The Twitter post spread like wildfire in the Asian American community.
A controversial op-ed in The New York Times written by Columbia University sociology professor Jennifer Lee this month rattled nerves. Based on a small sampling of research, Lee claimed that Asian Americans who earned their admission to Harvard University may have benefited from their racial status because teachers stereotyped them as being smart.
The pushback was quick and fierce as Columbia's official Twitter account shared Lee's opinion piece. Almost 2,000 Asian Americans and other readers responded to the university's account to complain of discrimination. Some accused Lee's piece of being the work of a "boba liberal."
A boba what?
Sweetness and empty calories
Most people see boba as a cool, trendy Asian drink with myriad fruity and sugary flavors. Well, a boba liberal is a derogatory term — largely used by Asians to describe other Asians — for a person who resembles that drink: someone who displays a lot of sweetness and offers a lot of empty calories.
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According to the Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced online dictionary of slang terms, a boba liberal is usually an upper-middle-class East or Southeast Asian living in the West, typically in the United States or Canada, who identifies as a liberal.
"But their association with liberal ideology and liberalism is simply a means to increase their proximity to whiteness or to pretend to be white themselves," the Urban Dictionary entry says. "Boba liberals use their Asian background as a platform to speak on behalf of the Asian population in the West, using talking points created by white liberals, which has a tendency to gaslight actual issues faced by the Asian diaspora."
The term was first coined by a Twitter user, @diaspora_red, who self-describes as "Communist diaspora thoughts over spicy hotpot on the Asian Amerikan condition and the capitalism-imperialism that flung us to foreign shores."
The term is gaining traction in Asian American circles. As I've come to understand it, Asians call peers boba liberals when they aspire to liberal whiteness. Boba liberals surface Asian traits — like drinking pricey boba drinks — to tout their Asian credentials. They can be found on Instagram, too, taking selfies in high-fashion clothes. And they love to talk about films like "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Shang-Chi."
That sounds pretty shallow, doesn't it?
Yet boba liberals get a lot of media attention. Most are second- or third-generation Asian Americans with decisive liberal views and without much association with working-class immigrants. People who could be derided as boba liberals are frequently interviewed by my colleagues in the press — they are almost always fluent in English. And academia, where left-leaning ideology is common, is home to many more boba liberals than Columbia's Lee.
"They're born here and don't remember how hard the first generation had it in this country," said Peter Wang, 42. An immigrant from Taiwan who grew up in North Jersey and now lives in Queens, Wang helped his parents with restaurant work when he was a teen.
Wang is president of Asian Climbing Tribe, a Jersey-centric group of climbing enthusiasts. Wang said the group recently chatted about the boba liberal label. One of the group's members suggested that former presidential and New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang fits the profile:
"Basically an Asian who enjoyed a lot of white-adjacent privileges, but is ignorant of the struggles that many different Asian community faces. During election season he plays tropes like 'I'm good at math' to display a superficial Asian-ness."
Ray Liu, a second-generation Taiwanese American who is a management consultant in Manhattan, considers himself to be liberal, but said he finds the rise of boba liberals disturbing.
"Boba liberals occupy the small amount of media coverage that Asians receive," Liu said. "As someone who self-identifies as a liberal, I only ever see articles by and about Asian Americans who do little to advocate for their community and instead spend more of their time admonishing us for our supposed anti-Blackness or some other aspect they perceive. This is extremely frustrating, as it does nothing to help our community and usually helps [boba liberals] ingratiate themselves to their own liberal establishment niche."
Feeding the 'model minority' myth
Being a boba liberal is a privilege, in the same way liberals bemoan white privilege.
Some liberals forget the history of racism that Asians faced in America. Asians have been viewed as white-adjacent by many on the left because some have advanced to comfortable lives in this country. Asians continue to grapple with the myth that we are a "model minority."
Yet according to Pew Research, Asian Americans have the highest income inequality, a measure of the economic gap between the rich and poor. Asians in the top 10% earn 10.7 times as much as Asians in the bottom 10%. Yes, there are doctors and engineers within Asian ranks. But there are also servers and nail technicians.
So much for the white-adjacency narrative.
Just before Lee's article caused a controversy to erupt, I was walking around the Columbia campus with my daughter when she began to tell me about the Asians-are-privileged theory. That set me back, and I quickly snapped at her judgment.
"What privilege did I or Uncle Bobby have growing up?" I asked her angrily. "You saw how we grew up."
Indeed, she saw the Queens apartment that my family crowded into. My parents ran a corner deli — with limited English skills. My brother and I are English language learners. Still, my daughter chooses to believe that somehow Asians are privileged thanks to her university groupthink.
I love boba drinks and am fortunate to be able to splurge on them. Sometimes, I even selfie Instagram with one. But I am definitely not a boba liberal. I do not espouse viewpoints that downplay real issues faced by Asian Americans. Not liberal. Not conservative. A thinking centrist.
Even as almost 2,000 people called out Columbia, the university never responded to concerns over its professor's research. I can't imagine any other racial group with this type of outcry being ignored by an educational institution.
As immigrants with different viewpoints access the power of Western social media, they are adding their own voices to the narrative, taking a page out of the boba liberal playbook. Diversity of thought is a good thing. It shows that Asian Americans are not a monolith.
Mary Chao is a columnist who covers the Asian communities and real estate for the Atlantic region.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Boba liberals: The derisive term for privileged Asian liberals