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The Asian-American class war Boba liberals choose status over solidarity

Think of the Asians who aren't Crazy Rich. (Crazy Rich Asians/IMDB)


July 14, 2023   5 mins

In the metropolises of the West, shops that sell bubble tea — or boba, as it is commonly known — have proliferated over the past few years, a microcosm of the boom in East Asian cultural exports. At the same time, a term has become popular in the Asian diaspora, especially among Asian Americans: boba liberal. Like most phrases coined online this one is as slippery as the tapioca pearls in bubble tea. But it is safe to say that it is a pejorative, referring generally to middle-class Asian Americans who chase the validation of their non-Asian liberal peers, often acting in ways detrimental to other Asians.

Boba has a reputation for being a drink that’s all sugar and no substance. Likewise, a boba liberal is an Asian who uncritically subscribes to the Democrat party line that “diversity is our strength!”, while making shallow tributes to Asian-American identity, such as celebrating representation in Hollywood. While it is commonly used by conservatives, “boba liberalism” was actually named by the other sworn enemy of liberals: Leftists. It was coined by a socialist Twitter activist, who wrote that “Boba Liberalism is thinking t-shirts, products, and merchandise are the main way of affirming one’s racial identity”.

The term is also used to describe Asians who are deemed to have been “whitewashed” — to have abandoned their “authentic” Asian identity to assimilate into the middle class. But how do you decide what counts as “authentic”, when the whole concept of Asian-American identity is built on a shaky foundation? African Americans are mostly descended from individuals who crossed the Atlantic centuries ago as slaves, and are therefore disconnected from their ancestors: they had no choice but to create a new culture from scratch, which gives it a coherence. Asian Americans, by contrast, have only existed in significant numbers for the past few decades. They have stronger ties, as well as living relatives, with other hugely varying nations. Bureaucracy may still lump together East and South Asians, but the two groups are two distinct races in everyday life. Ironically, in an era when racial minorities are encouraged to think about themselves as categories on a census form, boba liberalism is pushing a pan-Asian identity that does not actually exist.

The recent New York Times article “What Does It Mean to Be an Asian American Brewer?” is a classic example of how that identity is pushed. The author emphasises how few Asians there are in the industry, and points how those breweries which have succeeded began using Asian motifs, such as Chinese Zodiac symbols, only once they became popular. The only real difference between an Asian and a non-Asian brewery, apparently, is that an Asian brewery engages in self-Orientalism so that the mostly non-Asian customers can get feel like they are getting an “exotic” experience, even though the beer tastes just like any classic American beer.

Over time, politically conservative Asian Americans have also come to enthusiastically adopt the term “boba liberal” — mainly because it gave them a chance to “own the libs”. Like Asian Leftists, conservative Asians view boba liberals as not possessing an authentic Asian-American identity, but for the Right, disparaging boba liberalism is not a way to critique capitalism. It is a way of taking aim at a small but influential group of progressive Asian-American activists who are supposedly selling out other Asians, especially working-class Asians, in order to win brownie points from elite, generally white liberals.

After all, Boba liberalism is, essentially, an Asian version of white liberalism — or wokeness. The core of this identity is self-flagellation, the sacred mission to “do the work” of atoning for being born white, the original sin. As Tom Holland has suggested, wokeness is a direct by-product of European Christian morality. And modern-day white liberalism has largely abandoned Christianity, but persistent is the desire to make up for the offences of one’s ancestors, and to see that the last shall be first and that the first shall be last.

As the most educated in society have adopted the tenets of this new religion, people who want access to elite spaces feel immense pressure to convert. Asian Americans from middle- to upper-class families are typically from majority-white neighbourhoods, and the urge to join the club is immense. (This demographic has the highest rates of getting into elite colleges.) Since white guilt is in vogue among their white liberal peers, they have created their own version.

Boba liberals cleave to the idea that that “anti-blackness” is endemic in Asian-American communities. In Liquor Store Dreams, for example, the Korean American filmmaker So Yun Um turns her parents’ experience of running a shop in a majority-black neighbourhood into a critique of this supposed anti-black racism. Her parents were working-class immigrants who toiled for decades to give her a better life, but she has risen above them socially, becoming a filmmaker — and is now castigating them to gain acceptance in her new class.

In an interview to promote the film, she tells the story of a Korean American friend who was accosted and robbed on the street by a black person. Her friend felt conflicted because he didn’t want to bring race into how he viewed the incident. The rest of the interview focuses on the myriad ways Korean Americans are said to perpetuate anti-blackness. When discussing attacks on Asians, for instance, she says: “If you’re in a predominantly black and brown neighbourhood, if an accident were happening, who else would be the assailant? It wouldn’t be a white person because a white person doesn’t live there.” Note her use of the word “accident”, rather than, say, “attack”. By doing so she is unintentionally perpetuating the obviously racist idea that a black person can’t help being an “assailant”; it denies black Americans agency. There is no similar call for black Americans to “unlearn anti-Asianness”, because in a boba liberal’s mind, how can they possibly take responsibility for their actions?

While boba liberals may experience anti-Asian racism themselves, they know there is little social capital to be gained from discussing it. The common assumption is that Asians are mostly well-off and do not need liberal saviours, unlike black Americans. The latter are often portrayed in popular culture as living tough lives in “the hood”. But working-class Asians tend to cluster in ethnic enclaves that receive very little media attention. The dominant Asian stereotype is of the “crazy rich Asian”. Boba liberals will intentionally distance themselves from these working-class Asians. Anyone who doesn’t toe the progressive party line on every issue is actually an ally of white supremacists.

Unsurprisingly, then, boba liberals often support affirmative action over merit-based admissions policies. In other words, they support a process based not on a clear set of consistently applied rules, but on more nebulous, unspoken criteria set by elite ideology. This benefits them, because they understand the “right” things to do and say to gain access to institutions such as Harvard. Working-class Asian Americans have little-to-no social capital and have the “wrong ideas”, however, and thus prefer merit-based admissions policies that don’t require intricate knowledge of elite codes.

But being against affirmative action is considered “wrong” by affluent progressives; for them, the policy is an accessory they can tout to signal that they believe in the value of having a superficially multiracial ruling class. And just as affluent white liberals feel ashamed about white MAGA voters or Brexiteers, boba liberals are embarrassed by working-class Asians and their “incorrect” views.

As Rob Henderson has pointed out, Asian Americans are adopting “luxury beliefs, which are ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class while often inflicting costs on the lower classes” — which he sees as “an indicator of assimilation” into upper-middle class America. A similar phenomenon is happening among Latinos: the college-educated now use the term “Latinx” as a class signifier, a term that is deeply unpopular with the vast majority of Latinos. It seems, then, that racial solidarity is not as powerful as class solidarity. America’s liberal elite have all converged on one value system that sets them apart, while pretending to be “diverse” through shallow imitations of identity.


Sheluyang Peng is a writer living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. He blogs at Society & Standpoint.

SheluyangPeng

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago

Sounds like Asians are similar to every other race in America. Working class Asians have way more in common with working class whites, Hispanics and blacks.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
11 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Quite so. Class has always been the major delineation, much more than race or ethnicity. Oprah Winfrey has as much in common with a street drug dealer than “Joe the plumber” has with Elon Musk. Same goes for the Asian owner of a dry cleaner, who toils 14 hours a day, and Jack Ma.

Last edited 11 months ago by Warren Trees
Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
11 months ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

Not sure about that…

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
11 months ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

Not sure about that…

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
11 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Quite so. Class has always been the major delineation, much more than race or ethnicity. Oprah Winfrey has as much in common with a street drug dealer than “Joe the plumber” has with Elon Musk. Same goes for the Asian owner of a dry cleaner, who toils 14 hours a day, and Jack Ma.

Last edited 11 months ago by Warren Trees
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago

Sounds like Asians are similar to every other race in America. Working class Asians have way more in common with working class whites, Hispanics and blacks.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
11 months ago

This rather saddens me because I had a hope that East Asians would help to send wokies where the sun don’t shine.

Ali W
Ali W
11 months ago

A few generations in and they’re Americans now.

Ali W
Ali W
11 months ago

A few generations in and they’re Americans now.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
11 months ago

This rather saddens me because I had a hope that East Asians would help to send wokies where the sun don’t shine.

Ali W
Ali W
11 months ago

As others have pointed out, class is much more important than race, yet the popular narrative is to rank us all by how we are oppressed based on our race. I wish Unherd would write about this, because I don’t have the time to do all the research, but the injection of racial politics into every facet of life rose sharply after the Occupy movement.
The [conspiracy] theory being, the organizers of the Occupy movement were actually formulating cohesive plans to weaken the political strength of large Wall Street corporations (i.e. Black Rock), and mainstream media, being heavily funded by these corporations, took action to begin dismantling the movement by drawing attention to the largely white upper echelons of the movement. Unfortunately, I only have online anecdotes, but members of the movement said after a certain point, their meetings were bombarded with minorities who would claim racism for not being heard, and the movement simply lost steam. I have a feeling there is more to this, and I would love if a real journalist took the time to investigate further.
I distinctly remember a piece by Samantha Bee in the Daily Show, where she points out the class warfare within the camps. At the time I thought it was hilarious, and of course conservatives latched onto anything that made fun of the commies trying to wreck our economy. However, after the ascension of identity politics and everything being racist, I now wonder if that segment only existed due to some executive decision to blast the airways with negative coverage of the movement.
This is a lot of speculation, but I hope someone is able to take it further.

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
11 months ago
Reply to  Ali W

Vivek Ramasamy’s book ‘Woke, Inc’ is based on this idea.

Some of this is also down to the hysteria surrounding Donald Trump. When they realised ‘Russiagate’ wasn’t going to oust him, the media went pedal-to-the-metal on ‘white supremacy’. The death of George Floyd was a godsend to these people.

Last edited 11 months ago by Derek Smith
Bob Sander
Bob Sander
11 months ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

Maybe Donald Trump wouldn’t be in news if he hadn’t incited an insurrection amongst his uneducated devotees. An event that deserves the attention.

Bob Sander
Bob Sander
11 months ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

Maybe Donald Trump wouldn’t be in news if he hadn’t incited an insurrection amongst his uneducated devotees. An event that deserves the attention.

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
11 months ago
Reply to  Ali W

Vivek Ramasamy’s book ‘Woke, Inc’ is based on this idea.

Some of this is also down to the hysteria surrounding Donald Trump. When they realised ‘Russiagate’ wasn’t going to oust him, the media went pedal-to-the-metal on ‘white supremacy’. The death of George Floyd was a godsend to these people.

Last edited 11 months ago by Derek Smith
Ali W
Ali W
11 months ago

As others have pointed out, class is much more important than race, yet the popular narrative is to rank us all by how we are oppressed based on our race. I wish Unherd would write about this, because I don’t have the time to do all the research, but the injection of racial politics into every facet of life rose sharply after the Occupy movement.
The [conspiracy] theory being, the organizers of the Occupy movement were actually formulating cohesive plans to weaken the political strength of large Wall Street corporations (i.e. Black Rock), and mainstream media, being heavily funded by these corporations, took action to begin dismantling the movement by drawing attention to the largely white upper echelons of the movement. Unfortunately, I only have online anecdotes, but members of the movement said after a certain point, their meetings were bombarded with minorities who would claim racism for not being heard, and the movement simply lost steam. I have a feeling there is more to this, and I would love if a real journalist took the time to investigate further.
I distinctly remember a piece by Samantha Bee in the Daily Show, where she points out the class warfare within the camps. At the time I thought it was hilarious, and of course conservatives latched onto anything that made fun of the commies trying to wreck our economy. However, after the ascension of identity politics and everything being racist, I now wonder if that segment only existed due to some executive decision to blast the airways with negative coverage of the movement.
This is a lot of speculation, but I hope someone is able to take it further.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
11 months ago

Somewhat surprising that Asians, especially the Indian type, are in favour of affirmative action when it is being used against them by Ivy League Universities.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
11 months ago
Reply to  Alan Hawkes

The type of Asians who are in favour of affirmative action know what to include in their personal statement and interview to be accepted according to the article (from successful, wealthy or a least comfortable, middle class backgrounds).

Last edited 11 months ago by Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
11 months ago
Reply to  Alan Hawkes

The type of Asians who are in favour of affirmative action know what to include in their personal statement and interview to be accepted according to the article (from successful, wealthy or a least comfortable, middle class backgrounds).

Last edited 11 months ago by Aphrodite Rises
Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
11 months ago

Somewhat surprising that Asians, especially the Indian type, are in favour of affirmative action when it is being used against them by Ivy League Universities.

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
11 months ago

We need to maintain the distinction between being credentialed and being “educated.” Demonstrably, some of our most credentialed people are equally vapid and unintelligent.

Bob Sander
Bob Sander
11 months ago
Reply to  Cho Jinn

Like Donald Trump.

Bob Sander
Bob Sander
11 months ago
Reply to  Cho Jinn

Like Donald Trump.

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
11 months ago

We need to maintain the distinction between being credentialed and being “educated.” Demonstrably, some of our most credentialed people are equally vapid and unintelligent.

michael harris
michael harris
11 months ago

Asians? According to more settled Americans? Uzbeks, Koreans, Pakistanis, Indians, Chinese, all the same lot? Somewhere between black and white on the American universal scale of worth?
This reminds me of the1950s? film that poked fun at American tourism…
‘If it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium’.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
11 months ago
Reply to  michael harris

These different groups are lumped together not because broader society ignores their differences, but because despite those differences they nevertheless have a lot more in common with each other than with Africans, Mexicans, Norwegians, etc.

You might as well complain about how the differences between Italian Americans and Irish Americans and WASPs are ignored when they’re just considered part of the white plurality.

There are always finer demographic gradations possible, but they wouldn’t serve the needs these broader categories serve.

michael harris
michael harris
11 months ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

What is it, then, that (say) Japanese and Mongolians have so much more in common with one another than with Italians?
And who are these ‘Africans’ you mention in the same sentence as Mexicans and Norwegians – not to mention the poor etcs?
No. The broad categories are used out of ignorance and laziness.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
11 months ago
Reply to  michael harris

No, they’re used to create political voting blocs. It’s part of the New Racialism that seeks to keep the working classes divided by ethnicity, Note how all this started happening shortly after Occupy Wall Street. What is most remarkable about all this is how it is educated women who are enforcing these divisions. It wouldn’t surprise me if the majority of these boba liberals are educated women too.

Ben Shipley
Ben Shipley
11 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I don’t think this gets near enough attention, the extent to which this entire subject is just politicos figuring out how to get votes. Certainly, nothing happens in the Biden White House without first estimating the impact on which voting bloc. And it’s true about educated women, mostly white, being the shock troops of such tactics. Which goes to show that education might be skin deep, but ignorance goes to the bone.

Bob Sander
Bob Sander
11 months ago
Reply to  Ben Shipley

Nothing happens in any Presidency without determining the effect on a voting bloc.

Bob Sander
Bob Sander
11 months ago
Reply to  Ben Shipley

Nothing happens in any Presidency without determining the effect on a voting bloc.

michael harris
michael harris
11 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Quite so, Julian. The voting blocs are an imitation of the Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi caste system, which is loosening even as the US Democrats adopt it. It was noted in India a few years ago that the goodies handed out to ‘backward’ castes and tribes were very much enjoyed by the ‘creamy layers’ in each caste (or tribe). That is to say; the class system is alive and kicking as a subsidiary element to caste. The ‘creamy layers’ in each ‘community’ do the ‘creamy layer’ polka together while everyone else watches.

Ben Shipley
Ben Shipley
11 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I don’t think this gets near enough attention, the extent to which this entire subject is just politicos figuring out how to get votes. Certainly, nothing happens in the Biden White House without first estimating the impact on which voting bloc. And it’s true about educated women, mostly white, being the shock troops of such tactics. Which goes to show that education might be skin deep, but ignorance goes to the bone.

michael harris
michael harris
11 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Quite so, Julian. The voting blocs are an imitation of the Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi caste system, which is loosening even as the US Democrats adopt it. It was noted in India a few years ago that the goodies handed out to ‘backward’ castes and tribes were very much enjoyed by the ‘creamy layers’ in each caste (or tribe). That is to say; the class system is alive and kicking as a subsidiary element to caste. The ‘creamy layers’ in each ‘community’ do the ‘creamy layer’ polka together while everyone else watches.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
11 months ago
Reply to  michael harris

But wait – who are these Norwegians you speak of? Some arbitrary grouping of political boundaries and language use? Any group identifier can be critiqued the way you critique ‘Africans’ – it all depends on why you’ve drawn the lines where you’ve drawn them.
We are all unique individuals, and yet we are all also members of ever increasing concentric circles that are finally subsumed in a big one called ‘humanity.’
PS. To take the most obvious example, Mongolians and Japanese look more alike than Italians and Japanese. They don’t look alike, of course – they just look *more alike*.

Last edited 11 months ago by Kirk Susong
Bob Sander
Bob Sander
11 months ago
Reply to  michael harris

What are trying to say? We can create divisions and more divisions until the day we die. You’re being inflammatory for no reason. What are you really suggesting?

Last edited 11 months ago by Bob Sander
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
11 months ago
Reply to  michael harris

No, they’re used to create political voting blocs. It’s part of the New Racialism that seeks to keep the working classes divided by ethnicity, Note how all this started happening shortly after Occupy Wall Street. What is most remarkable about all this is how it is educated women who are enforcing these divisions. It wouldn’t surprise me if the majority of these boba liberals are educated women too.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
11 months ago
Reply to  michael harris

But wait – who are these Norwegians you speak of? Some arbitrary grouping of political boundaries and language use? Any group identifier can be critiqued the way you critique ‘Africans’ – it all depends on why you’ve drawn the lines where you’ve drawn them.
We are all unique individuals, and yet we are all also members of ever increasing concentric circles that are finally subsumed in a big one called ‘humanity.’
PS. To take the most obvious example, Mongolians and Japanese look more alike than Italians and Japanese. They don’t look alike, of course – they just look *more alike*.

Last edited 11 months ago by Kirk Susong
Bob Sander
Bob Sander
11 months ago
Reply to  michael harris

What are trying to say? We can create divisions and more divisions until the day we die. You’re being inflammatory for no reason. What are you really suggesting?

Last edited 11 months ago by Bob Sander
michael harris
michael harris
11 months ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

What is it, then, that (say) Japanese and Mongolians have so much more in common with one another than with Italians?
And who are these ‘Africans’ you mention in the same sentence as Mexicans and Norwegians – not to mention the poor etcs?
No. The broad categories are used out of ignorance and laziness.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
11 months ago
Reply to  michael harris

These different groups are lumped together not because broader society ignores their differences, but because despite those differences they nevertheless have a lot more in common with each other than with Africans, Mexicans, Norwegians, etc.

You might as well complain about how the differences between Italian Americans and Irish Americans and WASPs are ignored when they’re just considered part of the white plurality.

There are always finer demographic gradations possible, but they wouldn’t serve the needs these broader categories serve.

michael harris
michael harris
11 months ago

Asians? According to more settled Americans? Uzbeks, Koreans, Pakistanis, Indians, Chinese, all the same lot? Somewhere between black and white on the American universal scale of worth?
This reminds me of the1950s? film that poked fun at American tourism…
‘If it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium’.

Jim Davis
Jim Davis
11 months ago

Asians have been immigrating to the U.S. for work and a better life since the 1840s and 1850s, a bit more than a few decades. They also typically suffered hardship and discrimination and the Japanese were forced into camps by FDR, a liberal Democrat. If you need some supporting information try https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/immigration/chinese/struggling-for-work/#

Jim Davis
Jim Davis
11 months ago

Asians have been immigrating to the U.S. for work and a better life since the 1840s and 1850s, a bit more than a few decades. They also typically suffered hardship and discrimination and the Japanese were forced into camps by FDR, a liberal Democrat. If you need some supporting information try https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/immigration/chinese/struggling-for-work/#

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
11 months ago

Never encountered Boba whatever that might be. Lumping Asians in a group is rather strange. Japanese culture asserts non-Japanese as inferior, much like the Chinese. A bit more south and there is a bit more tolerance; move into India and it becomes even more tolerant except for religion. I suppose third generation of Asians in the West become more tolerant but that extends to nearly all demographics. There is a real issue in the US, unclear about the UK, of Blacks resenting Asians and the notion of one minority exploiting the other. Anger expressed in violence in minority communities. Boba Asians along with anybody outside of minority communities seem above the fray. Few understand how the poor get trapped and for all the liberal hand wringing until we get education fixed there is no escape.

Bob Sander
Bob Sander
11 months ago
Reply to  Hardee Hodges

Don’t be fooled by India either. Their political environment is entirely populist-right winged. Caste based discrimination is essentially ethnic discrimination. It’s more so they’re too busy discriminating against each to have time to focus on China or South East Asia.

Bob Sander
Bob Sander
11 months ago
Reply to  Hardee Hodges

Don’t be fooled by India either. Their political environment is entirely populist-right winged. Caste based discrimination is essentially ethnic discrimination. It’s more so they’re too busy discriminating against each to have time to focus on China or South East Asia.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
11 months ago

Never encountered Boba whatever that might be. Lumping Asians in a group is rather strange. Japanese culture asserts non-Japanese as inferior, much like the Chinese. A bit more south and there is a bit more tolerance; move into India and it becomes even more tolerant except for religion. I suppose third generation of Asians in the West become more tolerant but that extends to nearly all demographics. There is a real issue in the US, unclear about the UK, of Blacks resenting Asians and the notion of one minority exploiting the other. Anger expressed in violence in minority communities. Boba Asians along with anybody outside of minority communities seem above the fray. Few understand how the poor get trapped and for all the liberal hand wringing until we get education fixed there is no escape.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
11 months ago

Let me pose this idea: Americans of Asian extraction have come to exhibit the same kind of diversity of opinion as other folks in the ‘main stream’. Perhaps not observing and expecting everyone to vote and think as a monolithic bloc is an indication of health in society. And we could really stand for some indications of health …

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
11 months ago

What a cretinous expression and description “Asian” is? Typical Americanism, unsurprising really when Americans describe a defecating dog as ” Going to the bathroom”!

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
11 months ago

It is also a cretinous euphemism used in the UK.

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
11 months ago

It is also a cretinous euphemism used in the UK.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
11 months ago

What a cretinous expression and description “Asian” is? Typical Americanism, unsurprising really when Americans describe a defecating dog as ” Going to the bathroom”!

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
11 months ago

ARE there working class Asian-Americans??

michael harris
michael harris
11 months ago
Reply to  Betsy Arehart

Yes. In L:A.Koreatown for instance.

michael harris
michael harris
11 months ago
Reply to  Betsy Arehart

Yes. In L:A.Koreatown for instance.

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
11 months ago

ARE there working class Asian-Americans??