Design by Cindy Quach
[Image description: Over a pale yellow background dotted with dark yellow circles, the words “What is Boba Liberalism” in large black font. Behind the letters, an image of a boba drink. The drink is light purple with small balls of tapioca at the bottom.]
Boba are the tapioca pearls that float at the bottom of sugary and milky teas. This beverage is sweet and popular, like boba liberalism: it is all sugar no substance.
The term “boba liberalism” was coined by Twitter user @diaspora_is_red in 2019 to point out that liberal Asian Americans mainly focus on material products in connection to their identity. In general, boba liberalism is a form of neoliberalism that centers consumer capitalism and tends to uphold white liberal ideology. For instance, boba liberals are usually in support of trendy and aesthetically pleasing activism.
Boba liberalism thrives in a capitalist and neoliberal society because neoliberal policies primarily benefit wealthier communities. Typically, the faces of boba liberalism are Asian Americans that are part of the middle and upper economic class. As a result, boba liberals disregard the negative effects of capitalism because they profit from it. For instance, boba liberals tend to focus on advocating for Asian representation in white spaces, or discussing whether or not wearing chopsticks in one’s hair is culture appropriation. These topics are popular within boba liberal circles, all while dialogue regarding inequality, globalization, and racial injustice are purposely neglected.
This beverage symbolizes a liberal form of Asian American political ideology that has characterized the Asian experience through stereotypical tropes. Note that this idea of Asian-ness is exclusionary to South Asians and certain communities in Southeast Asia. Boba liberalism is primarily exclusive to light-skinned East and Southeast Asians. Additionally, boba liberals are part of the middle and upper socioeconomic class and usually identify as cishet. So, their perspective is limited and usually ostracizes Asian Americans that do not adhere to their standards.
As a result, the discussion topics led by boba liberals lack intersectionality. They choose to connect their Asian identity through conversations about Hollywood representation, having tiger parents, or cultural appropriation. For example, boba liberals viewed the film “Crazy Rich Asians” as groundbreaking because it offered Asian representation, despite most of the cast being East Asian and therefore not truly representing the Asian community. Don’t get me started on how the plot was only about wealthy Asians. Although some Asian American families have generated wealth, 10.1% of Asian Americans live below the poverty line. Additionally, Asian Americans have the largest income gap within their own demographic. The National Community Reinvestment Coalition has reported that in 2016, Japanese households living in Los Angeles had a median income of $592,000 while Korean families in Los Angeles had a median income of $23,400. The income inequality is evident between ethnic groups as well. Despite ignoring income inequalities within the Asian community, boba liberals continue to praise the film, “Crazy Rich Asians,” as a groundbreaking portrayal of what it is to be Asian living in a Euro-American nation.
Boba liberalism had become more widespread due to popular accounts such as “subtle asian traits” which has had its fair share of controversy. This facebook group has over a million members, and it consists of “relatable” memes about being Asian. The New York Times reported that the Facebook group was curated by nine Asian Australian students that wanted to craft a space to share experiences of what it is to be Asian living in Euro-American nations.
However, the group has evolved to mainly being a space to post memes that depict harmful stereotypes and welcome the model minority status. Groups like this continue to spread boba liberalism. When more nuanced topics are introduced to the group, members are quick to report the post or even get the user kicked out of the group. Actually, I experienced this issue when I posted about Asian Americans promoting colorism online. After posting, I received various replies and about three hours later I was not able to access the group anymore. However, I have made new accounts to enter the page in order to analyze Asian American commentary.
Boba liberals must move past “subtle asian traits” because it is doing more harm to the community as a whole. Memes talking about being good at math or having strict parents are not jokes created by Asian people. They are stereotypes formed by white people to poke fun at Asians. Actually, if you look at the followers there are many people who are not Asian, but they still interact on the page by laughing at racist stereotypes. However, on “subtle asian traits” users comply with these stereotypes to be relatable for likes and shares.
Asian American clubs and organizations are “subtle asian traits” but in real life. As an East/Southeast Asian navigating campus life, I was a target recruit for these clubs; I was encouraged to join the Vietnamese Student Association (VSA). At first, I did participate, but I quickly learned that it was not the place for me. Topics that we discussed revolved around Asian representation and even how to become a “YAP/YAPPIE” which is an acronym for young asian professionals. Yappies are Asians who only care about networking or entering “prestigious” spheres. In a way, boba liberals and yappies often intersect in ideology. From my experience, conversations were trivial; for example, exchanges regarding everyone’s go-to boba drinks were often brought up.
The moment I knew I had to distance myself from all cultural Asian American organizations was when a heavily involved VSA member told me, “French colonialism was beneficial to Vietnam, especially more than it being a communist country.” This is just an instance of boba liberalism; this idea appeased the white and Euro-American hegemony, continuing to draw itself closer to whiteness. It should become a common practice for Asian American organizations to offer workshops or panels that discuss the history of their respective country. Instead, boba liberalism promotes a narrow point of view that centralizes Asians that have grown up in Euro-American regions, and oftentimes disregards social and political events in their country of origin.
This is not to say that Asian Americans that subscribe to boba liberalism are horrible people, or that people should not drink boba. However, it is important to recognize that Asian Americans must transcend past boba liberalism, and its trendy movements. In a perfect world, boba liberalism can act as a gateway for Asian Americans to depart from cisheteronoramtive ideas and striving for white Euro-American acceptance. However, this is unlikely to happen because boba liberalism continues to prosper under capitalism and cute Instagram infographics.