I joined Subtle Asian Traits after hearing about it from a high school friend about two years ago. Back then, SAT was still new and gaining traction among second-generation Asians in Western countries. He described the Facebook group as hilarious and relatable—but when I browsed through the posts, I found that most of the jokes seemed to lean on Asian stereotypes about strict parents, food, and being good at math, and decided it wasn’t for me. I stayed in the group, only looking at posts my friends would tag me on.
Today, Subtle Asian Traits has 1.8 million members and counting. As the Facebook group continues to grow with dozens of new posts a day, so too has SAT drawn more valid criticism for the way it presents and engages with “Asianness.” Since it’s gotten more popular, my ambivalence toward the group has evolved into outright resentment for its shallowness and lack of inclusion.
In the Facebook group’s description, SAT claims it aims to “connect Asian individuals globally” and celebrate the “subtle traits within Asian culture.” On its surface, Subtle Asian Traits seems harmless or even necessary for young, diasporic Asians that struggle with their cultural identity. But in actuality, the Facebook group offers very little community for Asians beyond consumerism; every other post is just some new variation of boba. Many of the “relatable” jokes cater to cis-het, middle-class East Asians with Ivy League aspirations.
I believe one of the main issues with Subtle Asian Traits is the way it attempts to perpetuate the idea of a singular Asian culture that doesn’t exist. Most people living in different Asian countries would be puzzled at the idea of any overarching “Asian culture.” Doing so would erase the complexities of cultures throughout the Asian continent. Plus, the idea of a monolithic Asian culture eclipses the way ethnic minorities throughout the continent are marginalized. To flatten the entirety of one continent into a single “Asian” identity comes at the erasure of historically oppressed groups in the region. As a result, SAT relies on stereotypes that stem from the experiences of a very specific class and heritage of Asians and labels it as culture. The group’s focus on the experience of cis-het, middle-class East Asians tells an implicit message of who gets to be Asian.
“Diversity in the Asian-American community is barely acknowledged,” says Elisa—a member of SAT who spoke to me about her issues with the group. Over Twitter, I chatted with a number of friends, mutuals, and complete strangers that echoed similar sentiments.
“I felt super ostracized,” writes Tracy, a former SAT member. “I didn’t grow up with expensive academic tutoring and piano lessons.” In line with stereotypes from the model minority myth, much of the group’s content centers on diasporic Asians from families with white collar jobs. However, Asian-Americans have a steep and rapidly increasing rate of income inequality in the U.S.—a reality that’s obscured by SAT’s stream of jokes about a middle-class experience.
“It kind of gave a lot of Asians a way to be ‘subtly’ racist under the guise of making jokes about politics or Asian identity,” says Deborah, another member of SAT. Similar to Deborah, many others recounted the way bigotry has been glossed over by moderators in the past. “I’ve encountered racism, homophobia, and fatphobia in SAT, and it’s just not all that inclusive.”
So while Subtle Asian Traits has brought a semblance of belonging to some Asians, it’s excluded many others that don’t relate to jokes about private piano lessons, tiger parents, and going to medical school. One answer to the centering of East Asians in SAT has been the creation of unaffiliated spin-off groups such as Subtle Curry Traits or Subtle Filipino Traits where underrepresented communities can find more relatable content. But my issue with SAT isn’t just the lack of “relatability” for Asians like me. It’s the way SAT and its various off-shoots perpetuate mainstream Asian-American liberalism—AKA boba liberalism.
Boba liberalism, as defined by Twitter user @diaspora_is_red, is all sugar, no substance. It’s viewing Asian-American identity in the exact way that SAT portrays it: merchandise to buy, content to consume, and food to eat. Boba liberalism is reliant on capitalism and fails to interrogate the way our homelands have been ravaged by the Western countries in which we grew up. It’s about being solely focused on representation in media and politics; it’s about viewing our collegiate Asian student organizations as the vanguard of progress for our communities. Boba liberalism gave us Andrew Yang, who used model minority jokes as a campaign strategy.
Subtle Asian Traits is bound to fizzle out at some point, but boba liberalism is likely to stick around. For many of us diasporic Asians, it’s important that we remember that while boba might taste good, it’s mostly just sugar and milk. Creating relatable memes about our upbringing can’t replace an actual understanding of the history, culture, and struggle of our homelands.
Illustration by Julia Tabor