Making political action a Subtle Asian Trait

By ALAN FANG | March 14, 2019

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STEPHEN MCCARTHY / CC BY 2.0 Noting the rise of Asian politicians like Andrew Yang, Fang hopes Asian-Americans will play a greater role in shaping U.S. politics.

Subtle Asian Traits might be the biggest social media phenomenon you’ve never heard of. When a joke Facebook group started by a few Chinese-Australian high schoolers exploded to 1.2 million members within a few months, some people were bound to be left behind.

The BBC has called it “a diaspora phenomenon”; The Atlantic has claimed it “took over Facebook”; and the New York Times has lauded it as “a global hit.” That’s high praise for what is essentially a collection of memes about the Asian-American experience. 

If you aren’t Asian, or even if you frequent the group like I do, you might be thinking, “So what?”

There’s more to Subtle Asian Traits than meets the eye. It is a microcosm of the fastest growing racial group in the United States — Pew Research Center and the Center for American Progress project that Asian Americans will make up 38 percent of immigrants by 2055 and 10 percent of all voters by 2044. I’m being serious when I say that Asians may soon be the ones shaping American culture and even American politics.

We’re already seeing this in the increased visibility of Asian culture and people in media. The international popularity of K-pop. The critical and financial success of Asian-American authors and poets. The emergence of shows such as Fresh Off the Boat, Master of None and Kim’s Convenience that feature Asians in leading roles. Most notable is the release of Crazy Rich Asians, the first Hollywood blockbuster to feature a predominantly Asian cast. After decades of whitewashing — the casting of white actors in Asian roles — the desire for increased representation has become a huge rallying point for the Asian community.

And while we don’t normally associate Asian Americans with the political arena, in 2018, 72.3 percent of Asian-American candidates for state legislatures won their elections. With the recent elections of Andy Kim (Korean), TJ Cox (Chinese-Filipino) and Michael San Nicolas (Chamorro), the number of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Congress is now set at 20, an all-time high.

There is even buzz over an Asian-American presidential candidate. Andrew Yang, a Taiwanese American, is set to run for the 2020 Democratic nomination on a platform of universal basic income. 

Unfortunately, we sported the worst voter turnout rate among all races at 47 percent in 2016. Faced with the choice of Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton, I decided I would rather not even vote.

Political candidates often don’t campaign with us in mind. Asian Americans are 20 percent less likely than the national average to be the target of political outreach. Over a third who are of voting age possess limited proficiency which complicates the electoral process. Stereotypes frame us as both the obedient model minority and the perpetual foreigner — so much so that “real” Americans need to check where we’re really from. All these factors keep us disengaged from political discourse.

But there is always a reason to vote.

Feeling guilty after not having voted in 2016, I decided that I had to vote in the 2018 midterm elections. Voting in my home state of New Jersey was astonishingly simple, and I voted for senator, representative and even town council. I helped vote out the representative for New Jersey’s seventh congressional district, Republican Leonard Lance, who had been firmly incumbent for 10 years. 

But not everyone can have the satisfaction of feeling like their vote matters. Asian-American voters are trapped in a negative feedback loop in which our low voter turnout gives parties and politicians less incentive to invest time into our communities or to campaign for our key issues, and this further suppresses our voting numbers. To any Asian Americans out there, even if your local, state or national election seems decided, your participation contributes to building a larger, more engaged, more important voting group.

From there, we can influence society more, take advantage of our growing visibility, uplift other marginalized , and bring our experiences and struggles out from the margins.

On Subtle Asian Traits, scroll past boba and anime memes, language jokes, comedy videos, and K-pop dances (it’s easy to get sucked in, I know), and you’ll see a common culture being built. Before Subtle Asian Traits, the Asian diaspora on the internet manifested mainly through popular Asian Youtube channels and group chats. Subtle Asian Traits is a place where we can consolidate and express this culture, and where our culture and sense of solidarity evolve.

Studies on Asian political participation show that this cultural commonality, the shared sense of being Asian, makes us more likely to vote. The more widespread these sorts of groups become, the more cohesive we are as a minority and a voting group. 

But in no way is Subtle Asian Traits representative of all Asian people. It doesn’t necessarily show how mind-boggling diverse our demographic is. One of many offshoot groups, Subtle Curry Traits, was formed by South Asians who saw Subtle Asian Traits heavily favoring the East Asian experience. Some of the popular content reinforces normative and sometimes racist ideas about Asian people and other races.

Despite its problems, Subtle Asian Traits can set the stage for meaningful discourse. Members bond over being caught between the nations where they study or have immigrated to and their ethnic and cultural identities. We discuss — sometimes jokingly — about our experiences with racism within and outside our race, our strict home lives and our insecurities about not being Asian enough. While politics are not necessarily the group’s focus, it might be the gateway for some of us to think more deeply about what it means to be Asian American, or just generally part of the Asian diaspora, our relationship with other races and how we can continue to shape our societies.

Sure, it’s still mostly memes. But the impulse behind them is worth examining. If you are in the group, engage with other members, be mindful of our incredible diversity and, of course, continue to vote. For those who aren’t, you’re looking at a pretty big up-and-coming voting bloc, so it might be good to pay attention. 

Alan Fang is a junior Writing Seminars major from Manhattan, N.Y. He is the Inter-Asian Council’s director of membership.

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