French Asian youth online: Constructing collective identity and fighting against racism
As in many other countries recently, renewed racism targeting ‘Asians’ has fed new discourses and collective actions to fight against racist aggressions in France. Compared to the first generation of Asian (mainly Chinese) immigrants, who mobilised exclusively against violence and insecurity, the one-and-a-half or second-generation Asian youth put a much greater emphasis on the issue of racism. What led the descendants of Asian immigrants to voice this particular concern in the public space and to transform the framing of their mobilisation from ‘public safety’ to ‘racism’?
To answer this question, we propose an analysis emphasising the importance of the use of online social networks, or virtual activities. We summarise results from an online ethnography with regards to public discussion groups and artistic productions: Facebook groups organised around the issue of discrimination experienced by Asians, as well as blogs, YouTube channels and websites dedicated (or partly dedicated) to projects linked to the issue. Based on the ethnography and interviews with the opinion leaders we demonstrate how the descendants of Asian immigrants have made use of online social networks during the last decade to construct their collective identity and to advocate for a new cause – that of combating anti-Asian racism in France.
‘When Facebook started to be popular, many mainland Chinese subscribed to different groups; there were different groups discussing identity. New groups would diffuse messages such as “If you are Wenzhou…” or other keywords that led you to identify with and connect with the group. It was easy to manage a Facebook forum like a discussion forum. For instance, someone would create a group called “What do you think about the tontine?” or “Don't you think that French people insult us too often?”, etc. It started to develop in 2006. There were many such groups; personally I participated in a group called “Wen [Wenzhou] in France”. I did not know anyone but after a certain time of discussion we finally met and organised a first meeting… At one point I also got in contact with another group called “Nouvelle Génération de Chinois en France” [New Generation of Chinese in France], and we merged our resources […] Then, there came a catalyst moment: the Beijing Olympic Games. It was a time when China and the Chinese endured suspicion, attacks; we were asked to take a position. Such bad experiences feed a need to belong to a group because we endure the same attacks. […] Because of such experiences we started to think about doing something together.’ (interview with a founding member of a Chinese second-generation civil society organisation, 2018).
This excerpt from an interview illustrates the role of online social networks in linking together descendants of migrants who share the same questioning about their identity and the same experience of discrimination. Throughout the 2010s, as Asian immigrants engaged in public mobilisation, their descendants started to create forums and discussion groups – especially on Facebook, and later on WeChat and Twitter – where they could share accounts of their experiences. Such online social networks are places for transforming individual experiences into a collective experience. In particular, much is exchanged about the experience of common microaggressions or covert forms of racist insults.
In 2016, after the murder of a Chinese migrant worker in the suburbs of Paris, the city witnessed several large street demonstrations. The major demonstration on the Nation square in the centre of Paris stood as an opportunity to be more visible and a pivotal point for many younger participants already active on the web or in the very few formal organisations of descendants of Asian migrants, such as the Young Chinese French Organisation (Association des Jeunes Chinois de France, or AJCF). While the discussions and the constructing and sharing of a collective ‘Asian’ experience started earlier, this demonstration was a turning point after which forums and artistic productions developed online with the aim of deconstructing stereotypes and proposing alternative representations of Asians in France. One could mention different projects visible online such as the webseries Ça reste entre nous (‘That stays between us’) by Grace Ly, the photo project Yellow is beautiful, or the society magazine Koi.
We will focus here on the project Asiatiques de France (‘Asian French’) which is a short video shot a few months after the murder of the Chinese migrant worker in Paris, a murder that was considered racist, since the man was targeted for being Chinese. Inspired by members of the very active Teochew community in Paris (mainly Chinese Cambodians), the video was directed by a Vietnamese French journalist and aimed at gathering well-known French individuals of Asian origin, athletes, artists, researchers, chefs, etc. The participants first depict one of the many stereotypes and aggressions they have heard and experienced as Asians and, in the second part of the video, each appears again, saying ‘I’m French’ as their professional activity is displayed at the bottom of the image. As described in her own words, the director was surprised by the positive responses she received even from very well-known people:
‘All the VIPs I solicited were very enthusiastic and made themselves available to participate. I was expecting difficulties to convince them, I thought I would have to explain why it was important that they participated. But it seems that the request was coming from them [...]. There was a need to exist as French of Asian origin and I was really surprised [...]. I did not anticipate how much it would make such a hell of a noise! I had to answer a hundred interviews [after the video was published] even from abroad. I answered to Chinese media, American, British media because it was new.... On social networks, it reached 1 million views in 24 hours. I am myself a journalist, but I did not anticipate that. It does mean that there is a cause.’ (interview with Hélène Lam Trong, video director, 2018).
Like other initiatives, this online video was launched after 2016, embracing the opportunity created by a moment of collective anger and a united desire for change. Such initiatives create spaces for collective reflection as well as opportunities to deconstruct stereotypes and develop new models of self-representation by Asian French people.
Hélène Le Bail & Ya-Han Chuang
Hélène Le Bail is a CNRS researcher at CERI-Sciences Po Paris. Her research focuses on Chinese migrations (to Japan and France) and on migration policies in a comparative approach. Special focus is made on female routes of migration (marriage, reproductive labour, sex work) and on mobilisation, collective actions and political participation of migrants and their descendants. She coordinates the research group The Chinese population in Paris: identities and identifications under transformation, funded by the City of Paris.
Ya-Han Chuang is a researcher at INED, Paris. She has conducted research on Chinese immigrant collective action for more than 10 years and just published Une minorité modèle ? Chinois de France et racisme anti-Asiatiques (La Découverte).
They together directed the special issue for the Journal of Chinese Overseas, ‘Chinese Xin Yimin and Their Descendants in France: Claiming Belonging and Challenging the Host Country’s Integration Model’, 2020.
This article is part of the issue ‘Empowering global diasporas in the digital era’, a collaboration between Routed Magazine and iDiaspora. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) or Routed Magazine.