‘Subtle Asian Traits’ and ‘Subtle Asian Dating’ Are Raising Good Questions

Should only Asians be allowed in? How does having white partners affect Asian spaces? Are East Asians too dominant?

5 years ago

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There have always been young Asians outside of Asia who’ve wanted to connect with each other. Though I missed out on the Asian Avenue craze during the 1990s, I do remember the popularity of that site. Xanga filled a similar need as well. Then throughout the 2000s, Asians worldwide mostly met up in the outposts of forums, all disconnected from each other. Then Reddit came along to consolidate everything, for better or for worse.

But still, Subtle Asian Traits (and its many offshoots, like the more romance-oriented Subtle Asian Dating, where people “auction” each other off by creating playful and roastful dating profiles of their friends) feels different. I’ve never seen gatherings of this scale before. Not only are hundreds of thousands gathering online, but many of them are meeting up in meatspace afterwards too. It’s a new age, far removed from the days when meeting up with someone you met on AIM was just about the shadiest thing you could do.

Now, I’m far too old and taken to participate in these spaces. Most people, especially in Subtle Asian Dating, are college-aged and single. But I have been keeping tabs on discussions as much as possible to get a sense of what’s going on. And I’m very excited by what’s happening. The questions and issues aren’t new. They’re still the same unresolved things that Asians have never properly addressed. But the scale and volume are different. Once you get past the standard boba and Asian parent memes, some of the most honest grassroots discussions are happening in these spaces, where innumerable young Asians are able to pool their thoughts and experiences together. Through these discussions, some of the most fundamental questions of what it means to be Asian are finally being asked and attempted to be answered on a widespread level.

1. Should Asian-only spaces exist?

This is an age-old question that comes up whether you’re starting an Asian club in school or creating a nightclub. Some argue yes, that Asianness should be as inclusive as possible. Others are a firm no, that Asians should have a place of our own. Then there are those in between, welcoming everyone on the condition they abide by certain rules of respect.

The fundamental issue here is whether Asianness can be separated from Asian people. It’s what fuels a lot of the anger behind cultural appropriation and Hollywood whitewashing/white saviorism. Is Asianness just a backdrop upon which anybody can displace actual Asians? Those who advocate for Asian-only spaces would likely argue that “being Asian” (which really means “looking Asian”) is an irreplaceable part of Asianness, especially since a lot of common negative experiences of Asianness depends on if you physically present as Asian. Therefore, even a non-Asian who really likes Asian food, grew up in an Asian neighborhood, or — god forbid, more on this later — has a thing for Asian girls can’t be Asian, even when measured against a thoroughly whitewashed Asian (who can never “escape” being considered Asian).

There’s an idea I’ve been mulling over for a while now. For now, I’m calling it “racial neoliberalism,” which I first wrote about in an article critiquing the racial creepiness of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. Racial neoliberalism posits that race and culture are detachable artifacts that indeed can be separated from their historic creators. In fact, perhaps they ought to be separated because there’s no guarantee that those historic creators are today’s best artisans of their own artifacts. Who’s to say that a Vietnamese person will be the best person at making pho? Racial neoliberalism seeks to open up competition to ensure the best version of an artifact possible, which usually means fetching maximum value in some kind of marketplace. Now, if you’re part of a group that has historically made that artifact, you’ll probably have a leg-up on the outside competition. But it’s only a small head start.

Racial neoliberalism sees little worth in a racial or cultural group that can’t produce marketplace value, whether it’s in terms of money or human interest. Thus, the competition is on to monetize one’s ethnic cuisine, dress, festivals, etc. to prove that one’s group has worth. Even men and women are on the table if they’re marketable. See how Venezuela and the Philippines invest so much into their beauty pageants in order to raise their countries’ prestige. Or how certain countries are lauded for sending “good” immigrants.

Thus, under racial neoliberalism, Asianness’s worth is dictated by market interest. What do non-Asians want to buy from the Asian brand? Do non-Asians, especially white people, like Asian food? Yes. Do non-Asians like Asian history? Yes. Do they like Asian people? That depends on the gender. In that case, because racial neoliberalism turns Asianness into a series of products, skills, and codes of behavior, the door is open for non-Asians to fix that market inefficiency of Asianness’s maximum potential appeal: Asian people.

Asians have benefitted in many ways from racial neoliberalism. The West — historically the arbiters of marketplace value in modern times — likes many of the Asian brand’s products. But that appreciation also leads to a desire to supplant. That’s what leads to things like The Last Samurai and Ghost in the Shell. Or non-Asians getting angry at an Asians-only dating app like East Meets East, whereas they don’t care about any of the other demographic-specific equivalents. If race and culture can be so easily separated from their people, then any boundaries start to seem wrong; they start to seem like, dare I say, racism.

But the anger over cultural appropriation and whitewashing/white saviorism is real and should be respected. Because what happens to those groups whose artifacts don’t cater to the whims of the marketplace? Or what about those people within those groups who may not be as marketable as others? These people get left behind and told they’re literally worthless because the racial market says so. And this goes both ways, too. It’s not just people of color who are damaged in this system. Even among white Americans, as seen on both the disaffected Right and Left, a divide widens between those who are seen as culturally valuable and those who are not. And those who are not get similarly discarded as worthless.

What’s happening in these groups like Subtle Asian Traits is a grappling of this important and difficult question that’s affecting all racial groups as we move closer to a less divided world. It’s a revolt against the idea that even one’s place in a community should be an Ivy League-esque process of constant competition. It’s saying that a sense of community, like a parent’s love, ought to not be so conditional.

Having fewer divisions is a noble goal, but in the process, we have to make sure people don’t become abandoned like a failing sub-brand. And to do so, some boundaries still need to exist and be respected. In an ideal world, these boundaries wouldn’t be needed. But we’re not even a generation removed from Asians who grew up hating being Asian and wanting to be white. In such a short time, you can’t expect to simply eliminate all barriers and expect true equality to spring forth. Some time needs to pass first as these communities build themselves.

2. How do white partners affect Asian social dynamics?

More than a few times in these spaces, an Asian woman has posted something about either not wanting to date Asian guys or something about her white boyfriend. Other times, in a space like Subtle Asian Dating, a white guy will be seen leaving comments, causing others to wonder what he’s doing there in the first place. Every now and then, a white woman may say something about her Asian boyfriend, but this is less common.

That gender imbalance is what fuels a lot of the contentiousness about white people in these spaces. If it were a relatively equal number of white men and women doing these things, then this likely would be less of a problem. And sure, in this age of BTS mania, the rise of the white female weeaboo/Koreaboo has been noticeable. But for the most part, they are still a distinct minority and the ones who want in are usually straight white guys. Given the well-known existence of Yellow Fever but also white idealization, it is worth at least a discussion on why this genderized interest in Asian spaces keeps persisting, even if it makes some people uncomfortable. Few discussions worth having are 100% comfortable.

Gender ratio is a crucial factor in creating underlying social dynamics. Every day, we hear about how gender imbalances on college campuses (more women than men) or in countries like China and India (more men than women) are having profound social consequences on how people behavior towards one another. The Guttentag-Secord Theory provides scientific basis for these observations. Since that’s the case, it’s important to acknowledge that Asian “inclusivity” is indeed a gendered issue. The inclusion of white men into Asian spaces has different effects for Asian men and women. For Asian men, it means feeling crowded out in our own spaces. This causes even more grievances for us because we often feel unwelcome in non-Asian spaces. In fact, many Asian guys probably see Asian spaces as the only places where we won’t be demeaned for our race and gender. Yet we are expected to roll out the red carpet for the guys who keep us out of their own little clubhouses?

In contrast, while many Asian women also have an interest in keeping out creepy white men with Yellow Fever, many also likely won’t feel as if they’re being displaced by their own wrongdoers as Asian men do. When a lot of social power comes from having a favorable gender ratio, there are many benefits to being in an environment where you’re part of the more in-demand gender.

The hidden TNT in Asian-only spaces is the hush-hush unPC truth: in a world where Asian women are more desired than Asian men, an Asians-only rule is a bad deal for Asian women. Yet the arguments have not fallen on predictable gender lines. That’s what I find very encouraging. Some of the angriest voices I’ve heard have been those of Asian women, who can’t stand that some Asians seemingly can’t go a day without somehow bringing up their white partners. And some of the most conciliatory people have been Asian men preaching a “love is colorblind” attitude.

What we’re seeing here is a clash of Asian American cultures, one that should’ve happened a long time ago. There’s an Asian American culture that sees white inclusion, especially white male inclusion, as a critical part of itself. And there’s another culture that doesn’t. These cultures need to be able to hash and negotiate things out, but for too long, we’ve avoided confrontation. If anything, we’ve defaulted to giving the mic to the white-inclusion side because superficially, it looked more diverse and also had the bonus of alleviating our own fears of being Too Asian. Tragicomically, that has had the effect of turning Asian Liberalism into the only (supposedly) socially progressive movement that ends up crusading for straight white guys.

It could be we’re reaching an inflection point where Asian Love will no longer just be a manifestation of our immigrant parents’ demands, but rather a youthful rebellion against the doctrinal cultural fear of Too Many Asians. Most of the active members of these groups are the oldest of Gen Z. Perhaps they’ve seen the assimilationist behavior of their Millennial/Gen X predecessors and have thought, ‘Nah.’ Even the older folks may be catching on. In Vice, an Asian photographer openly questioned why we never see Asian Americans in love with one another. Many of Ali Wong’s best jokes riff on this as well. And recently, John Cho and Jake Choi tweeted about the importance of seeing Asian American families and relationships.

Because the truth is that there is a significance to having a white partner. That’s why “I don’t date Asian” is often said so proudly and loudly, because it’s as much a political statement as it is just a purely personal one. It’s why when Asians talk about “interracial” relationships, what they really mean most of the time are relationships with white people. It’s why I’ve seen so many posts in Subtle Asian Traits about Asian parents who want their kids to NOT be with other Asians, but with white people. It’s why in an episode of The Mindy Project, when Mindy breaks up with a white suitor, he shouts at her, “You could’ve had a white boyfriend!” It’s why Asian PUAs specifically target white blonde women and why when couples like Serena Williams/Alex Ohanian or Priyanka Chopra/Nick Jonas get attacked, many women of color say that it’s because they’re seen as outsiders stealing a precious commodity: white men.

So if there is a significance to having a white partner, wouldn’t that have some impact on the social dynamics of Asian spaces? And shouldn’t there be a significance to having an Asian partner? That is what these groups are finally trying to hash out after decades of community silence.

3. Are East Asians too dominant?

Recently, I saw a big argument break out in Subtle Asian Traits over a meme that accused East Asians of being too obsessed with media representation while Southeast Asians were getting deported. While I do think that Asian Americans do have a tendency to become too focused on media rep, I did find it curious that East Asians were singled out. Is there any proof that East Asians are more obsessed with media rep than other types of Asians? Were East Asians blocking efforts to support the deportees?

One commenter accused East Asians of caring more about feeling angry about the meme than by the injustice faced by the deportees. But didn’t the original meme care more about what East Asians were doing (or not doing) than about the deportees? In short, who’s actually caring about the deportees here?

The deportee issue, while tragic, appears to be more of an expression of a lingering anger over East Asian domination. It’s an anger worth respecting because as a Korean, it’s easy for me to assume that the success of Korean Americans (e.g. John Cho and Min Jin Lee) and Koreans (e.g. Son Heung Min and Kpop) are an unquestionable boon for all Asians that benefit us all equally. But it’s easy to say that when it’s your group getting most of the spotlight. As Asian cultures and identities continue to rise, we should stress the importance of sharing the stage and spoils of attention because now, we can afford to do that.

As these internet crazes come and go, I don’t expect these Facebook groups to be long-term epicenters. People will probably slowly stop posting until another thing comes up. The funny thing is that I thought Facebook groups were a relic of the past, that Reddit and Twitter were where the most cutting-edge discussions were taking place. Hell, maybe even Instagram. But when there’s an urgent need for discussion, any platform will do and at the moment for young Asians, it’s Facebook.

And I’m greatly encouraged by what I’m seeing: fearless yet respectful honesty and a relentless desire to voice one’s experiences. Even meeting up IRL! It’s what Plan A has most wanted for the Asian diaspora community around the world. While these Facebook groups may not last, the hunger for discussions that they have generated will not be satiated until these issues are talked about and resolved. Because the Asian diaspora needs to learn to talk to each other, to risk being confrontational without going berserk. We’ve tried the “bury heads in sand” approach for decades. It hasn’t worked. So let’s let the younger people try something new.

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Chris Jesu Lee

Published 5 years ago

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