This article is part of Mochi’s Fall 2022 issue on politics. In the late ’60s, the slogan “The personal is political” came out of a second-wave feminist movement, presenting an alternative thought that politics is about one’s dignity and agency. As Asian Americans, we know this to be true, since even our identities are political. In this issue, we talk about what politics mean to us — from the politics of our identities to political dynamics in our relationships and communities. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.
We’ve all heard of TikTok: the video-hosting social media platform almost synonymous with Gen Z. Each morning, children, teens, and young adults alike open the app for the latest slew of dance challenges, memes, and even daily dose of politics. While TikTok may seem superficial, Gen Z, for better or worse, can find the politics in everything. We must look no further than the Asian baiting trend and the backlash against it: a movement that spiraled out of control, and whose effects still resonate throughout the Asian American community to this day.
East Asian baiting, often shortened to “Asian baiting” or “E. A. baiting,” is an attempt by a non-Asian person to appear East Asian through makeup, dress, and exaggerated mannerisms. (It’s also referred to as “Asianfishing,” although this term is controversial due to its similarity to “Blackfishing,” a phenomenon involving non-Black individuals attempting to pass as Black. Because Asian Americans are not explicitly denied education or jobs for our features in the way that Black Americans are, we will use the term “Asian baiting” in this article, so as not to co-opt Black struggles.)
The definition of Asian baiting may seem straightforward. However, despite the bottomless supply of TikToks on the topic, it is not as easy to define as we might think, with many Asians disagreeing on what exactly constitutes Asian baiting. To truly understand this toxic trend, we must uncover its racist origins rooted deep in American history.
In the 20th century, while “Asian baiting” hadn’t been coined yet, yellowface was a common occurrence in Hollywood. White actors darkened their skin, applied prosthetics, and redrew their features with makeup to appear Asian — or, at least, what Western audiences imagined Asians to be. From “slanted” eyes and fake monolids, like Katharine Hepburn’s in “Dragon Seed,” to Mickey Rooney’s infamous bucktoothed and accented role in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” yellowface has since been decried for the racist mimicry it is. Unfortunately, the casting of white actors in Asian or part-Asian roles has continued into the 21st century. More recently, white actors have ditched the prosthetics and dialed down the caricature, but this doesn’t make “whitewashing” any less harmful. Emma Stone in “Aloha” and Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell,” to name a few, stole valuable parts from Asian actors — actors who could have played those roles just as well, and who are too often passed over for their white counterparts.
Come 2020, the act of white people “impersonating” Asians migrated from the big screen to the small screen, from movie theaters to social media. In the throes of the pandemic, the fox-eye trend, what might be considered a precursor to Asian baiting, took root on Instagram. Suddenly, it seemed everyone from Bella Hadid to Emma Chamberlain were drawing on cat eyes and inner corners, straightening their brows, and pulling back their eyes to achieve this “exotic” look. While this trend was harmful for a number of reasons — the appropriation and sexualization of once-mocked Asian features among them — its toxicity paled in comparison to its successor. By 2021, a new crop of social media users took the impersonation of Asians to a new level. Gen Z activists took to TikTok to call them out, and soon, the craze had a name: Asianfishing, or Asian baiting.
Before long, #asianfishing gathered millions of views on TikTok, as Asians cited example after example of offenders. From extremely slanted black eyeliner to white eyeliner that lengthened the eyes, or even eye tape that pulled the eye back or mimic monolids, Asian baiters’ tactics seemed endless. Some went so far as to undergo eye surgery, an ironic reversal of many Asians’ desire for Asian blepharoplasty, or double eyelid surgery. Asian baiters often paired these makeup looks with stereotypical dress, from Lolita and kawaii fashion to schoolgirl and catgirl uniforms. However, the issue with Asian baiting went beyond appearance or clothing. Many claimed to be of Asian heritage even adopting a new Japanese or Korean name.
Asian baiters often took pictures in “cutesy” poses while simultaneously revealing substantial skin. Some donned their “Asian” persona while doing virtual sex work, posing provocatively in children’s clothing and with stuffed animals in the background. In her video “The Asianfishing on TikTok,” YouTuber Sherliza Moé summarized the problem: “If you combine that [makeup style] with [a] typical sexy Japanese schoolgirl aesthetic or kawaii clothes, and on top of that you act all cute, submissive, childlike, and sexual, not only are you perpetuating the sexualized stereotypes that we Asians are trying to get rid of, you’re also contributing to the infantilization and fetishization of East Asian women.” This is as humiliating as it is dangerous, something Asian baiters fail to understand, especially since, once they wipe off their makeup and swap their maid skirts for sweatpants, they can once again enjoy the safety of white privilege.
“You use our features as a costume,” TikTok user @kaylavvi says, “and you get to take it off at the end of the day. We can’t. We can’t take off these features that get us hate crimed.” After Asian baiters’ damage is done, real Asian women are forced to live with the consequences, from daily microaggressions to shocking acts of violence.
For most of 2021, Asian baiting seemed to be an issue relegated to the TikTok bubble. That changed in December, however, when singer Ariana Grande posted a controversial photoshoot on Instagram. In the now deleted post, Grande posed with winged eyeliner, straight brows, and silky, black hair. She also appeared much paler, a stark contrast to her signature (and controversial) tan. When fans accused her of Asian baiting, she quickly took down the post. Of course, this was not the first time Grande had toyed with Asian culture or even impersonated other ethnicities. Her past has been fraught with Blackfishing claims, as many accused the singer of darkening her skin to appear ethnically ambiguous. In this post, however, her tan suddenly disappeared, with her skin appearing the snowy white that has become many K-pop stars’ trademark. While some Asians think Grande’s photoshoot was harmless, even lambasting the Asian baiting claims as racist, others found it both offensive and disappointing. Either way, regardless of her guilt, Grande’s celebrity brought the issue of Asian baiting to the national spotlight.
Like many things on TikTok, we could argue that Asian baiting has since been blown out of proportion. Asian baiting had always been ambiguous. Users debated the distinctions between winged eyeliner, dolly makeup, and Asian baiting, posting makeup tutorials or illustrated guides to highlight their differences. Others argued that what might otherwise be considered Asian baiting is acceptable in the world of cosplay, as non-Asian fans attempt to transform into their favorite anime, manga, and hanguk aeni characters, even altering their eye shape in the process. Where, precisely, do we draw the line?
Unfortunately, the movement to call out those engaged in Asian baiting — once intended to help Asians — ultimately became a harmful one. At first, it produced a relatively small annoyance, as anxious non-Asians constantly pestered Asians about whether their makeup looks qualified as Asian baiting. Before long, however, Asian creators themselves found their comments sections flooded with Asian baiting allegations. Multiracial and biracial Asians seemed to bear the brunt of it, along with Southeast Asians who did not fit the stereotype that “all Asians are pale.” In response, several creators felt the need to “prove” their Asian-ness, posting heartfelt speeches about their family history while wearing minimal makeup to reveal their natural eye shape. One infuriated user even recorded herself asking her grandfather (in Korean) whether she was Korean, to which he responded, “Half and half.” Black creators have also been targeted for the most innocuous of makeup looks, with several Asian users coming to their defense. While some accusers may have truly intended to help, most often, they were performative activists seeking to appear “woke” by tossing around buzzwords like “Asian baiting” whenever they could. Despite their claims to protect us, their actions did more harm than good.
Fortunately, like most TikTok trends, Asian baiting was short-lived. By late 2022, the movement seems to have died down, with only a few videos tagged #asianfishing cropping up here and there. However, if history tells us anything, it is that the obsession with appropriating Asian looks and culture is far from over. This trend was not a new phenomenon, only the latest iteration of a long-standing and troubling practice. If anything is to be learned from the Asian baiting craze, it is that our words have power, no matter how others may try to hijack it. While TikTok may rally around us one day and turn on us the next, the Asian community is stronger. When the next trend comes, we will be ready.
Cover credit: Eyestetix Studio/Unsplash
Last modified: September 19, 2022