Recently, a new Facebook group, Subtle Asian Traits, has taken the internet by a storm. Common posts are filled with glimpses into childhood homes, cultural in-jokes involving Cantonese phrases and screenshots of texts from parents. The group was created in September by a group of Chinese-Australian school friends and has since grown exponentially to over 700,000 members in under three months.
Subtle Asian Traits is part of a larger, rapidly growing pop culture trend. 2018 has ushered in a considerable uptick in attention paid to Asian experiences and voices—as well as emerging conversations around Asianness and identity—on both social media and the big screen. Crazy Rich Asians, the most successful studio rom-com at the box office in nine years, tells the story of an Asian-American professor who travels to meet her boyfriend's family and is surprised to discover they are among the richest in Singapore. This movie—in conjunction with the Pixar short film, Bao, that aired before Incredibles 2—highlights an evolving place for Asianness in mainstream media.
Growing up, many Asian-Americans don’t often see people who look like them in popular culture. Asian representation was largely confined to yellowface—a Hollywood practice where Asian character roles were played by white actors. In 1938, German-American actor Luise Rainer even won an Academy Award for her depiction of a Chinese peasant in The Good Earth. When Asian actors and actresses were cast for roles, there’s a well-documented lineage of them being relegated to stereotyped tropes, like "Kung Fu villains" or "dragon ladies."
Given this context, it’s abundantly clear why recent examples of Asian representation in popular culture have been so celebrated. Authentic and culturally literate portrayals function as platforms to facilitate conversations shared experiences that are nearly universal among the Asian diaspora.
Kinship formed over shared memories of being teased about smelly lunches or favorite childhood toys allows individuals to openly express and bond over meaningful aspects of their Asian identity. These channels for community-building serve the priceless role of lovingly affirming the experiences and cultural touchstones that had formerly been sources of alienation. To see cultural nuances magnified on the big screen uplifts Asianness as just as worthy of depiction and adoration.
While these cinematic works and online spaces have certainly served as worthwhile cultural representation for the Asian and Asian-American community, they also act as powerful reminders of the conversations yet to be had.
Despite the flourishing digital community Subtle Asian Traits has built, it’s important to acknowledge it can also reinforce a hierarchy based on skin color—reflecting a pervasive colorism in Asian communities. Colorism can be seen clearly in the frequent erasure of South and Southeast Asians. East Asians—populations with comparably lighter skin on average—often receive the most visibility.
Scrolling through the group, another clear trend is members posting about their parents’ racism. Internalized racism and anti-blackness remain major issues in Asian communities; when thousands of members acknowledge—with a laugh or a like on the post—the racist beliefs in the community, it normalizes these violent views.
Furthermore, media representations of Asians still present a homogenized image of the Asian community. On a campus like Duke—where 28 percent of the first-year class is Asian—we see this manifest itself in the admissions process and event programming like Lunar New Year—where the focus is mainly given to Chinese students. The catchall category "Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI)” is popular among both researchers and race equity advocates, but it can disaggregate identities in harmful, marginalizing ways. The lack of cultural and national distinction blurs critical issues like the fact that Asians in the U.S. face the greatest within-race income inequality. Furthermore, an overall lack of awareness of Asian and Asian-American history persists, like the history of Chinese migrant labor—another pressing reason for creating an Asian-American Studies department on campus.
Many Asian-American students at Duke struggle to navigate the complex, isolating line between being too Asian to fit into white groups, but too white to fit into Asian groups. The rise of Asian-American presence in popular culture has felt like a win for so many; it has brought long overdue validation and affirmation to individuals who grew up rejecting fundamental aspects of their culture. However, divides along identities like class status still exist and more focus is needed on the diverse ethnicities that are encompassed within the Asian-American community. We must reflect not just on how to elevate awareness of the issues affecting distinct AAPI communities, but also the historical legacies and present-day structures that perpetuate inter- and intragroup disparities.
This was written by The Chronicle's Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff.
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