Sixth Year of Bank of America Women’s Leadership Series Opens with Stirring Discussion on Black and Asian Solidarity
Asia Society at Home
HOUSTON, October 9, 2020 — Asia Society Texas Center launched the sixth year of its flagship Bank of America Women’s Leadership Series with a webcast highlighting two inspiring women who have led through race, culture, and history. Activist and author Helen Zia joined former president of Brown University and current president of Prairie View A&M University Ruth Simmons in conversation with Juju Chang, co-anchor of ABC News’ Nightline, to share how their experiences as Asian American and Black women have helped shaped them as leaders and to discuss their hopes for strengthening solidarity between the two communities.
Black and Asian solidarity in the past and present
Acknowledging the previous evening’s vice presidential candidate debate, Chang noted that Kamala Harris is the first Black and Asian American woman on a major party presidential ticket. She then asked the speakers to examine the relationship between the Black and Asian communities, particularly how to acknowledge the commonalities of experience as well as historical and present-day conflicts between the groups.
Zia said it’s important to begin with an accurate understanding of a people’s history in the U.S. To Zia, this means that Americans need to acknowledge that this country was built on the blood of enslaved Africans and their descendants and on the genocide of Indigenous people, as well as understand that the history of Asians in America began primarily as a way to replace and compete with labor by newly freed Black people. She explained that as a result, Asian Americans are often seen as not “fully American,” which is another integral part of systemic racism in the U.S.
Citing examples such as Black opposition to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Supreme Court ruling on the segregation of Chinese laundromats setting the foundation for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, Zia said there is a history of solidarity between the Black and Asian communities. She emphasized that this history needs to be known and remembered in order to strengthen relationships between the two communities moving forward.
Simmons agreed, adding that Americans need to deconstruct existing narratives and be active participants who look for the truth. She said she is glad to see that people in the U.S. are actively looking for commonalities among themselves and making an effort to reject lies that have been taught as truth for so many decades.
The importance of owning one’s identity
In sharing their personal journeys and lessons, Simmons credited her mother for teaching the importance of valuing herself. She said that being yourself is the most important thing that you can do, rather than making others happy by becoming who they want you to be. Even in her own family, Simmons said there were those who told her she must fulfill certain roles as a woman, but she never compromised on what she wanted for herself.
Identity can be intersectional as well, Zia said, because humans are complex and each individual is a culmination of many different qualities that make them who they are. She shared her own experiences of coming to terms with what being an Asian American woman meant in a time when people would look at her as something completely alien to them, and how over time she was able to develop a sense of self and personal identity by finding multiple groups she felt that she was a part of. Zia said, “That’s what everybody wants. We want to be seen as full human beings, treated as full human beings, with all the rights that every other human being gets, and treated with full human dignity.”
Why representation matters
In light of recent rallying cries that “representation matters,” Chang asked about the impact of seeing a member of one’s community in a high ranking or visible role. Simmons responded that representation goes beyond symbolism or having a voice at a table; true representation also means giving that community a voice and an opinion that is heard and considered during the decision-making process. She also emphasized that seeing the success of a member of the community is powerful because it inspires hope and confidence towards achieving similar positions and roles.
The other side of representation is the problem of invisibility, which Zia warned against. She said when the Asian American community is silent on issues, it allows others to toxically misrepresent and use the Asian community however they see fit. This invisibility has allowed for Asian Americans to be depicted as the “Chinese enemy” or the “Vietnamese enemy,” with little defense against being othered because the community lacks a visible representative. This is why she said it is imperative to speak out.
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Facing obstacles and coming together
Simmons said one of the biggest obstacles women face is that they often don’t believe they are entitled to the same opportunities or benefits as men. “The difference between what women have access to and what men have access to is what they believe they are entitled to,” she said. “So I think the most important thing is for people to be aware of what they are entitled to and to seek that, because every time a woman accepts less than she should have, it makes it very difficult for the women who come behind her.”
Chang asked what cross-community coalition would look like and how it can be achieved. Zia talked about the case of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man who was beaten to death in Detroit in 1982, and how the men responsible received no prison time. Zia pointed out that people from many different communities came together in outrage at the lack of justice, and said that by supporting each other in times of need and injustice, different communities can come together and become stronger as a result.
Simmons reminded the audience that “One way or the other, each of us is inspiring something by what we do, that is edifying or positive. That is important for everyone to remember.”
About the Speakers
Ruth J. Simmons serves as President of Prairie View A&M University. She was President of Brown University from 2001-2012. Under her leadership, Brown made significant strides in improving its standing as one of the world’s finest research universities.
A French professor before entering university administration, President Simmons held an appointment as a Professor of Comparative Literature and Africana Studies at Brown. After completing her Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard, she served in various faculty and administrative roles at the University of Southern California, Princeton University, and Spelman College before becoming president of Smith College, the largest women’s college in the United States. At Smith, she launched a number of important academic initiatives, including an engineering program, the first at an American women’s college.
Simmons is the recipient of many honors, including a Fulbright Fellowship to France, the 2001 President’s Award from the United Negro College Fund, the 2002 Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, the 2004 Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal, the Foreign Policy Association Medal, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, and the Centennial Medal from Harvard University. Simmons is a member of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Council on Foreign Relations, and serves on the boards of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Holdsworth Center. She also serves on the Board of Directors of Square. Awarded numerous honorary degrees, she received the Brown Faculty’s highest honor: the Susan Colver Rosenberger Medal in 2011. In 2012, she was named a ‘chevalier’ of the French Legion of Honor.
Helen Zia is an activist, author, and former journalist. After twelve years in the making, Last Boat out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution is out! Helen’s latest book traces the lives of migrants and refugees from another cataclysmic time in history that has striking parallels to the difficulties facing migrants today. She interviewed more than 100 survivors of that exodus and countless others. Helen’s essay in the New York Times reveals her mother’s secret that inspired her to write this book.
In 2000, her first book was published: Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, a finalist for the prestigious Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. She also authored the story of Wen Ho Lee in My Country Versus Me, about the Los Alamos scientist who was falsely accused of being a spy for China in the “worst case since the Rosenbergs.” She was Executive Editor of Ms. Magazine and a founding board co-chair of the Women’s Media Center. She has been active in many non-profit organizations, including Equality Now, AAJA, and KQED. Her ground-breaking articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in many publications, books, and anthologies, receiving numerous awards.
The daughter of immigrants from China, Helen has been outspoken on issues ranging from human rights and peace to women’s rights and countering hate violence and homophobia. She is featured in the Academy Award-nominated documentary, Who Killed Vincent Chin? and was profiled in Bill Moyers’ PBS series, Becoming American: The Chinese Experience. In 2008 Helen was a Torchbearer in San Francisco for the Beijing Olympics amid great controversy; in 2010, she was a witness in the federal marriage equality case decided by the US Supreme Court.
Helen received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of San Francisco and an honorary Doctor of Laws from the City University of New York Law School for bringing important matters of law and civil rights into public view. She is a Fulbright Scholar and a graduate of Princeton University’s first coeducational class. She attended medical school but quit after completing two years, then went to work as a construction laborer, an autoworker, and a community organizer, after which she discovered her life’s work as a writer.
About the Moderator
Juju Chang is an Emmy Award-winning co-anchor of ABC News’ Nightline. She also reports regularly for Good Morning America and 20/20.
Chang has been recognized for her in-depth personal narratives set against the backdrop of pressing national and international news. Her exclusive television interview with transgender solider Chelsea Manning, after seven years in prison, explored issues of national security leaks and LGBTQ military service. Her profile of former firefighter Pat Hardison – after a groundbreaking face transplant – highlighted the crisis of organ donation. She also interviewed transgender teen Jazz Jennings and her journey towards getting gender confirmation surgery and advocacy for other young transgender people. Additionally, Chang anchored a special edition of Nightline, “Consent on Campus,” from Penn State which tackled complex issues surrounding sexual assault.
Chang has also covered major breaking news for decades for ABC News, including Superstorm Sandy, the Orlando nightclub massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing. She has traveled around the world to report on global issues including a three-country trip through Central Africa on the front lines against Boko Haram in the latest on #bringbackourgirls, and to Honduras for “Femicide: the Untold War,” an eye-opening look at rampant violence against women.
Chang has profiled newsmakers like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, former Vice President Joe Biden and Oprah Winfrey as well as entertainers like Chris Pratt, Channing Tatum, Nicki Minaj, and Bella Thorne. Her extensive feature reporting covers parenting dilemmas, digital addictions and social media moguls like Dude Perfect and Esther the Wonder Pig.
A former news anchor for Good Morning America, Chang joined ABC News as an entry level desk assistant in 1987 and rose to become a producer for World News Tonight. Her first on-air job was reporting for KGO-TV in San Francisco. After a year in Washington, D.C. covering the White House, Capitol Hill and the presidential election for NewsOne, she co-anchored the overnight show World News Now. Chang’s work has been recognized with numerous awards including multiple Emmy’s, Gracie’s, a DuPont, a Murrow and Peabody awards. In 2017, she was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Front Page Awards.
Born in Seoul, South Korea and raised in Northern California, Chang graduated with honors from Stanford University with a B.A. in political science and communication. She is married to WNET President and CEO Neal Shapiro and together they have three sons. Chang is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a founding board member of the Korean American Community Foundation.
About the Women's Leadership Series
The Women's Leadership Series (WLS) celebrates influential, diverse women making a substantive impact in both the business and culture arenas, locally and globally.
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