Inside The Viral Online Communities Connecting Asian Australian Women

One of the most common themes I heard at International Women's Day (IWD) this year was the need for more women of colour (WOC) voices within mainstream feminist conversations.
And while occasions like IWD put a particular spotlight on celebrating women, the internet and social media have allowed women to connect with and empower one another all year round, particularly within culturally diverse communities that are often underrepresented in media and the corporate world.
Sydney-based Sanjana Nagesh founded the popular Instagram account BrownGirlGang (BGG) in 2017 after "scrolling through Instagram for hours" and realising there was no dedicated destination that showcased South Asian women's boundary-pushing achievements.
"I started to discover a bunch of really cool women of colour from all career fields who were fusing traditional elements of South Asian culture with pop culture," 25-year-old Nagesh tells Refinery29 Australia.
"Growing up Indian Australian, I rarely saw myself represented in mainstream media and when it did exist, it was often just as a series of cliches. So I thought, 'I wish I could curate all these women's stories in one place, like a girl gang, or more specifically a brown girl gang'. I searched for the handle, saw no results and made the account," she says.
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BrownGirlGang founder Sanjana Nagesh
But over the last five years, BGG has become more than just a collection of photos, videos, memes and Q&As celebrating exciting wins and representing creative South Asian female-led work. It's become a platform for over 140,000 followers to have conversations around growing up in an immigrant household, diminishing the stigma around mental health, advocating against colourism, forging a non-traditional career path and much more. BGG counts well-known media personalities among its followers, including Never Have I Ever creator Mindy Kaling and one of its stars, Richa Moorjani.
While BrownGirlGang focuses on the South Asian community, the immensely popular Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits (SAT) is dedicated to the East Asian experience. Founded by nine Australian students in September 2018, SAT boasts over 1.9 million members of all genders and truly redefines the power of community in the internet era.

In a way, we are grieving and healing from this collective trauma by openly existing and expressing our ethnicity without fear of social alienation.

lydia, co-founder of subtle asian traits
Its team of 24 volunteer moderators sift through thousands of submissions every day. The bubble tea memes and jokes are just as reflective of the millennial/Gen Z Asian experience as are the heartbreaking admissions about estrangement from strict parents or facing racism. While it's open to all genders, it's certainly a platform that many Asian Australian women turn to for entertainment and a sense of community.
"SAT predominantly focuses on the immigrant experience and caters to the first/second generation Asians that live in western countries such as Australia and the US," one of its Melbourne-based founders, Lydia, tells Refinery29 Australia.
"I think what we’ve really done is provide an immersive community and platform that acts as a safe space for people to acknowledge, celebrate and embrace their cultural identity.
"An unfortunate and common experience that many of us share growing up in western societies is the rejection of who we are through either overt or casual racism. In a way, we are grieving and healing from this collective trauma by openly existing and expressing our ethnicity without fear of social alienation."
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Subtle Asian Traits co-founder Lydia
The beauty of online communities like SAT is its accessibility at any hour. With its enormous following, you're bound to stumble across new posts on any given day, with the opportunity to potentially relate to someone else's story, offer a different perspective in the comments section or be inspired to submit your own contribution.
The growth in SAT's community members is laudable, but it has also opened the forum up to criticism, particularly when posts about polarising topics are approved by the group's moderation team.
"Negative feedback in response to the way we’ve handled certain political topics can be quite passionate and confronting," says Lydia. "But it’s one of the biggest lessons that our team has taken from dealing with such a big following is that you really can’t please everyone no matter how hard you try."
Despite the founders being Aussie, SAT has reached young people of the Asian diaspora across the world, including celebrities like MasterChef Australia judge Melissa Leong, Shang-Chi & The Legend Of The 10 Rings actors Awkwafina and Simu Liu.
Zoe, an Indonesian Chinese American university student, is one of the team members moderating posts from overseas and she's enjoyed the benefits of the group's famous following, for example being invited to the Shang Chi & The Legend Of The 10 Rings premiere in Los Angeles. But above all, it's a role she cherishes because of the connections she's developed with strangers, bonding over shared cultural views and experiences.
"It's rewarding to give back to the community that helped me come to terms with my own identity when I joined SAT as a regular member in 2018," she tells Refinery29 Australia.
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Subtle Asian Traits moderator Zoe
While Nagesh continues to focus on BGG's online offering in 2022 with more blog posts, Instagram live sessions and TikTok videos, Brown Boss Babes (BBB) is another growing female South Asian Australian community that fosters both online and in-person interactions.
Sydney-based Sukanya Balachandran and Vithyaa Thavapalan launched BBB in December 2018 with their friend Vano Raveindiran.
"We started by holding a photoshoot to showcase the solidarity and power of the women in our South Asian community," Balachandran tells Refinery29 Australia.
Sharing the shoot on Instagram was the launching pad for BBB, which then saw its following skyrocket after its first in-person meetup in February 2019.
"I think people were able to see the power of connectivity and simply the fun we had and the energy we all generated together," says Balachandran.
"We had seen and heard glimpses of the impact that groups in UK and Canada had on South Asian women from other territories, and thought, 'How powerful and validating does it feel to enter spaces knowing that there are people there that can hold space for you?'"
Thavapalan, who grew up in Western Sydney as the daughter of Sri Lankan Tamil Parents, recalls being bullied during high school for her darker skin tone, even being labelled 'burnt sausage' by her classmates.
"All these experiences eventually led me to this path and built resilience that I now have," she explained of her determination to launch BBB. "Without these experiences, I do not think I would have been as passionate about the WOC movement, inclusivity and feminism."
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Brown Boss Babes founders Sukanya Balachandran and Vithyaa Thavapalan
Following the success of their in-person IWD event in Sydney last weekend, BBB hopes to continue more of those events, complemented with virtual meet-ups that became familiar in lockdown.
The biggest power lies in what these communities make their members feel.
"Overall, just knowing that BrownGirlGang makes people from around the world feel seen, represented, in touch with their roots and more is the whole reason why I love working so hard on building this sisterhood," says Nagesh.
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