How a single Facebook Group helped millions of diasporic Asian youth find their voice

Marshall Zia

How Subtle Asian Traits Became One of the Most Influential Facebook Groups

With over 1.7 million followers in less than 2 years, private Facebook group, 'Subtle Asian Traits' (SAT in short) is a viral phenomenon in the world of social media. So what exactly is 'Subtle Asian Traits'?

Founded in late-2018, Subtle Asian Traits started off as a small Facebook group to distract a small group of Asian-Australian students during exam season. The purpose? To share jokes and anecdotes that characterize the Asian-Australian experience in ways only other diasporic Asians could understand.

However, as the group rapidly expanded to become the largest on Facebook, it was clear that SAT struck a chord with not only Asian youth in Australia, but Asian youth all over the world. But what exactly made this viral?

( Many diasporic Asian youth experience micro-agressive or even offensive comments related to their cultural and racial heritage. This quote from popular SitCom "Fresh Off The Boat" is just one such example. )

Although Asians may make up the majority of the Earth's global population at around 60%, for many diasporic Asians, they make up only a small minority in their current country of residence (for example, Asian Americans only make up around 7% of the total United States population). For Asian youth in particular, growing up in a country where you and your family look different and have a different cultural background can often lead to a completely different experience than say the average American, Australian, Canadian, etc. Furthermore, the dearth of Asian representation in the popular media of many countries only exacerbated the lack of exposure to the diasporic Asian experience.

It is precisely this difference in experience and perception that continues to draw thousands of users, mostly Asian youth, to the Facebook group to this day. It gives them visibility, the realization they are not alone, and the ability to find their voice. And for many, like myself, they learn that their experiences - from being asked innocent questions like "what kind of Asian are you" to some less innocent ones such as "does your family eat dog" - are incredibly relatable to others, not just in places such as the States or Australia, but to people around the world.


A Safe Haven or Echo Chamber?

If I'd been asked to describe what Subtle Asian Traits is to someone a few months ago, I would have described it as a safe haven for diasporic Asians to come together and discuss topics that are fundamentally Asian. And while there is no doubt a lot of good has come out of the group, there have also been valid criticisms of it.

The biggest criticism facing the Facebook group is, ironically, a lack of inclusivity. As the group has grown larger and larger, the majority of posts have been increasingly tailored to speak to a specifically upper-middle class, diasporic East Asian experience. While it is undoubtedly impossible for a social media group to be "right for everyone", this narrative has made this previously inclusive group increasingly exclusive, to the point where the group feels like, to some, an echo chamber.

As a result of this growing perception of exclusivity, many members of the group have branched off and started their own off-shoot pages that fit their interests and needs better than the original group, such as the professionally geared Subtle Asian Networking or the South Asian interest group called Subtle Curry Traits.

( Due to Subtle Asian Traits seemingly becoming more exclusive, many users of the original page have created off-shoot pages that better fit their own interests and needs. One example of this is Subtle Curry Traits - a page created to discuss the South Asian diasporic experience. )

With that being said, however, what is the current goal and purpose of the original Subtle Asian Traits group today? Furthermore, what should the purpose of Subtle Asian Traits be in the present day and age?


The Future of Subtle Asian Traits

In the past, moderators of Subtle Asian Traits have made a concerted effort to remove posts that may be seen as political or controversial in an effort to maintain a sense of peace within the group. However, given the current COVID-19 pandemic and the tense political climate in many places around the globe, the death of George Floyd and associated protests in the U.S. being the most recent example, conversation has reignited regarding the direction of the trans-national group. Specifically: is it okay for the Facebook group to remain a lighthearted page solely for jokes and memes or should the page allow more political and, at times, more controversial discussions?

( Examples of the mixed reactions from members of the "Subtle Asian Traits" Facebook page. )

In the past, the moderating team behind Subtle Asian Traits decided that the correct course of action was to restrict any political discussion to "[limit toxicity] within the comments section". However, in light of recent events, the group has begun to relax restrictions on posts discussing temporally relevant and potentially controversial topics while still reserving the right to lock or delete comments that are deemed "uncivil".

Although many are in favor of this change, others are strongly against this, stating that, "this decision will destroy the Facebook group" by turning it into a political echo chamber. Others have taken further issue with the idea of admin moderation itself, expressing concerns about admins being able to lock posts and delete comments that do not fit with the moderating team's political ideals, citing past instances where administrators locked and deleted threads discussing the protests in Hong Kong.

In the end, there is no one correct solution regarding the direction Subtle Asian Traits should take in the future. Whether the Facebook group allows political and potentially controversial discussions to exist on the main page or if discussion gets relegated to a separate "Subtle Asian _____" Facebook group offshoot, I believe that continued conversation will only help young diasporic Asians find their voice. That truly is the power that Subtle Asian Traits has always had and the reason why it has been so successful and noteworthy.

As young diasporic Asians continue to raise their voice on social media and beyond, Subtle Asian Trait's greatest legacy is that it gave and continues to give diasporic Asian youth, such as myself, not just a shelter to find community within, but a platform for us to begin speaking out and starting necessary conversations amongst our peers - giving a voice to many and a sense of belonging to even more.