Wednesday evening, around 25 students gathered in the Tribute Room at the School of Education to discuss the popular Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits, which currently has around 1.2 million members. The event, Examining Subtle Asian Traits, is one of a series of events being held by Asian/Pacific Islander American Heritage Month with Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs.
Most attendees were either current or former members of the online group and had joined after being invited by friends. Many were also members of extension groups of Subtle Asian Traits such as Subtle Curry Traits, Subtle Asian Dating, Subtle Telugu Traits and Dating and Subtle Queer Asian Dating.
Students first viewed a YouTube video, “The Asian-Australians Behind ‘Subtle Asian Traits'” which provided background information on the way the Facebook group began. The group was started by a group of Asian-Australian high schoolers, who were inspired by a Facebook group called Subtle Private School Traits. Although it is an Asian-centric group, non-Asian people can join. The page features memes, jokes and posts reflecting on the Asian experience in Western countries, usually focusing on the experience of children of immigrants.
After watching the video, students were split into two groups to discuss their experiences with Subtle Asian Traits and to discuss positive and negative aspects of the group.
Business sophomore Sanghamithra Kalimi said groups like Subtle Asian Traits and Subtle Asian Dating — an extension group where members post photos of themselves in search of a significant others or followers on social media — tend to exclude certain groups, which is the main reason extension groups start. She said sometimes groups like Subtle Asian Traits can make smaller ethnic and social groups feel even more excluded.
“Pages like these are usually very heteronormative,” Kalimi said. “Especially pages like Subtle Asian Dating where it is kind of a heteronormative page. I can see how that may disillusion people.”
One of the main criticisms of Subtle Asian Traits is its tendency to exclude South Asian and Southeast Asian people because most memes and jokes on the page refer to the East Asian experience in Western countries. Kalimi said she believes Subtle Asian Dating shows internalized colorism within Asians.
“People who have lighter skin or look more East Asian get more likes than people who look more brown or have more brown skin,” Kalimi said. “Like South Asians and Southeast Asians, they have less likes. That’s something I’ve noticed especially.”
LSA junior Youna Lee emphasized what they said was problematic language some Asians use, both in real life and on the Subtle Asian Traits page.
“I was also thinking, a lot of people who use AAVE, or African-American Vernacular English, tend to think like, ‘It’s just slang!’” Lee said. “But it’s really, it’s derived from Black women and Black gay men, who coined these terms. And like, using AAVE online is kind of like a digital blackface. People read that and think, oh this person might be Black even though they are not.”
Kalimi echoed their sentiments and added Asians are often apolitical because they have the privilege to ignore certain social issues.
“My experience as a Desi-American, sometimes our social-economic status is more adjacent to the white experience in that way,” Kalimi said. “It allows us, many of us, to not really care about other politics that aren’t happening in our community, or other issues that happen because you can say that our existence isn’t as politicized as others’ existence in that way. We still have those advantages that do allow us to be more inclined to be apolitical.”
The discussion also touched on the popular jokes and memes surrounding discrimination as well as abuse from parents resulting in bad relationships some children have with their families. Lee said joking about trauma may not be the best solution to solving these issues, despite the fact many Asians joke about it in the Facebook group.
“In a sense some people might argue it’s a coping mechanism,” Lee said. “But it can only be good for so long before you kind of just don’t question it anymore. But maybe it’s more profitable to just keep making fun of your trauma instead of actually healing.”
At the end of the event, the group discussed whether or not Subtle Asian Traits has had a positive impact on the way Asians view themselves and the way non-Asians, especially white people, view Asians.
Engineering sophomore Tony Zhang said Subtle Asian Traits will be helpful for developing Asian identities in Western countries.
“It’s a place where Western Asians can find a common ground for their identities almost,” Zhang said. “I think a lot of the time you need a lot of things that people can talk about, like communities, songs, books, cultural things. And I think that takes a lot of time to develop.”
Kalimi questioned this, saying Asian culture had been developing in Western countries without groups like Subtle Asian Traits.
“Is Asian diaspora culture, is it really that shallow?” she asked. “Have people really not been creating culture?”
Zhang rebutted, saying it takes time for identities to develop and groups like Subtle Asian Traits, although seemingly trivial at first, could help contribute to Asian identities in Western countries.
“Because for a lot of the Asians we’re talking about here, it’s a new thing that Asians migrate to Western countries,” Zhang said. “So it will still take generations for Asians to really develop a complete identity in Western countries. I think that’s the reason right now we all talk about boba and that kind of small stuff, give it some time and we can build something off of that.”
After the event, Zhang said he learned people from a diverse set of backgrounds can still have a similar experience as migrants or as children of migrants to Western countries.
“So one thing I realized is that you know, if you’re from Asian descent, you probably think about the same things despite being from different countries, different backgrounds,” Zhang said. “I think there’s more common ground than differences.”