Chinese people: we can do better (I) | Jun Pang & Siyang Wei

A Response to #ChineseLivesMatter

CN: Anti-Asian violence, anti-SE sentiment, anti-black violence, erasure

You would be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t at least heard of the treatment of Dr. David Dao at the hands of United Airlines staff on Sunday, 9 April. The story has made the rounds on the news and social media, as well as video evidence of the callous and violent way in which Dr. Dao was forcibly dragged off the plane, kicking and screaming, as the rest of the plane’s passengers looked on.

There have been many reactions to this incident – from United’s initial botched non-apology, and international outcry on Twitter and Facebook, to false and sensationalist media reporting on  Dr. Dao’s “sordid” past. One response was that of Zishi Zhang, a high-school student who filed a petition with the White House to open a federal investigation into the incident. The petition remarks that “[t]he passenger was shouting that he was chosen to leave the flight only because he is Chinese, according to the news report by the New York Times”, ending with the hashtag “#ChineseLivesMatter”.

This petition and its explosive popularity are extremely problematic. Not only do they contribute to false reporting and the erasure of Dr. Dao’s identity, and therefore the continued homogenization of Southeast Asian narratives by East Asian – specifically Chinese – narratives, it is also one of many instances of the co-optation of the queer Black women’s labour behind the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

#ChineseLivesMatter does a disservice to the very cause of the racial solidarity that this hashtag seems to suggest should be a priority for political mobilization. The first part of this article will focus on David Dao’s Vietnamese-American identity and the consequences of its erasure, and the second part on the co-option of #BlackLivesMatter by other activists, particularly those in East Asian communities.

First, there is no excuse for the #ChineseLivesMatter hashtag to have misattributed Dao’s ethnicity. The exact quote from the New York Times article that broke the story is as follows: “The United employee […] told the man that if he did not get off the plane, she would call security. As she turned to leave, the man shouted after her, Mr. Bridges [NB: the person who posted the video of the incident on Twitter] said”. Specifically, Mr. Bridges said, the passenger complained that he had been singled out because he was Chinese” – it was the passenger who filmed the video who testified that Dr. Dao was being discriminated against because he was Chinese. It was quickly confirmed in subsequent reports that Dr. Dao is in fact Vietnamese-American. The use of the hashtag #ChineseLivesMatter is, from the most basic standpoint, simply uninformed and inaccurate.

More insidious, however, is the reality that the erasure by #ChineseLivesMatter of Dr. Dao’s Vietnamese identity is only one example among many of Southeast Asian erasure in Asian diaspora narratives. The homogenization of Southeast Asian identities under an all-encompassing ‘Chinese’ label is one that has led to continual erasure of the nuanced ways in which racialization of Asian people affects different groups in different ways. For example, in discussions about the model minority myth and the wage gap, the disparity in wage earnings between Southeast Asians and East Asians has been neglected in the development of the myth of the ‘meritocratic’, and yet anti-Black and anti-brown nature of the American Dream. By framing Dr. Dao’s experience as one of a Chinese person, the hashtag mobilizes people on the basis of a mistaken identity, contributing to continued misreporting about this incident. #ChineseLivesMatter homogenizes all Asian experience as “Chinese” and contributes to the erasure and marginalization of Southeast Asian people and their experiences of oppression, both within the Asian community by East Asian people, and in wider society by white people.

The growing popularity of the hashtag #ChineseLivesMatter is also disturbing for other reasons. One way in which this petition has been promoted in the Chinese community in China (on such sites as Weibo) is to say that “if the petition reaches one million signatures, the American federal government will be forced to respond, with significant media attention; this will show the world that Chinese people can protect their rights overseas using foreign politics tactics, too!” (translation of an excerpt of a post on Weibo, original here). In conflating Dr. Dao’s experience as a Vietnamese-American with that of a Chinese person travelling overseas, this post ignores the lived experience of people of colour living in the diaspora under conditions of structural racism. It posits that all ethnically Chinese people experience oppression the same way, regardless of where they actually reside. Rather than a movement ostensibly aimed at bringing United to justice, then, #ChineseLivesMatter becomes a social media flexing of Chinese ethnic nationalist muscle for people who may not ever experience/have ever experienced racialization and racism in their home country (this discussion was inspired by a thread by Christina Xu).

This is not to say that Chinese people do not face racism when they travel abroad, or that whiteness does not have a pervasive impact on people in non-white majority countries. But these experiences are different from those of Chinese people born in the diaspora, people who experience micro- and macro-aggressions every day, at the feet of white supremacy. The reason why people are calling this incident violent and racist is precisely because it is happening in a context where the lives of people of colour so often do not matter: America. It makes no sense to be advocating for the rights of all Chinese lives when it is specifically Southeast Asian-American lives that are on the line.

Ultimately, attempts to rally international solidarity towards asserting the rights of Chinese people in general sits uncomfortably with the specific concerns of Southeast Asian-Americans travelling on an American airline, in the context of white supremacist America with its violent state apparatus designed to exclude and, in some cases, to kill. It constitutes yet another instance of the crude appropriation of the struggle of diasporic SEA/EA people for our own ends. And the way it has been discussed in Chinese circles smacks of nationalist jingoism: Chinese people are claiming Dr. Dao as one of their own, but only insofar as he proves the point that Chinese people in general are treated unfairly by the West – a conflation of diasporic lived experience with nationalist geopolitics.

(Part II coming tomorrow, on the co-option of #BlackLivesMatter, and queer Black women’s labour.)

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