Fragmented Solidarity: Asian Anti-Racist Politics in France and the United States after the Covid-19 Pandemic

Ya-Han Chuang, Sciences Po

 

The global surge of anti-Asian bigotry since the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020 has provoked greater attention to anti-Asian racism in Western countries. The slogan “Stop AAPI Hate,” originally created by Asian organizations in the United States, soon spread across the globe after the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings that caused the death of 6 Asian female beauticians.[1] In the United States, this tragedy led to the widening of consciousness about anti-Asian racism, spurring nationwide demonstrations and various community organizing actions to combat racism. In France, the Covid-19 pandemic brought up racist images of a “Yellow Peril,” which provoked an online mobilization called Je ne suis pas un virus (I am not a virus) and a variety of other forms of protest ranging from legal actions to social media campaigns.[2]

Asians, often seen as “honorary white” (Bonilla-Silva 2004) or “model minority” (Chou and Feagin 2015), occupy an ambiguous position on the spectrum of ethnic-racial inequalities. In this paper, I will explore the complexities of Asian anti-racist movements by comparing Asian anti-racist politics in two national spaces: France and the United States. Beyond the differences of immigrant history and categorization, I am particularly interested in one dimension: How do the different “grand narratives” in France and the United States shape Asian minorities’ political narratives and the way that they are positioned regarding other ethnic-racial minorities?

Who Counts as Asian? Covid-19 and Sinophobia

“Asian” is not a monolithic category. In the United States, the term “Asian American and Pacific Islander” (AAPI) refers to a constructed identity category relevant only in the United States. The US Census Bureau (2021) defines Asians as people “having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.” The Bureau defines Pacific Islanders as persons “having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.” Although the experience of exclusion from civil rights shapes a common heritage for these groups, the boundaries of the group are not clear, and representation of East Asians tends to overshadow that of South Asians. Lee and Ramarkrishnan (2019) found that East Asians tend to exclude groups from South Asia, especially Pakistanis, from the categorization of Asian Americans.

In France, by contrast, there is no official definition of “Asian French” due to the lack of official statistics on ethnic or racial category. However, the term “anti-Asian” racism emerged among anti-racism activists and media after the death of Chaolin Zhang, victim of a violent murder in Aubervilliers in 2016. As the major actors of the 2016 mobilization were members of the Chinese diaspora, the term “anti-Asian racism” or “anti-Chinese racism” were used interchangeably by journalists and public actors, ignoring South Asian communities. The situation changed after 2020: South Asian communities have joined the anti-racism action, especially within the movement of pan-Asian feminism.

Covid-19’s origin in Wuhan, China activated a global process of scapegoating against all East Asians due simply to their phenotype resemblance. From Europe to South America, the archaic metaphor of “Yellow Peril” was revived in the media and projected the uncivilized, inferior image of “Other” on people perceived as Chinese (Chan and Strabucchi 2020). Whereas these reactions recall other waves of anti-Asian bigotry over the last century, a new element is the fear of China’s growing global power. In the United States, Donald Trump insistently used expressions such as “Kung Fu flu” or “Chinese virus” to reinforce his anti-China foreign policy and strengthen the perception of China as a threat. In France, the distinction between “us” and “them” was centered on the contrast between democratic and authoritarian regimes. Although President Emmanuel Macron did not use the same stigmatizing language as Trump, the French media’s reporting on China’s restrictive pandemic management was often interpreted by Chinese descendants as a binary hierarchy between democratic and authoritarian regime, implicitly questioning their belonging to the French nation. As a result, the scientific puzzle of the pandemic’s management became an interrogation of moral affiliation to which they were forced to respond (Attané et al. 2021).

In other words, the Covid-19 pandemic activated a Sinophobia mingled with an old Orientalist gaze and more recent antagonism towards China’s rise. As a result, criticism of the Chinese government not only become the raw material of anti-Asian sentiments but also created tensions among Asians. In France, the scapegoating allowed the emergence of a pan-Asian identity. In January 2020, as the discovery of Covid-19 in China aroused worldwide panic and anti-Asian bigotry, Kim Gun, a French-Korean activist launched the Twitter hashtag JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I am not a virus):

Many people used Chinese and Asians without distinctions and put aside all the cultural and national differences. Shall we remind that Asia is a continent and not a country? … A process of racialization is happening. We all know that the virus has no nationalities! I launched this hashtag JeNeSuisPasUnVirus and address to all the antiracists activists, including those in the anti-colonial movements.[3]

Her tweet was shared by more than 2,000 people and inspired many Asian descendants to post a photo with the same slogan. In the following months, when France implemented the lockdown to limit the spread of Covid-19, numerous accounts on Instagram emerged to criticize anti-Asian racism and reflect on possible solutions. Some of them used the tag line “Asia = 53 countries” to contest the reduction of Asians to Chinese; others highlighted the history of French colonization in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos and called for a decolonial narrative of Asian activism. Kim Gun described the tensions between activists:

We all know the disjuncture between Asia as a geographic concept (l’Asie géographique) and Asian as a racial category (l’Asie raciale). Unfortunately, even the activists cannot avoid the confusion. As East Asians and South Asians, we don’t necessarily have the same experience of racialization nor the same priority of actions.[4]

This divergence has weakened the project of pan-Asian feminism. As the anti-racism struggle focuses on resisting the designation of “Chinese,” the movement also provokes uneasiness among Chinese immigrants in France. A Chinese student in France commented about her understanding of the hashtag JeNeSuisPasUnVirus: “They just wanted to say, ‘Don’t count me in, I’m not Asian, I’m French with an Asian face, it’s different.’”[5]

Similar generational differences and sensibilities about the cause of anti-Asian hate is also observable in the United States. A China-born TV journalist in New York described the ambivalent feelings among Chinese Americans:

Many new Chinese immigrants, especially those who arrived in the US after 1989, are anti-communists and anti-Beijing. As a result, they stay loyal to Trump’s anti-Beijing position. Although Trump’s words can spike anti-Asian violence, these people, including my own parents, keep voting for the Republican Party.[6]

These narratives show how Sinophobia resulting from China’s geopolitical influence has blurred the distinction between “anti-Beijiing” and “anti-Asian” and complicated the identification of allies for anti-racist activists. Beyond its geopolitical origin, anti-Asian hate is also rooted in ethno-racial inequalities in terms of material conditions. This has led to a second similarity between the United States and France: the complex relationship between Asian and African communities.

The Triangle of Prejudice: Relationships with African Communities

In France, like in the United States, the relationship between Asians and other non-White minorities is a contentious issue. In the United States, armed conflicts between African Americans and Koreans during the 1992 Los Angeles riots is a painful symbol of Asian-Black conflicts (Joyce 2003); similar configurations are also described in other American cities (Kim 2000). The anti-Asian hate incidents after Covid-19 rubbed salt into the wound. While some young and progressive activists support the Black Lives Matter movement and call for inter-racial coalition (Wong 2022), conservative community members tend to reproduce the racist lens on African Americans and accuse them as the main perpetrators of violence against Asian Americans (Wong, J. and Liu 2022).

Asian American anti-racist politics in the United States are divided between those who promote progressive social programs (public health care, gun control, redistributive taxes) and a considerable number of highly mobilized conservative activists (Wong and Ramakrishnan 2023). In my interviews with Asian American activists, the question of interracial coalition or contention is often brought up naturally. On the one hand, several interviewees mentioned spontaneously the success of the Black Lives Matter movement and Stop Asian Hate mobilization as examples of resistance under Trump’s presidency. They emphasize the interconnected mechanisms of racial violence and highlight Asian-Black coalitions constructed during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.[7] The support of Asian-Black coalitions also nurtures the abolitionist movement among some Asian American activists (Wong 2022), illustrated by the recent mobilization against a super-jail in Manhattan’s Chinatown in New York.[8] On the other hand, a small number of interviewees emphasized Asian-Black antagonism and illustrated their argument with disputes between communities at the city level.[9]

Regardless of their attitudes towards interracial coalitions, the legacy of civil rights movements allows activists to embrace the multiracial reality of American society. As a result, Asian American activists more spontaneously point to social inequality as the source of interracial tension. This is contrary to the situation in France. Since 2016, the Chinese communities living in the Paris Region have been mobilized for the cause of “anti-Asian racism.” Behind the slogan prejudges tuent! (prejudice kills), lies a social reality similar to the urban context in Los Angeles prior to the 1992 riots. Since the late 1990s, East Asian migrants have arrived in the former banlieue rouges—namely the working-class and multiracial suburbs in the northeast part of the Paris Region (such as Aubervilliers, Pantin, La Courneuve, and Bagnolet)—where African communities often suffer poverty, unemployment, and discrimination. The East Asian migrants, however, benefiting from the protection of an ethnic enclave economy, are seen as “better off” and become targets of robbery. The feelings of relative deprivation are evident in this dialogue between a teenager of North African origin and the judge during a trial in 2020, reported in Le Monde: “I have no problem with the Asian community, in my building I open the door for them, I say hello to them,” says Ilyes Z. But he says that in his city, Vitry-sur-Seine, there are “prejudices.” He says, “My encounters have always made me think that the Chinese have money because of the Bar-Tabac, the Chinese New Year… These are prejudices that we have heard, and that we all know.”[10]

The examples given by Ilyes show the economic basis of racializing bias. In this case, some French Asian activists called for an interracial coalition based on common decolonization perspectives while others framed the violent robbery as a hate crime.

Hate and Punishment: How Color-Blindness Shapes the Repertoires of Action

In the United States, numerous Asian American organizations contest the ability of law enforcement to reduce racist violence.[11] Cynthia Choi, the president of Chinese for Affirmative Action and initiator of the Stop AAPI Hate coalition states:

I think the question should be: can we actually deal with hate merely through laws? Because basically hate crime is adding more years to the sentencing. I understand the need to have accountability, and I also understand the need to analyze what was motivating that person to harm another person. For us, for the Stop AAPI Hate movement, most of the incidents that we deal with are not criminal. This is why, across the coalition, we focus more on the long-term support: how does a society deal with hate, what’s the best solution around that.[12]

The Stop AAPI Hate coalition has received reports of more than 10,000 incidents of verbal or physical violence in 2020 and 2021. Given the characteristics of these hate-related incidents, the coalition puts more effort into education and community organizing (such as a hotline, legal help for undocumented immigrants and people who are not fluent in English) than enforcing hate crime laws. The Asian American Federation, a major NGO in New York, also holds a similar position. Faced with worries for public safety, Jo-Ann Yoo, its president, emphasized several times the importance of “care” during our interview, and considered the question of safety or self-defense a larger problem far beyond Asian communities. She explained:

When Michelle Guo was pushed in the metro station and died, not only Asians are concerned, this can also happen to a white man; when Christina Lee was stabbed in her own place, it’s not only Asian women who are afraid, but every woman is afraid of going home alone. I kept telling each other: it’s not an Asian American issue, it’s a public safety issue—how can we look after each other and make our community safe?[13]

Unlike in the United States, where the model of race consciousness results in public policies to redress racial inequality (such as affirmative action and quota systems), the lack of policy tools to effectively reduce racial inequality and discrimination in France has rendered legal action an important channel for other non-White minorities to tackle discrimination (Fassin 2002). Since 2012, members of Association des Jeunes Chinois de France (AJCF) and their allies (mostly lawyers and the mainstream universalist anti-racism NGOs like SOS Racism, MRAP, and League de Droit de l’Homme) have formed a coalition to address hate crimes through the law. Between 2012 and 2022, six cases were recognized as hate crimes with the aggravated circumstances of racial hatred. Among these cases, three cases deal with hate speech in a media report, by a politician, and in an anonymous post on Twitter before the second lockdown in France in October 2020 (Chuang and Le Bail 2022). The three other cases all concern violent attacks on Asian people living in the suburbs of Paris. The case “Bus 183,” which happened in Vitry-Sur-Seine, had more than 14 victims.

Not all Asian activists appreciate the legal initiative; the difficulty of discussing the social basis of crimes is criticized by some as reinforcing the stigmas against other non-White teenagers. However, as the conflicts between Chinese or Southeast Asian residents and African communities intensified, some French Asians considered the legal intervention as a plausible way to prevent inter-community violence. One of the activists recalled:

There are young (Asian) people who would like to take justice into their own hands. Unfortunately, as three-quarters of the aggressors are young blacks or Arabs, they want revenge on them. I tell them, “That’s completely stupid. We’re not going to start attacking them personally.”[14]

The legal definition of racism is extremely strict: the civil parties must prove that the infraction was based on prejudices related to race or ethnicity. In multiple trials, the question of whether the stereotype that “Chinese are rich” is a racial profiling bias, often lies at the heart of the debate. Gradually, hate crime cases have gained the judges’ recognition and judgements of hate crime with aggravating circumstances have accumulated. Government actors (such as parliament, défenseur de droit, mainstream anti-racism organizations) are also convinced of the relevance of prosecuting anti-Asian racism (Chuang and Le Bail 2022).

The contrary models of minority management in France and the United States produce different claims and possibilities for action in Asian organizations’ strategies to cope with hate incidents. In France, the lack of recognition of anti-Asian incidents and racism has motivated Asian activists to follow the paths of other racial minorities by adopting legal action. In the United States, although several fatal hate incidents have been inscribed in collective memory, major NGOs are keener to consider hate crime as a cross-community issue and law enforcement as a complementary tool. 

Conclusion

The Asian minority’s position in society is an unsettled issue. While much of the literature on Asian Americans’ experiences treats the group as an intermediate minority or honorary White, the approach of “racial triangulation” views Asians as closer to the Black community. The politics of Asian anti-racism is trapped between the two epistemologies and is thus unavoidably fragmented. Despite different histories of migration in France and the United States, Asian anti-racist politics confront similar issues: the dominant representation of China, the divergent attitudes towards coalition with other non-White racial minorities, and attitudes towards hate crime law enforcement. Highly heterogeneous in terms of national origins, social status, and migration trajectories, Asian anti-racist politics is necessarily intersectional.

 

 

References

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[1] Eliott C. McLaughlin, Casey Tolan, Amanda Watts (March 17, 2021) “What we know about Robert Aaron Long, the suspect in Atlanta spa shootings”. CNN.

[2] For example, one of the leading local journals in northern France, Courrier Picard, ran a cover story on January 26, 2020, titled “Alerte Jaune?” (Yellow Alert?), which sparked criticism.

[3] https://twitter.com/OrpheoNegra/status/1221706803836280832/photo/1

[4] Interview in May 2020, with Kim Gun, a 38-year-old high school teacher and activist. (Project ChIPRe)

[5] Interview in April 2020 with Alice, 38 years old, born in China and with French nationality.

[6] Interview November 17, 2022, in Brooklyn, New York, with Jane, a 40-year-old TV journalist born in China who arrived in the United States when she was 7 years old. She produced a documentary about Asian activists’ reaction after the Atlanta shootings.

[7] Interview December 22, 2022, member of Chinese for Affirmative Action, California.

[8] Interview November 16, 2022, in New York, with an employee of the Chinatown Business Improvement project.

[9] Interview November 29, 2022, with Jack, a second-generation Chinese American NGO employee in New York. He has insisted that these statements are his own opinions and do not represent the official position of the NGO where he works.

[10] “’Ils ont du liquide:’ trois jeunes hommes jugés pour des agressions visant ‘les Chinois,’” Yann Bouchez, Le Monde, May 14, 2020.

[11] See for example: “Asian Americans Grapple with police responses to violence.” https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2021-03-19/asian-american-groups-don-t-just-send-more-police

[12] Interview December22, 2022.

[13] Interview November 21, 2022, in New York, Asian American Federation.

[14] Interview with M.B, the founder of “Asiagora,” March 2, 2022.