How To Stage A Coup: An Interview with Helen Luu (Maximumrocknroll ??? 2000)

by mimi thi nguyen

In a 2009 Maximumrocknroll column, Osa (Shotgun Seamstress) thoughtfully reflects on her “brown punk” predecessors, including myself and Helen Luu. In the interests of creating an archive for other “brown punks,” those of us who came before and those who come after, I want to offer this 2000 or 2001 Maximumrocknroll interview I did with Helen, who put together the compilation zine How To Stage A Coup: An Insurrection of an Underground Liberation Army. Helen eventually grew more interested in other kinds of music and subcultural scenes in which she didn’t feel like such a minority. She continued to pursue her interests in social justice as she moved away from punk, organizing around racism and immigration and facilitating anti-oppression workshops. She also works for various organizations (for youth, women and trans people, and immigrants and refugees) as a community worker. Helen now DJs as Miss Ruckus, writing a music blog with some friends and playing taiko drums in an all-Asian women collective.

HTSAC was the last zine Helen ever made.

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HeartAttaCk columnist and activist Helen Luu recently edited a compilation zine called How To Stage A Coup, aimed at creating a dialogue among people of color involved in subcultural pursuits (including punk rock) around race, racism and politics. Contributors like Lauren Martin (You Might As Well Live, Quantify), Lynn Hou (Cyanide), Celia Prez (I Dreamed I Was Assertive), Elizabeth Martinez (Colorlines) and Vincent Chung address a wide variety of issues from organizing and identity politics, to activist dynamics and punk rock betrayals. What does it mean to look at the photographs of Third World suffering on the covers of grindcore records? What does it mean to talk about “pride”? Where was the “color” in Seattle/WTO? What comes first – “being brown or being famous”? The contributors to this compilation ask important questions that need asking, again and again, and Helen Luu brings it all together. Interview by Mimi Nguyen.

So tell me, Helen, who the hell are you, and what do you do?

I’m a 23-year-old Vietnamese/Chinese Canadian, once-upon-a-time refugee, recent university graduate, who is on the margins of punk rock (like many other people of color who began to realize that punk is not a safe haven for them…a lot of us are either on the margins or we remove ourselves entirely). A lot of stuff in our world pisses me off and makes me sad (police brutality, the injustice system, corporate globalization, poverty, sweatshops, etc.), and so I try and do something about it by getting involved with political activism in whatever form I see fit. I think that a lot of this stuff falls under the banner of capitalism or is connected to it in some way, and so I guess I can say that a lot of the work that I do is in challenging capitalism.

You’re involved in both social justice organizing and critique. What motivates you? What discourages you? Why do you feel it’s necessary to do both?

What motivates me is the fact that there are alternatives to the fucked up system that we are living in. Lately, I have been meeting (in person, on the Internet, through letters, etc.) a lot of amazing people whom I find incredibly inspiring and this helps to empower and motivate me to keep going. There are people out there doing amazing work and I just feel a lot of hope these days that we can really change things, but it takes work, and it takes continuous critiquing and questioning and challenging, including looking at ourselves and other progressive activists. I guess that’s something that discourages me – encountering not-so-progressive things among supposedly progressive people/groups (and yes, that would include punk!) like racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc.. But hey, I’m not gonna let that get me down. I find that it can sometimes be easy to feel burnt out though, so finding ways to stay inspired and empowered is really important. I was sitting in one of my favorite classes in my final year of school and it suddenly dawned on me that I was really sick of that class and what it represented. I was a sociology major so a lot of the time, and we sat around and criticized society and whined about how messed up it is and that sort of thing. But that day, I looked around and thought about how I never see any of these people (including my “lefty” professor) doing anything except sit on their academic high-horses and theorize. And I thought about how far removed this all was from real people and real lives. I couldn’t wait to graduate and get the hell out of there. I’m very critical now of anyone who fails to marry theory and critique with practice. I think that critique without practice is, more often than not, just a lot of mental masturbation.

How did HTSAC come together, conceptually and practically?

I’ve been doing zines for a few years now and because of this, have also read a lot of zines and corresponded with lots of people. I started noticing that some zine kids have some really fucked-up notions about issues like racism and that zine culture, like punk rock, is mostly this sea of white – not only in terms of people but also in terms of ideas and ideology and perspectives and that sort of thing. At the same time though, I would sometimes come across amazing zines by kick-ass people of color with really great critical commentary on race. One day, into my lap fell Evolution of a Race Riot, which was this compilation zine put together over a number of years by you, and which was filled with writings and art by some amazing people of color. It was hands down the most inspiring and empowering zine I had ever read, because this was the first thing I had ever encountered that was about us, by us, and for us, on our own terms. And it was this collection of voices from all over North America who might not even have otherwise known about each other were it not for the zine. I am proud to say that HTSAC is in the spirit of Evolution of a Race Riot because our fire ain’t gonna die down! To all our misguided friends and enemies: be very very afraid. As people of color, we need to build on and continue positive projects like Evolution of a Race Riot. I felt that it was important that HTSAC be by, for, and about people of color because a lot of us want to engage in a different kind of discourse. A lot of us are really sick and tired of constantly having to play the role of “educator” to white people who just don’t get it, and who instead accuse us of “reverse discrimination,” of being “too angry,” of being “ungrateful immigrants” because they feel that their positions of white privilege and power might be threatened. So anyway, I just started putting out the word about the zine, making the call for contributions, and when I finally decided to get my shit together and stop putting it off, I started nagging people more for submissions and they just started to pour in.

How hard was it to round up contributors, seeing as how scarce people of color are in the punk scene (where I assume you did the most “recruiting”) added to the usual bumps and twists with contributor-based projects?

This is the second comp zine I’ve ever put together and from my past experiences, I already knew that it would be hard to get people to contribute stuff and that I would have to be more proactive in recruiting submissions. I found that a lot of people I approached were very positive about the zine, and I think part of the reason why is that people feel there is a need for this kind of thing, and feel a need to network and communicate with other people of color, to share experiences and find out that we share a lot of similar ones.

This is probably especially true of people involved with scenes like punk where we are few and far between. I was also lucky because in the past little while, I’ve been fortunate enough to network with and have connections to other punks of color, through zines, through internet communities, and that sort of thing so finding people involved with punk wasn’t too hard. However, because I don’t have the same kind of access to other scenes, I found it much more difficult to recruit people who participate in other subcultures, the result being that most of the stuff in the zine are from people involved with punk.

What’s your take on how race and racism have, let’s say, typically addressed within the so-called “punk community”? Do you have a standard response to the too-common assertion that punk is both “inclusive” and “outside” of dominant racial hegemony?

I am very critical of the way that race and racism are typically addressed within punk. The worst part is that punks are too often in denial of the fact that oppression is alive and well within the scene, arrogantly believing that somehow punks are morally superior to the rest of society. There is this ridiculous idea that punks, and punk as an institution, are somehow never guilty of racism (or any other ism). If punk is so damn inclusive, why the hell is it still so white-dominated? And why the hell do so many people of color I know drop out of it like flies? I think that a lot of punks also tend to mostly look at racism as an individual problem, and not as a systemic one that holds this society up the way it does. The belief is that the problem is with a few “bad apples” (which would be racist neo-nazi groups and individuals) and so there’s this notion that by getting rid of and challenging these bad apples, things will be all right and well with the world! Hence, we end up having groups like the brave and mighty (and mostly white) ARA to save and defend the people of color from the big bad racist people. (Sarcasm rules.) Another way that racism is often addressed within punk is that whole “colorblind” bullshit: “We are all of one race, the human race.” Basically, what this really means is “everything is okay as long as we all pretend that everyone is white.” It ignores the fact that the history and experiences of a white person are NOT the same as mine (even if we are of the same class) as well as denying me the right to my history and experiences. It’s a way of attempting to not really address racism, of not acknowledging that the problem is not gonna go away just because we should all forgive and forget and just be one big happy family. I think one of the biggest problems that spawn these kinds of non-solutions is the fact that too many people do not have an adequate power analysis – who has power in society and who doesn’t, and how this plays out in society and in punk rock. Because of this, we also get people who espouse that whole “race traitor” rhetoric, that the world would be a happy place if white people would only reject and shed their whiteness. Sorry to say, but it’s not that easy! Ideologically rejecting one’s whiteness does not even tip the power scale in the real world! I find that a lot of the discourse within the punk scene on race and racism tends to be pretty superficial, good intentions aside. For example, tokenism is a favorite response of white punks trying to address racism. Oh yeah, and newsflash: sporting an ARA or crossed-out swastika patch doesn’t mean you’re somehow automatically not racist!

The way race sometimes gets dealt with in the punk scene is so superficial; for instance, the common assertion that having “blue hair” is equivalent to having black skin, that both invoke discrimination. The whole “race traitor” trend seems to follow along those lines, only with a lot more rhetoric. What’s your take on what’s missing from these approaches?

I think what is missing is a real, critical analysis of power in society and who has access to that kind of power. A white punk with blue hair still has power and privilege over a person of colour (with blue hair or not) on the basis of race. Punks with blue hair can wash the blue out of their hair or whatever and the “discrimination” will stop. People of colour cannot exactly wash out the colour of their skin (although there have been attempts by some due to internalized racism, like with bleaching creams that you sometimes see on the market in some countries)! It also goes much deeper than just skin colour as well because of historical and social context and the way that race is constructed, etc. It’s the same with the faulty race traitor approach, ideologically proclaiming yourself “not white” is fine and dandy (and I think it’s also a way for white people to relieve any feelings of guilt and feel better about themselves). Don’t expect that doing so will suddenly relieve you of the white privilege and power that society grants you!

What’s been the response to your “race work” so far? Do you feel tokenized, ever?

The response has been mixed. I’ve received a lot of positive responses from other people, which has been great. With my columns in HeartAttaCk, I find that when I write about race stuff, I get a lot of positive responses from mostly people of color who just want to dialogue and say that they feel the same way. That’s been an incredible experience. It’s that whole recognition thing. However, I also get my share of reactionary and defensive responses from people too. For example, I had a white person (a friend, actually) tell me that what I felt about racism was wrong and that I was just being paranoid. He was basically telling me that I was being an “ungrateful immigrant” but in more subtle terms. I don’t want to give off the impression that I think that all white people don’t get it and all people of color do because that is totally not true. I’ve had my share of reactionary arguments from people of color so I harbor no illusions that we all know where it’s at. But I think there is still a difference when dialoguing with people of color versus. with white people, because the type of discourse that is available is different and the way that things like power, and how it plays itself out, differs as well. And with tokenism, well, many times I’ve felt like I was used as the token person of color. Like I said before, tokenism is often a favorite response of white punks – and white activists too – when the issue of race and racism comes up. It’s simplistic, superficial, and it’s an attempted easy way out of having to adequately address racism. It also works to marginalize people of color. The thing is though that even while I’ve felt that I was being tokenized, I would often still get involved with whatever it was that I was recruited for if I believed in the aims of the project or the protest or whatever. Sometimes, you can use that position to do good things like making your voice heard, or changing things from the inside, subverting things and turning it around so that race and racism are genuinely addressed, whereas it might not have been if you didn’t participate. So it’s kind of a sticky, complicated thing. Put simply, I guess you can say that tokenism = bad, but tokenized people subverting things = good.

Of course, HTSAC isn’t just about, say, representing people of color –since as we’ve recently experienced, just because you’re brown doesn’t mean you’re down– but about raising important questions about racism and hegemony, and not just within the scope of punk rock. Why was that important to you?

Representation alone is definitely not good enough. Oftentimes, mere representation does nothing to change or even challenge the status quo. It’s important to me to raise these kinds of questions about racism and hegemony because that’s a step towards toppling this thing. There needs to be real critiques and real discussions about race issues, not just superficial ones, which are what are predominantly out there. These days, there is this superficial race thing going on in North America, like how Canada prides itself for being “multicultural” and “diverse,” and how all things ethnic (food, clothing, furniture, etc.) are held in high esteem. But if we look deeper, we see that multiculturalism in Canada means look ethnic and celebrate your culture, but don’t you dare get political or criticize, and the same goes for the ethnic trend. It’s all lip service. It’s all just a big act to make us believe that racism is going away or doesn’t exist anymore, and if it does, it’s just a problem with those few bad people and not with the system (or punk!) itself. Fuck that!

This sort of sounds cheesy, but what do you get personally out of putting so much energy into projects like HTSAC?

I always wondered why I do zines because it takes up a lot of time, and can cost a fortune and you rarely – if ever – break even. But there is just something about finishing a zine that feels really good, you know, having put the whole thing together yourself and having this finished product in your hands. And then there’s the communications aspect of writing letters, engaging in dialogue, and meeting people through zines. With HTSAC, I guess there is also the satisfaction that this zine is helping to link up people of color, and helping to connect us through stories and shared experiences. And I guess it’s also like a big “fuck you, we’re not gonna take it anymore!” shouted in the general direction of the punk scene (amongst others), and saying fuck you always feels good! Aw yeah!

What are your other zine-related projects, past, present and future?

I’ve been putting out zines for a number of years now (since high school) and like a lot of other zine kids who are embarrassed by older issues of their zine, I now like to pretend that most of my older zines no longer exist. But the ones I’ll mention are Paint Me a Revolution, which was a comp zine about gender/feminism that I put together a few years ago which I’m no longer happy with anymore; and Moving Parts, which is my personal/political zine (although it takes me forever to put out an issue). As for the future, I still intend to put out issues of Moving Parts, and I also have some other plans in the works but nothing definite yet. I can’t imagine not doing zines.