The other side of model minorities

While Chinese immigrants and immigrant descendants have long been portrayed as a model minorityYa-Han Chuang shows that this qualifier masks the racist representations to which members of this minority in France are victims, who in return invest in anti-racist mobilizations.

Minorities studied late

La Découverte published in spring 2021 a fascinating investigation by Ya-Han Chuang, A model minority? French Chinese and anti-Asian racism. For more than ten years, the author conducted an ethnography in France with around a hundred and descendinges Chinesees. By following his investigationses at their workplace, their home, and even, for somees, in their regions of origin in China during a five-week fieldwork, Ya-Han Chuang collected very detailed material on the journeys and experiences of these migrantses too little tudies.

like other minorities, the Chinesees of France have in fact long been hiddenes by an image of a model minority. By relying on indicators of socio-economic success, also disseminated by the social sciences and statistics, this representation makes certain demographic minority groups benchmarks of success to follow for other, more stigmatized groups. In the United States, this representation has been deconstructed by numerous works showing its historical construction and the processes of domination, particularly racial, that it encompasses. This included exposing the way in which the group was progressively bleached (Ignatiev, 1995), that is to say partially integrated into the majority population through processes of upward social mobility and attempts to distinguish stigmatized minorities (Bonilla-Silva, 2006).

In this regard, the French work A model minority? takes the similar approach of tackling the paradox of a minority perceived as model in economic terms, but which remains in many ways like a foreign body to the national community (p. 15). This is evidenced in particular by the racist representations of a yellow prill (Hsu, 2015) which made a sudden return with the Covid-19 epidemic in 2020.

How to understand, with the analytical tools of sociology, the particular position of this group? Following Ya-Han Chuang's reasoning, it is appropriate to first describe the particular form of social ascension followed by this group, before seeking to understand the power relationships, conflict and mobilizations often hidden by the discourse of the minority. model.

Particular ascent trajectories

How to explain the ascension trajectories of the Chinesees from France? What forms do they take? Indicators, particularly statistical ones, of economic stability clearly demonstrate a more privileged position than other minorities in social hierarchies. These rises are due to migratory socializations very centered on an imperative of success through work and more structural racialization dynamics which advantage the group in well-defined sectors.

As for other groups, the economic dimension of migration is central. First of all, it is about reimbursing the travel costs. The migration stories collected by Ya-Han Chuang show a recurrence of family debt for the benefit of often unscrupulous illegal smugglers, who do not respect the agreed itineraries. Examining the initial social conditions (p. 11), it also shows how migration is a collective project, carried out by the family, sometimes even against the will of individuals, such as Wei who against his will abandons his executive job to go to France, in order to obey his parents. Often, migration also considerably influences marital trajectories, whether to join ahe foreign partner or migrate to provide for his family remains in China. The relationship with work is thus very marked by economic aspirations and the willingness to devote oneself body and soul to work, to the detriment of one's health (energy is our capital says an investigator from Ya-Han Chuang, p. 34).

However, it would be simplistic to consider these upward trajectories solely from the angle of these socializations. In this case, several processes of racialization participated in the distribution of places on the labor market, producing for some migrantses and descendingare a whitening at least partial.

Such a perspective makes it possible to question the prejudices which would like certain groups to have natural inclinations and skills for certain sectors of activity, construction for the Portuguesees and sewing for the Chinesees. This sectoral segregation in fact responds to economic issues and is the product of social, historical and geographical mechanisms. By investigating neighborhoods in Paris and Aubervilliers specializing in ready-to-wear clothing, Ya-Han Chuang achieved several original results on the subject. It already shows that work in the ready-to-wear sector, especially when it is carried out at home, is inseparable for who do not have papers need to protect themselves against police checks and the risk of expulsion. By drawing a parallel with the dormitory labor regimes studied in Italy in particular, the author explains that the work spaces, which sometimes extend into apartments divided into multiple sublets (thus becoming dormitories), constitute spaces for socialization and reminders of collective norms linked to migration. From this perspective, sectoral and residential segregation is fully linked to the particular shaping, already mentioned, of the aspirations of individuals.

Conflict and mobilizations

This sectoral concentration in certain places was decisive in the urban history of the Parisian metropolis (Guillon and Taboada Leonetti, 1986). In this regard, the author produces an interesting analysis of the contemporary logic of transformation of the population and economic activities at work in the central Parisian districts, describing the conflicts between gentrifying local residents and textile merchants, the intervention of the municipality which preempts the premises and the almost complete reconfiguration which came to an end in less than ten years with the virtual disappearance of wholesale trade in central districts.

These power relationships in the city are, however, rarely seen as racialized, just as the relationships between Chinese employees and bosses are rarely seen as being exploitative. conversely, in an African beauty salon in another Parisian district, the struggle of (Chinese) workers is seen by all actors as an ethnoracial conflict (p. 76). If this dimension is not explicitly addressed by the author, other investigations would undoubtedly allow us to better understand the modalities of emergence of racialized or class interpretation grids of conflicts, in a context where inequalities are difficult to express and where the racism without race prevails most often (Bonilla-Silva, 2006).

This low level of conflict is all the more striking given that sectoral segregation is inseparable from professional discrimination against the who want to move towards positions traditionally occupied by the majority population. By using statistical data from the survey Trajectories and origins (Ined/Insee, 2008-2009), the author thus objectifies the difficulties of finding a stable job or even an internship for the second generation, which she connects with interviews testifying to a profound disenchantment among of higher education who had believed in meritocracy and the possibilities of advancement through diploma. These failures are also painful, because they must be assumed in the face of parents who are often skeptical about higher education, because what is concrete is when you start making money (p. 119). For many families, entrepreneurship represents the way to escape both this discrimination and the exploitation of ready-to-wear or domestic work. In the fifth chapter, Ya-Han Chuang shows that the purchase of tobacco bar businesses is, for example, a strategy that many parents use to secure the future of their children.

However, the latter also emancipate themselves from the norms transmitted by the group by shaping, in contact with other groups, other systems of reference and action. The comparative analyzes of several events carried out over the last decade by the author are very telling in this regard. She shows how imperative of discretion (Sayad, 1999) evolved through encounters with the union environment, in particular the CGT and the struggles of undocumented immigrants, and with the emergence of a new anti-racist movement. Initially, it was influential entrepreneurs because of their material success, often close to the Chinese embassy, ​​who were dominant in the organization of the demonstrations, particularly those on the theme of security. They invested and drew from these mobilizations resources allowing them to accumulate personal political capital (p. 154). But they were also surprised by the emergence of other forms of protest at the end of the process, some of which were described as riots and which led to a confrontation between young people from the Chinese community and the police.

A more critical reflection on racism in French society has also gradually been associated with the mobilizations and the author shows very well how, more broadly, new anti-racist dispositions have emerged for second and third generation people who claim a pan-Asian identity (p. 14) by recognizing the influence of movements Black Lives Matter. The final chapters offer numerous avenues for deepening the study of the social conditions and socializations (Brun, 2019) necessary for awareness and denunciation of discrimination, in addition to the case of the political socialization framework constituted by the mobilizations of the CGT in support of migrantses Chineseare already described by Ya-Han Chuang in the third chapter.


Such a meticulously conducted investigation constitutes an important milestone in the study of the distribution of places at the intersection of several stratification dynamics. The ambition of the work, which is to show how the particular situation of Asians sheds light, more generally, on the processes of racialization at work in France (p. 227), is fully supported, both by the historical approach which shows the evolution of migration policies and by the field investigation as close as possible to the configurations crossed by the Chinesees. If, as Ya-Han Chuang writes, the Chinese from a recent migration independent of French colonial history are less subject to the injunction of acculturation than migrants from former colonies in Africa (p. 208), it would be interesting to better discern the modalities and limits of their laundering by analyzing, for example, the practices of intermarriage or advancement through diploma. Ultimately, when we close the book, we clearly see how the rhetoric of the model minority fully participates in the strengthening of the racial hierarchy (p. 12) and that it is urgent to disseminate such results to show that in the social sphere, we are rarely protected by the veil of ignorance in the face of ethnoracial inequalities that the state wants to protect itself from (p. 231).