Interview: Vicki Zheng on her involvement in the Asian American justice movement.
Youth for Positive Change talked to Vicki Zheng about activism, entitlement, and the need to challenge some widely held stereotypes about Asian Americans.
YPC: What inspired you to get involved in activism?
VZ: There were a lot of different things that inspired me to become involved in activism. One of them was Wong fu productions, which is a YouTube channel. They had a short called Yappie, and one of the scenes from it really stayed with me – it was super powerful! It was this Asian character and he said, “You think you know us and that’s why you never ask about us,” in reference to Asian Americans. This definitely inspired me to get involved in activism, as I realized that what the actor said was true and I wanted to be able to do something about that.
This was also during the time when mayor Bill de Blasio announced his plan for eliminating the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT) which is given to 8th and 9th year students to determine admission to Specialized High Schools in New York City. As an Asian American, I felt that his proposed policy was directly attacking Asian Americans. This is because specialized high schools are currently made up of a majority of Asian Americans. But as Kenneth Chiu says, “[De Blasio] never had this problem when Stuyvesant [High School] was all white. He never had this problem when Stuyvesant was all Jewish. But all of a sudden, they see one too many Asians and they say, ‘Hey, it isn’t right.’” This quote also inspired me to get involved in activism because it also rang true and unfair to me. Another thing that helped me get involved in activism was a program called Apex for Youth. I am a mentee in the mentoring program, but they also have cool workshops that we are allowed to attend and one of these workshops involved speaking with a college alumni and having a mock college interview. When I was speaking to the alumni, I realized that a lot of the things I did and programs I attended related to helping the Asian American community and that workshop was when I decided that I wanted to create an Asian American association club at my school..
YPC: How did your initial experience of activism come to shape your current work?
VZ: My initial experience of activism was attending SHSAT protests. Back then, I was protesting because I believed that the plan to eliminate the SHSAT was a direct attack on the Asian American community. But now, I am more interested in getting the word out on how specialized high schools are overrated – as New Yorkers we put so much credence into making it into one these elite schools. Because they are the only ones we hear about. But the truth is we should’ve really even want to attend these elite institutions in the first place.
YPC: As you know our generation is often (I think, unfairly) described as “entitled” and “overly sensitive.” Do you feel as though these statements are reflective of Gen-Z?
VZ: I feel that we are lucky as Generation Z and should be more thankful to our parents. A lot of kids of color in America happen to be children of immigrants. Our parents’ first priority when they first came to the US was survival, and to do the best they could to allow us to have a better future. I feel that we have a lot more options than they did and unlike them we have parents and a support group in this county that we can rely on. Therefore, I think that we should be more thankful to our parents and feel more grateful that we have more options.
YPC: Have you ever found any difficulty in joining so-called “social-justice movements” because of your age?
VZ: In all of the events that I’ve attended, I would say that the adults make up the majority. For example, when I spoke at my first gala, I was the only kid. At the speaker series that I spoke at, I was also the only kid. However, at the testimony event I spoke at, there were some kids but the adults definitely still made up the majority. Therefore, I would say that I haven’t really found any difficulty, but that it’s certainly not the norm seeing kids my age at social justice movement events.
YPC: What, in your opinion, is the biggest obstacle to the Asian American movement?
VZ: The biggest obstacle to the Asian American movement is that outside of the Asian American community itself, there is not a lot of interest. Non-Asian Americans might think, “why should we care? It’s something that doesn’t affect us.” My response to that is that people who aren’t White have had a long history of being persecuted in the US. And no one should stand by and let that continue. Everyone should care!
A lot of people also don't believe that Asian Americans suffer from discrimination. And that’s because their views are based on stereotypes and what they hear in the media. People say that discrimination and racism happen because people are ignorant, but someone once taught me that that's not a valid excuse. We need to challenge ourselves to ask the right kinds of questions. What did Vincent Chin’s murder (Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two racists as was celebrating his upcoming wedding) tell us about the society we live in? Why did Asian Americans once make up the largest percentage of indigent people in New York City? Why do people think that it's just a joke to be racist to Asian Americans but wouldn't accept it if it was happening to them? If people actually took the time to do some research on Asian American history (which is rarely a part of the history curriculum in any school in the US), they would learn that there's been a long history of discrimination against Asian American people and that there's still a lot of racism against Asian Americans today.
YPC: Finally, Vicki, are there any tips you would give to young people who want to get involved in activism?
VZ: Number one: never let anyway tell you you’re not old enough. In fact, being young is a bonus since people would rather listen to your stories. And number two, it doesn’t take much to get involved in activism. If you truly care about an issue or a cause, there will always be a way to accomplish what you want to.
BIOGRAPHY: Vicki Zheng is a 16 year old New Yorker who is no stranger to discrimination and racism, and therefore, is always thinking of ways to combat societal discrimination, racism, and sexism. She goes by she/her pronouns and is a proud American born Chinese.* As an youth-activist, she is the founder of the first ever Asian American Association of her school and is very thankful to be a part of the world of activism.