East and Southeast Asians: Documenting a Category in the Making

In collaboration with organisations involved in its development and promotion, the aim of this project is to critically document and analyse the making of a new collective ethnic identifier in the United Kingdom: “East and Southeast Asian” (ESEA).

The term ESEA has emerged relatively recently in the UK, coming to prominence since 2018. This term is typically used as a bottom-up collective ethnic identifier for communities who originate from, or have ties to, East and Southeast Asia. Increasingly, it also functions as means of categorising communities to secure political recognition and representation.

Ethnic and racial categories are crucial yet contested components of modern societies. These categories are often essential for tracking the presence of minority groups within a polity and ensuring their representation and inclusion in formal politics and institutional settings. But such categories can also be instruments of exclusion – particularly if they mis-represent the groups they’re supposed to encompass. Indeed, communities often also form in resistance to the very mechanisms of categorisation.

In the past few years, a number of different activist groups and civil society campaigns have begun to use ESEA for at least three key reasons: 

  1. In solidaristic response to the intensification of anti-Asian racism and violence spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, and racism against BIPOC highlighted by BLM; 
  2. To campaign for the institutional inclusion of ESEA communities (In the UK, the word “Asian” typically refers to people of South Asian origin); and
  3. As a form of political community-building.

The emergence of this term provides us with a rare opportunity to study a collective ethnic identifier in the making. Using digital methods and approaches derived from critical code race studies, we hope to produce research outcomes that our collaborating organisations can use in their advocacy work, while also producing a better understanding of how and why such collective community identifiers emerge and how they come to be institutionalised as categories. 

For more on this project see: