Slam-Dunking Some Racist Stereotypes
By Michael MaherFebruary 23, 2012
Basketballer Jeremy Lin has done more than just shoot the New York Knicks into a winning streak.
A few months ago Jeremy Lin was coiling his six-foot-three-inch frame onto his brother's couch in a small apartment in Manhattan's Lower East Side. He was playing in the National Basketball Association's minor league and was on the verge of being dropped by his team, the New York Knicks. It looked like the career of this most unlikely of professional basketball players was coming to an end.
The son of Taiwanese immigrants and a Harvard economics graduate, in 2010 Lin became the first player from the country's preeminent Ivy League university to enter the NBA in more than 55 years. He also became the first Asian-American of Chinese descent to play in the world's premier basketball competition. It was hardly a conventional path into the NBA's ranks and just weeks ago Lin was well on his way to exiting those ranks, perhaps to become the pastor this devout Christian says he eventually wants to be.
But in one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NBA history, Jeremy Lin went from a bench-warmer to a basketball phenomenon now known nationwide as Linsanity. Called off the substitutes' bench by the Knicks coach earlier this month because of an injury to another player, Lin, 23, embarked on a scoring spree which rattled the record books and delighted his army of newfound fans. It also exposed a deep undercurrent of racism towards Asian Americans which has, in turn, sparked a spirited debate in the nation's media.
"Jeremy Lin," declared The Los Angeles Times's sports writer Bill Plaschke, "has dribbled America into the previously quiet corner of its casual prejudice and lazy stereotypes of Asian Americans."
As Lin's on-court exploits dazzled the sports world, off the court the lazy stereotypes referred to by Plaschke were being bandied about liberally. The most egregious of them was a headline on the ESPN sports channel which screamed "Chink in the Armor'' The headline writer was fired. And earlier, after Lin's game-winning 38 points against the Los Angeles Lakers, a Fox Sports columnist, Jason Whitlock, tweeted: "Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight."
"Let's not pretend we don't know to what you were referring," came the angry response from the Asian-American Journalists Association to Whitlock's remark. "Outrage doesn't begin to describe the reaction … to your unnecessary and demeaning tweet," wrote the AAJA.
Whitlock, who is African-American, later apologised, but his offensive tweet exposed another angle to this debate, that of double standards.
According to Bill Plaschke, America "has long considered it reasonable to publicly categorise Asian Americans in ways that would never be acceptable for other, more vocal minorities." Plaschke poses the question: "Can you imagine a major American media company tolerating this sort of blatant racism if it were directed toward any of Lin's African-American teammates?"
Saturday NightLive , American television's long-running showcase for satire, picked up on this theme in a blistering skit featuring two African-American sports commentators blithely dishing out racial stereotypes about Lin but then taking offence when a white colleague did the same to them.
"I think it's started a discussion about an invisible minority group in the United States on what is racist and unacceptable and what everybody needs to be more culturally sensitive to," says Jen Wang, whose blog Disgrasian takes an often humorous look at issues affecting Asian Americans like herself.
"In essence Asian Americans are really saying, 'Hey! I know you haven't really noticed but this is offensive to me. You can't say the word 'chink' — it's our 'N' word.' It's revealing of where we need to go, and we've got a long way to go."
Jeremy Lin himself has been a model of graciousness amid all of this, further burnishing his appeal to fans. He accepted ESPN's apology for its "Chink in the Armor" headline and said he didn't think it was intentional. But in a recent TV interview, Lin also made it clear that breaking through racial barriers is part of his NBA game plan: "The more I can break stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans, the more I want to continue to do that, because I feel like Asians in general don't get the respect that we may deserve whether it comes to sports, basketball or whatever it might be."
"In race dialogue in the US, it's always black, white and Latino. Asians get left out of it," says Jen Wang who grew up near Houston, Texas supporting the local NBA team, the Rockets. Now a writer in Los Angeles, Wang told The Global Mail she remembers "being a little scared going to games because no one looked like me. People would say 'ching chong' and yell racist slurs at me when I was 12."
Another stereotype Wang says the diverse Asian American community has to deal with is that Asians are universally successful. "A lot of people say casually in conversations, 'What do you guys have to complain about? You have the highest percentage of college graduates. You rank right up there in socio-economics so you're not a minority.' I think that's a flawed statement."
According to Yang, "even after 150 years of Asians being in the United States, I don't think that Americans really know what to do with us. I don't think there's enough cultural awareness or cultural sensitivity that has been cultivated around how to talk about Asian Americans."
The remarkable story of Jeremy Lin — the California-born son of Taiwanese immigrants (both five-foot-six), who graduated from Harvard and, in a world of professional sportsmen with overblown egos and salary packets, has single-handedly but quietly helped turn around the struggling New York Knicks — is the sort of story we all want to hear.
"Jeremy Lin's heritage is a wonderful part of this story and should not be ignored," writes Bill Plaschke in his Los Angeles Times column, "but can't we do that without being ignorant?"