Boba liberalism: How the emergence of superficial activism could cause more harm than good to the AAPI community

Boba liberalism: How the emergence of superficial activism could cause more harm than good to the AAPI community
Samantha Lee/Insider
  • The recent surge in anti-Asian hate gave rise to the concept of "boba liberalism."
  • The concept is rooted in the critique of shallow political ideals in the AAPI community.
  • Some Asian Americans told Insider that such superficial activism could be harmful to the AAPI community, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When looking for a sweet treat that incorporates both solids and a liquid, chances are that you've come across the Asian delicacy of boba tea.

Originating from Taiwan in the 1940s, the customizable beverage can be modified to your liking with a variety of drinks and toppings, but traditionally is served with a milk tea, tapioca pearls (boba), and sugar to taste.

Over the years, the dessert's popularity grew around the world - including Western countries - as it made its way from more specialized shops to fast-food menus. Thanks to global addiction, the market for bubble tea is expected to grow to more than $4 billion by 2027, according to a study released in April 2020.
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While seemingly unobtrusive - and definitely not healthy - in nature, the trendy rise of the sugary beverage has also been co-opted as a critique against an emerging superficial political identity within the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community: boba liberalism.

What is boba liberalism?

Traced back to Twitter user @diaspora_is_red (the original account is now suspended from Twitter), boba liberalism is described as "a type of mainstream liberal Asian-American politics" - one that, like the drink, is "a substanceless trend-chasing spectacle."

"It's a sweet, it's a popular thing. It's not very offensive," the Twitter user, identified as Redmond, said on a podcast episode of "Escape from Plan A" produced by the Asian American publication Plan A Magazine. "But it's also not that good for you from a health point of view. It's this empty calories."
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In a Twitter thread on the account @diaspora_red, the term is exemplified as "thinking the university key club and API student associations will lead the way in fighting for the dignity of the asian diaspora, in securing real material benefits to their communities and rectifying the colonial crimes of the host country."

Another way the Twitter account described the term was thinking merchandise like t-shirts with specific AAPI-adjacent branding is "the main way of affirming one's racial identity." It can be defined as embracing the superficial aspects of AAPI culture through the mode of "capitalist consumption presented as 'API-ness,'" according to the tweet - from buying movie tickets to "Crazy Rich Asians" to literally buying boba tea.
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The term "boba liberalism" has taken on an amalgam of nuanced meanings since its inception, but all are rooted in the critique of shallow political ideals within the AAPI community.

Boba liberalism: How the emergence of superficial activism could cause more harm than good to the AAPI community
Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Sen. Chuck Schumer try bubble tea on April 18, 2016 in the Queens borough of New York City.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Mona Lee, a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, who did a research project on the concept, defines boba liberalism as appeals to the idea of "white adjacency."

"At the end of the day, the idea of boba liberalism is how people define their identity and birth sort of for the white gaze and trying to make ourselves more palatable to broader white American society," Lee told Insider.
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She also said the concept is "deeply entangled" with "East Asian privilege," specifically East Asians who are in the upper-middle class. Lee said having the term so rooted in such a small demographic of the AAPI community harms the collective in that it "paints the AAPI diaspora as a model that fits this one little narrative."

Boba liberalism "erases so much diversity within our own community," Lee told Insider. "It erases the stories of working-class families, it erases the stories of undocumented immigrants, and it erases the stories of all the people who are fundamentally vulnerable within our community."

The AAPI community encompasses the 22.6 million people of South Asian, Southeast Asian, East Asian, and Pacific Islander descent in America, according to US Census data from 2018.
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But, as Stop AAPI Hate co-founder Russell Jeung explained to Insider, one of the issues with boba liberalism is rooted in its prevalence among middle- to upper-middle-class East Asian communities and how they have the "dominant voice" within the AAPI sphere.

"That's what gets articulated as the 'Asian American issue' - the model minority, the issue of visibility - it gets articulated as the 'Asian American issue' rather than issues of wage theft or human trafficking or undocumented status," Jeung said.

"So you could see it in the discourse among Asian America if the leading issues are invisibility and the model minority, that's a real class-based issue that's sort of reflective of boba liberalism," he added.
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Boba liberalism in pop culture

Boba liberalism: How the emergence of superficial activism could cause more harm than good to the AAPI community
Constance Wu and Henry Golding played Rachel Chu and Nick Young in "Crazy Rich Asians."Warner Bros. Pictures

Mona Lee exemplified such tension with the response to "Crazy Rich Asians" - the romantic comedy directed by Jon M. Chu starring Asian actors and actresses like Constance Wu, Henry Golding, and Awkwafina - which hit theaters in the summer of 2018. People celebrated the largely unprecedented representation of Asian faces and storylines as well as signaling growing diversity in Hollywood with the box-office success.

But the film underscores the tendency of Western media to keep the spotlight on East Asian narratives, leaving out a large majority of those who also make up the AAPI community. Lee specifically pointed to how the success of "Crazy Rich Asians" was primarily at the forefront of the public's attention, compared to the vast unawareness of more than a hundred Cambodian immigrants being targeted for deportation under the Trump administration.
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"That's one of those contradictions - where you see so many people clamoring for more mainstream acceptance of the AAPI community while ignoring and not talking about and not addressing these more harmful impacts and legacies," Lee said.

While it is important to have more AAPI representation in pop culture and media, the critique of boba liberalism is that AAPI political activism cannot stop there. There has to be a deeper interrogation of the community's needs.

Lee said it's "very hard" to ask people to criticize things they've found comfort in and taken joy from, like "Crazy Rich Asians," but she emphasized the importance to interrogate why AAPI activism must go further by pushing the boundaries of their comfort zones.
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"It's really important to interrogate why it feels uncomfortable to talk about things like boba liberalism and why it feels uncomfortable to be getting critical about what you found comfort and in your identity," Lee said.

What 'boba liberalism' looks like in practice

Bing Liu, an Asian American filmmaker behind the 2018 documentary "Minding the Gap," said in an interview with The New York Times he saw this "surface-level identification" upon first coming to the West Coast.

"Coming out to the West Coast for the first time in my late teens and early 20s, seeing massive amounts of Asian-American communities, I [felt] like, wow, this is weird, I wish I grew up here, I would feel a stronger sense of confidence in who I was," Liu told The Times.
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"And then getting beyond the weirdness and realizing - oh no, there's a sort of boba tea culture where it's surface-level identification," the director continued. "There's something even within the community that needs to be explored."

Jasmine Nguyen, a journalism student attending California State University, Dominguez Hills, said when she was younger, she could see herself identifying with "boba liberal" values. Nguyen wrote a column for the CSUDH talking about the "shallow aspects of AAPI culture."

"I was young, I was like 17. I wanted to see more representation from my community, but I wasn't really knowledgeable about the actual issues," Nguyen told Insider. "I like always was very, 'Oh, I'm not the model minority.'"
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"But then I also learned there's bigger issues, especially as a Southeast Asian - issues I face and my community faces is much different from the more at-hand East Asian and more mainstream idea of Asian issues in America," Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American, added.

Boba liberalism: How the emergence of superficial activism could cause more harm than good to the AAPI community
Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post via Getty Images
She said she doesn't think that anyone who may adhere to "boba liberal" ideas are a "bad person" because it's "oftentimes young people, and like everything, you just need to become more educated and you want to learn to help your community." "You can't stop at only paying attention to the fun things about your community," Nguyen said. "You need to really take a dive into the issues that surround it."
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Rebecca Chan, who is Chinese American, echoed Nguyen's sentiment that boba liberalism is rooted in unawareness of issues within the AAPI community.

"I don't think I ever would've called myself a 'boba liberal,' but I can see how growing up and maturing, I went through a decent phase of being something of a 'boba liberal,'" Chan told Insider. "I'm from a majority white town in rural Michigan, and my mom is white and my dad is Chinese-American, and he was born in the States, and we never did many traditionally Chinese cultural things at home."

Chan added: "And so, when I first got to college, a big thing for me was buying Asian American products, being able to go to the Asian Pacific Islander Student Association, going to boba shops - like these really sort of surface-level things that helped me feel like I was in touch with my Chinese-American identity but didn't really do anything in society or actually help me unlearn certain things I had grown up with that weren't helpful to actual social progress."
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Why is it important to address now?

Anti-Asian racism and discrimination were thrust to the forefront amid a dramatic spike in anti-Asian hate crimes and violence brought on by the spread of COVID-19 and the racist rhetoric centered on blaming China for the pandemic.

In March, a 75-year-old Asian-American man died after an assault and robbery left him brain-dead in Oakland, California. Just two days later, an 83-year-old Korean American woman was punched unconscious and spat on in New York. An Asian woman was in the car with her son when a man threw rocks at her car, and another Asian woman was stabbed to death in California in Riverside, California, in April.

In March, at least eight people - a majority of whom were Asian American women - were killed in shootings at Asian massage parlors.
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Nearly 3,800 incidents were reported between March 2020 and February 2021, according to data collected by the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate, which runs a reporting center that tracks and responds to incidents of violence, harassment, shunning, and bullying against AAPI individuals.

More than 68% of the reported incidents involved verbal harassment, and 20.5% of reported "shunning," defined as the "deliberate avoidance of Asian Americans."

Jeung said he believes some Asian Americans are concerned with both fighting for representation as well as protecting other members of their community, but he said people more so frame their concerns on the former before the latter.
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Boba liberalism: How the emergence of superficial activism could cause more harm than good to the AAPI community
People demonstrate against anti-Asian violence and racism on March 27, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Within the community, Jeung said he thinks it is also a moment to assess the top priorities and go deeper than boba liberal causes like representation in pop culture.

"One of my concerns is Asian Americans complaining more about invisibility and not being seen nor heard rather than complaining about our elderly being violently attacked," Jeung, who is a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, told Insider. "It's, for me, one example of being concerned with representation over being concerned about the lives of our family members." Jeung said he doesn't want to come off as "too judgmental" of boba liberalism, as he can sometimes see himself falling into the tropes of the concept as well, but he encouraged people to "continue to self examine and, you know, put their money where their mouth is and embody the values that they espouse."
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He detailed such activism in his own experience as the thousands of donations received by Stop AAPI Hate, or people volunteering to escort their seniors in Chinatown, or people holding their workplace or corporate culture in responding to calls to support the AAPI community.

"That's what actually really encourages me amidst all this grief is that, I think, Asians are actually putting into action their values," Jeung said."That's a pretty powerful way to use your position."

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