong reflected on these series of protests, speaking about how moments like these completely miss an analysis of how anti-blackness and white supremacy are at play. She argued that though the sole indictment of Liang could very likely be attributed to racism,  protesting the indictment ignored the fact that Black Americans were being murdered by law enforcement officers.

Asians and Asian Americans are also affected by policing of their communities, and this is really where “beyond solidarity” seemed to hit home for Wong. She brought up the spike in Islamophobic hate crimes post-9/11 that terrorized so many South Asian Muslims, reflecting on how much more the rest of the Asian community could and should have done to support them. The ways in which Asian and Asian American communities are oppressed are often ignored because of white supremacy’s positioning of the Asian identity. Wong showed the audience a TIME magazine cover from the 1950’s of an Asian family, framing the family as evidence of the new “whiz kids,” positioning Asian-Americans as the “model minority.” Wong emphasized how this construction of the “model minority” simultaneously constructed the idea that there were “bad minorities.” She vehemently argued that this myth perpetuatedsanti-blackness and continuously divides communities that should be engaging in activist work together. In combating white supremacy, she argues, “their problems are our problems, and our problems are their problems.”

Weeks after the presentation, Voices caught up with Janice Luo ‘19 and Christine Lee ‘18, both of whom had met Helena Wong months prior to the event through their work with Seeding Change. The organization, according to Luo, seeks to pair “young aspiring Asian American activists” with organizations doing Asian-American activist work. Luo was paired with Asian Americans United in Philadelphia while Lee worked with Korean Resource Center in Los Angeles. Both were doing some curriculum and training work for high school students, hoping to get more involved in activism themselves.

When asked about the origin stories of their activism, both Luo and Lee pointed to programs and opportunities at Swarthmore.  Lee talked about her work as an Intercultural Center intern her sophomore year. She comments, “that really sort of kind of changed how I views activism and how I can be an activist in whatever capacity that is.” Luo had participated in the Tri-Co Social Justice Summer Institute as an incoming freshman two years ago, which she says provided her with some clarity around her experiences: “In that week of intensive workshops, finally I had the language to talk about what I experienced as an Asian American in various settings and how that has affected me, and [as] a woman.”

Receiving language to talk about one’s experiences seemed to be a common theme, particularly when reflecting on Wong’s presentation. Lee states: “A lot of what Helena talked about, we talked about over the summer, and going beyond solidarity… I really was most interested in the last half of her talk where she talks about the rise of the reactionary right, because I feel like that’s something that I see in my everyday life…it was nice to have language around it.” Similar to Wong, Lee points to this lack of solidarity and this surge of the Asian reactionary right as challenges to collaboration with other marginalized groups. Luo also comments on these challenges, “What I took away was a reminder to be nuanced in my thinking,” particularly in the roles “that different Asian American communities play.” She goes on to say “especially for Chinese people and East Asians, conservatism in these communities is a problem… racism against other POC, [and] especially anti-blackness.”

Both Luo and Lee praised the upcoming student-led course “Introduction to Asian American Studies,” which is being taught next semester, Fall 2018, on Tuesdays 1:15-4:00 pm. They both agreed that learning one’s own history is integral to activist work. One tidbit of this history that Luo explained shows how anti-blackness is part of the construction of Asian identity in the U.S.: “Here was a big influx of Asians in the U.S. to fulfill labor demands after slavery, so the foundations for Asian-Americans were anti-blackness.” Luo reflected on the importance of this course, stating that self-understanding “in itself is a form of activism.” Lee agreed, adding that though she’ll be graduating this semester, she is excited to see this class come to fruition. She continued to explain that she’s excited for the course to be “acknowledged by the powers that be,” so that the burden will not fall on students continuously for this work to be done.

Though both Luo and Lee have experience as Asian-American activists thinking about their own history, and are looking forward to future with things like this new “Introduction to Asian American Studies Course,” they both acknowledge their inability to speak for the entire Asian-American community, particularly as two lighter-skinned, East Asian women. They, similarly to Wong, want to emphasize the necessity of widening the definition of “Asian American” and “Asian American experiences.”

For any other budding Asian-American activists interested in organizing work, Seeding Change is starting up a new program called SNAP. For anyone looking to get involved, feel free to contact Janice Luo at jluo1@swarthmore.edu