A few years ago, the term “boba liberal” blew up in the Asian-American diaspora as both a withering insult and a memetic moment for self-reflection.
A Twitter user dubbed diaspora_is_red, often credited as an originator of the phrase, defined it as a privileged kind of “mainstream liberal Asian-American politics,” composed of ideals that are “sweet, not very offensive, but also not that good for you.” Just empty calories, in other words, exemplified by the kind of person who thinks buying Asian-themed merch can help solve racism. Or expounds on the joys of American “meritocracy” while remaining ignorant about how it fuels classism and colonialism. Or talks up their love of Crazy Rich Asians as genuine cultural progress, without investing a thought into the colorism and inequality that affects Asian communities today.
In that way, “boba liberal” became a favorite label for self-prescribed Asian leftists to throw at those who seem to care most about “identity” when it comes to identity politics — the kind that cheers mass-media representation, and popular figures like Andrew Yang without critiquing the underlying white gaze that makes model minorities so beloved. There’s been think piece after think piece about what it all means, hence the self-reflection, too: Nobody wants to be a boba liberal, no matter how much they like tapioca pearls and milk tea.
But just as we’ve seen with the co-opting of the word “woke” as a sarcastic conservative slur against progressive ideals, the term “boba liberal” has been subverted, too. Instead of merely critiquing shallow identity politics, the term is now weaponized against progressive Asian Americans deemed insufficiently committed to the Asian cause — and nothing has accelerated that quicker than the panic over attacks on Asian Americans on the street.
Hate crimes and attacks on Asians have captured the local news and the national attention since 2020, producing a stream of content that showed innocent people being attacked and belittled in never-ending variations on the same violent theme. Though research suggests that white people are most frequently the perpetrators of this violence, much of the focus of social media has been on crimes committed by Black men, including the recent murders of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee in New York.
Unsurprisingly, the crimes and their coverage has lit a new bonfire under the old trope of Black-Asian conflict. Despite pleas by many community leaders and activists to not let the violence spark anti-Black stereotypes among Asian Americans, each incident seems to do just that, with some even suggesting the “elephant in the room” is the race and motives of the attackers.
This is quite the 180-degree turn from the label “boba liberal” critiquing shallow politics — it’s a tortured twist that suggests that “bobas” are irreparably influenced by either white or Black supremacy, unable and unwilling to confront Asian suffering in an honest way. It reminds me of the way that the men’s rights activists of the Asian-American diaspora try to portray feminism as a tool of racist hatred and emasculation. There’s little nuance in this dismissal of “bobas,” even as those same critics ask for nuance themselves, claiming that they’re the real progressives, thinkers and activists in the room.
I’m not sure that loud advocacy to lock Black people up in prison to “clean up the streets” and “send a message” is the kind of Asian activism that will save us; it’s mostly a rehashing of the same ignorance that went viral in the 1980s and 1990s, when the tools of mass incarceration exploded thanks to a moral panic about “superpredators” and poor people of color causing crime. Indeed, even back then, there were Asian-American activists working in solidarity with Black and brown leaders to address the fault lines and tensions at play.
But it’s only now, amid a Culture War® waged largely via the language and venues of social media, that we have verbiage to illustrate the schisms of thought. Ironically, the Asian alt-right that espouses hatred toward “bobas” and “woke” politics probably have a lot to agree on with their brethren: The impact of colonialism on home countries, the violence of American imperialism, the systemic oppression of Asian people in the U.S. and the insufferable model-minority energy still embedded within so much Asian representation.
But cross those lines and start talking about solidarity, or the priorities of other marginalized groups, or how Asian demonization of Black people is white supremacy at work, and boom: You’re liable to be called a “boba liberal,” even if the last thing you want to do is wear AAPI merch and rep $7 chunky tea.
Such is the weird, wonky way in which discourse shifts terminology online. Once upon a time, being called a “social justice warrior” wasn’t an insult. “Staying woke” was a beautiful, necessary thing for Black artists and thinkers, not a slapstick punchline for the alt-right. And “boba liberal” simply meant that you lacked the moral and intellectual courage to dig deep and really consider the core issues, instead preferring the easy, consumerist way out.
“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,” Mona Lee, a student at University of California, Los Angeles, who researched the phrase, 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.”
History shows the white gaze has long demonized Blackness as criminality incarnate. Turns out, being Asian and criticizing your community for doing the same is the fastest way for the Asian manosphere to call you out. Someone might call you an “Uncle Chan,” or surmise that you’re a white-chasing “Anna Lu.” But more than ever before, believing in something as important as intersectional activism might just mean you’re a “boba liberal.”