Tragedy, Connectivity, Solidarity:
transnational Asian diaspora in the age of Instagram
Academic essay | University assessment (graded 95/100)
For ARTS3097: Current Debates in Media and Culture, I was required to write an essay pertaining to media technologies in the public domain. I examined the online reactions of global East Asian diasporas amidst the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes in the USA.
Researching and writing this essay was a pivotal moment in my uni experience: it strengthened my understanding of how marginalised groups use new technologies to grapple with injustices they have long faced throughout history. Read below for an excerpt.
Photo by Jason Leung via Unsplash
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes in America have swelled by nearly 150% (Yam 2021). Amongst the 3,800 anti-Asian racist incidents reported in America over the past year (Ho 2021), 2021 has already seen a barrage of tragedies. Vicha Ratanapakdee, an elderly Thai immigrant, died after being fatally pushed to the ground in San Francisco. Noel Quintana, a Filipino- American senior, was slashed in the face with a box cutter on a New York subway. Then came the devastating shootings in Atlanta, claiming the lives of six Asian women: Xiaojie Tan, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Daoyou Feng, and Yong Ae Yue. These shootings, compounded with the ongoing wave of anti-Asian attacks, ignited a fiery response of activism and compassion amongst Asian-Americans. Despite their geographical distance, these responses have since been echoed by the Asian diaspora in Australia, particularly on social media platforms like Instagram.
Asian-Americans and Asian-Australians have used Instagram’s visual, textual and networked features to similarly respond to these tragedies. Many individuals expressed solidarity with victims and the Asian-American community, particularly through sharing posts and comments detailing their own experiences with racial discrimination (see Figure A). Other responses involved activism, such as organisations using the #StopAsianHate hashtag to promote campaigns supporting vulnerable Asian-Americans (Zornosa 2021). Although global media attention has focused primarily on anti-Asian hate crimes in America than in Australia (Lai 2021), such responses were provided by members of the Asian diasporas in both countries (Basu 2021; Zoronosa 2021; Kozziecom 2021). It seems obvious to attribute these similar produsage efforts (Papacharissi 2015, p. 29) to the shared ethnic backgrounds of transnational Asian diaspora members (Cohen 1997). However, these similar responses amongst members are further explained by their contemporary diasporic linkages, which are facilitated by their shared sociopolitical interactions and digitally mediated connectivity (Tsagarousianou 2004; Ponzanesi 2020). These linkages highlight the role of digital media technologies like Instagram in challenging traditional concepts of diaspora, allowing transnational members to connect and collectively redefine their diasporic identities and relationships when grappling with tragedy.
Figure A: Jenn Im's Instagram post and comments
Redefining diaspora to connect the transnational
Understanding the similar reactions between Asian-Americans and Asian-Australians first beckons a reconceptualisation of diaspora. Traditional definitions of diaspora attach it to concepts of mobility and displacement from a single homeland, whereby ethnic ties largely shape one’s diasporic identity (Safran 1991). However, in blurring the geographic boundaries of “home”, rapid globalisation has challenged the supposed alignment between one’s ethnicity and homeland (Brah 1996). Furthermore, networked technologies now connect transnational diaspora members through digital communication (Ponzanesi 2020, p. 990). Traditional concepts of diaspora fail to recognise these changes. Thus, they cannot explain contemporary diasporic experiences, such as the shared online behaviours of Asian-Americans and Asian-Australians. This issue prompts a reconceptualisation of diasporas as ever-evolving “imagined communities” (Tsagarousianou 2004, p. 52). Within these communities, identities and relationships are continuously constructed through mediated sociopolitical processes and digital interactions, which provide members a sense of synchronicity beyond ethnicity (Tsagarousianou 2004, pp. 52-62). These linkages clarify why Asian-Australians have responded similarly to Asian-Americans when grappling with the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States.
Double consciousness: a mediated sociopolitical process
A key sociopolitical process is the shared experience of double consciousness (Du Bois 1897) amongst Asian-Americans and Asian-Australians. Living in countries with colonial legacies and a history of exclusionary immigration laws, they have long faced racial ‘othering’ and discrimination (Wang 1997; Harpalani 2021). They hence share experiences of double consciousness, which is characterised by feelings of psychological confusion and cultural alienation caused by an internal struggle to perform an identity fit for mainstream white culture whilst preserving their cultural heritage (Du Bois 1897; Wang 1997, p. 89). Since Asian-Australians have also experienced heightened levels of racial discrimination during the pandemic (Zhou 2020), they join their American counterparts in being identified as “perpetual, menacing foreigners” by Western society (Harpalani 2021, p. 4). Thus, despite their geographical distance, individuals from both groups may empathise with each other’s battle to maintain a non-white identity in racially oppressive systems. This shared experience of double consciousness is increasingly strengthened through digital mediation (Brinkman 2018). Asian-Americans and Asian-Australians often negotiate their “split” racial identities on social media platforms like Instagram, as they are afforded the ability to curate and control their own personal profile. This suggests a diasporic link between Asian-Australians and Asian-Americans – one that explains their shared online reactions to racially traumatic events.
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