The Racist Landscape Surrounding Jeremy Lin

As of late, Linsanity seems to have come back down to earth. Frankly, that was to be expected. At the end of the day, the Knicks have issues that go well beyond Jeremy (e.g. coaching, player chemistry, and so on), and Lin is still a young player with a lot to learn. Indeed, he is a great player. The flashes of brilliance he displayed during his initial run simply would not have been possible unless he had the raw skills to back it up. But now that the competition has gotten wind and the Knicks superstars have comeback, Lin will have to mature and adapt. In the years to come, I am confident Jeremy will rise to the challenge, especially considering the type of adversity he’s faced his entire life.

And speaking of adversity, that leads me to the purpose of this post. At the peak of all the Linsanity, it became clear to the world that there was a dark side to it all.  Of course, Lin always knew the shadow side was there—he lived it his entire life. But America is being educated on the fly, and, in many respects, you can tell. Lin exposes a racism so deeply entrenched that many in our country don’t even realize it’s there. In fact, many, it would seem, are unwitting bigots.

Now, when it comes to racism, I have very little academic exposure—I only write what I know from experience. Consequently, if my rhetoric is lacking, please know that I’m actually making much of it up as I go along. In fact, it was only a couple months ago that I learned the term microaggression. (For those who also are not familiar with the term, psychiatrist Chester Pierce defines it as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of other races.) But despite my ignorance of the word, I am very well acquainted with the experience it tries to describe. Though my terminology may be inefficient, I hope my unintentional usage of laymen’s terms will make this post more accessible, and that this post will serve to accent some of the contours surrounding the racial discussion Lin’s rise has generated.

TWITTER

Let’s begin by briefly examining some of the more flagrant and obvious racist reactions to Lin on Twitter.

First, we have Floyd Mayweather’s tweet.

Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.

Next, we have FOX Sports columnist Jason Whitlock tweeting:

Some lucky lady is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.

Finally, we have a tweet from the former NBA guard Ray Chapman.

I say JR is such a great pick-up 4 the #Lins only because he’s been playing the past 6-mo’s in China. So easy now 4 him to recognize his PG.

In those three tweets we have a few of the many racial stereotypes directed at Asians: (1) They are not athletic. (2) The men have small penises. (3) They all look a certain way.

Now, fortunately, because those statements are in the form of tweets, they’re short. But they’re also great in that they give us a glimpse of racism in its more visceral form. By being forced to express thoughts in 140 characters or less, people must distill them into what I believe to be more pure and raw representations. (Though, of course, deception and misdirection can still run rampant on Twitter, albeit in more succinct forms. But I still believe ideas tend to be whittled down to their core components on Twitter.) Combine this with the fact that tweets can be posted quickly and easily from almost anywhere, and you have a formula that can give us ready access to people’s more visceral reactions—we all know about the foolish celebrities that have tweeted in the heat of emotion. Why are visceral reactions important? Because it is these type of reactions that reveal a person’s deeply ingrained emotions and beliefs. For something to become automatic and reactionary (i.e. visceral), it must be worked into our behavior and habits and beliefs at profound levels. In short, these tweets show us how deep racism runs.

As for the content of the particular tweets, I’ll just share a couple thoughts. First, behind Mayweather’s tweet is the assumption that Lin initially stood out because Asian folk are less athletic. The problem with this statement is that from a biological standpoint, it is false. One of the main reasons we see fewer Asians represented in basketball and other sports is because many Asian families do not hold athleticism as one of the higher virtues. As a kid, I remember Korean parents complain innumerable times that their kids were wasting time on sports. Studying, of course, is where one’s future lies. But all of that is different from saying Asians are not athletic. As Asian American families begin to adopt more of the values of the surrounding culture, we will see more Asian folks represented in the ranks of professional sports. We’ve seen this trend in baseball and other sports. We will begin to see it in basketball and so on.* (For my initial Facebook response to Mayweather’s tweet, see below.)

As for Whitlock, some would say he’s compensating, but there’s no way for me to verify this. Well, there is a way, but I’d rather not. Also, one would hope Whitlock—being black and all—would understand racism and sympathize with Lin, but it seems, in this case, the oppressed has become the oppressor.

Finally, Chapman. Of course most Chinese people will stand out among white and black folks! But, we all know Chapman meant something else.

“Chink in the Armor”

The C-bomb was finally dropped, and when news of ESPN’s slip-up hit the net, all hell broke loose. As a means of heading off the firestorm, ESPN fired Anthony Federico—the editor responsible for the headline—and suspended Max Bretos for his on-air version of the idiom. Afterwards, both Federico and Bretos offered what still seem like sincere apologies.

After hearing about the apologies, I posted on Facebook that I felt sorry for both of them. I added that for minorities, our racist radar is always on; racial slurs will not escape our notice, especially those that are more pertinent to our particular ethnic identities. Could it be possible that the racist radars of these two men simply weren’t as finely tuned? Also, Federico is a Christian and Bretos is married  to an Asian woman.

I got some supportive comments, but I also got some helpful feedback. First, there are many Christian racists. Second, even if you’re married to an Asian woman, you can still hold racist views against her people. Ever hear couples in interracial marriages accuse, Your people are…? But probably the most helpful comment came from a friend of mine. He writes:

Their job is to write or review what’s been written—if they don’t know the meaning of what’s been written then they should be fired on the basis of incompetence. Any one of us is liable to lose our jobs on any given day if we make a mistake, intentional or not, and we’re holding people to looser standards because what, they write about sports? It’s not socialist economy—plenty of people have lost their jobs for a lot less and the last time I checked, this can (and perhaps should) cost their employer a lot of money due to the backlash.

Lin forgave them, and I do as well. But I do believe my friend makes a good point.

Lin-Sanity Flavored Frozen Yogurt (with Fortune Cookies)

After releasing the flavor, there was a public backlash against Ben & Jerry’s. Some, however, expressed surprise by what they felt was extreme racial oversensitivity. It’s just food? It’s what they eat, isn’t it? No Italian person has a hissy fit over companies marketing pizza or spaghetti.  Lynn Hoppes of ESPN writes, “Was the frozen yogurt really that offensive? The company didn’t do it as a slight to Lin, but to honor him.” That Hoppes, who is half-Chinese, doesn’t get it surprises me.

Let me try to make this simple. First, the fortune cookie is not Chinese in origin. Second, it’s not just about the food. It’s about how the food is used to denigrate people. I’m Korean, and I love kimchi. But when a non-Korean comes up to me and says, Look at the kimchi eater, I am offended. The fortune cookie has been used pejoratively for quite some time. The reason many Chinese are upset about the addition of the fortune cookie in the frozen yogurt is that they do not feel represented by its integration; rather, they feel reduced. And they feel reduced because of how the food has been used to belittle them throughout modern history. For Hoppes to tell people who’ve experienced systemic racism and oppression to just get over it shows me he is the one who needs to “stop it” because frankly, he doesn’t get it. And, honestly, does Ben & Jerry really want to honor Jeremy Lin? Could there not be a bottom-line motivation, Hoppes?

The fact that ESPN would allow this guy to write what he wrote as well as give him air time shows me they are still clueless.

After removing the fortune cookies, Ben & Jerry’s offered this as an “apology”:

We offer a heartfelt apology if anyone was offended by our handmade Lin-Sanity flavor.

Thanks, but no thanks, for the corporate non-apology.

“Deceptively Quick”

In an interview with Rachel Nichols, Jeremy says the following:

You know, it’s funny. People are still saying, “Oh, he’s quicker than he looks.” And I’m like, what does that mean? Do I look slow? Or, people are always saying, “He’s deceptively quick, deceptively athletic.” I don’t know if that’s just because I’m Asian, or what it is.

Granted, maybe he is deceptive. I don’t really know because I haven’t played with him. But I’m inclined to think that the reason people say that about him is because they didn’t expect an Asian bench player to be quick or athletic. In essence, his Asian-ness is what makes his quickness deceptive.

But there is something quite interesting about all of this. When people use these phrases to describe Lin, many of them are probably not even consciously aware that they are comparing Lin to a template of what they expect Asian basketball players to be like—not athletic, slow, nerdy. “He’s deceptively quick” rolls off their tongues as if they’re paying a compliment, but at the root of the praise is a racial stereotype. This is what Jeremy hears. Yes, there is the other cultural stereotype that Chinese folks all know martial arts, and, therefore, they must be fast (and they must fly). But I find that contradictory stereotypes often coexist in people’s minds with nary a concern about logical coherence. This is why, even though Chinese folks can fly, they’re all still short (except, Yao and the other dude on the Mavs) and can’t dunk. As one commentator exclaimed after Lin crossed over John Wall and threw one down on the Wizards, “Did we even know he could do that?!” Umm, yes we did.

Subtle Bigotry?

On Facebook, I had this to say concerning an article:

Over the past few days, I saw an article about Jeremy Lin being posted all over FB. It’s titled, “The Subtle Bigotry that Made Jeremy Lin the NBA’s Most Surprising Star.” Through the fog of my flu-ravaged mind, I couldn’t figure out what about that title didn’t sit right with me. This morning, while eating Honey Bunches of Oats, it hit me—bigotry & racism are never subtle for those who are on the receiving end. Trust me, Lin knew all along what was going on, & it was far from subtle.

“ChinkBalla88″

That’s Jeremy Lin’s Xanga name from when he was younger. In all honestly, this actually makes me incredibly sad. Why? Think about it. Our children are so beaten down by racism that they feel they have to adopt the very slurs used to diminish them as a means of having power over the words—it’s their attempt to defang the slurs so that they don’t hurt as much. It’s a common defense mechanism used by those who’ve been abused. This is so utterly tragic to me, I am at a loss for words.

Saturday Night Live

Thankfully, they get it.

Jeremy’s Decline?

People are already saying things like, “Jeremy’s not the real deal,” or, “I’m over Linsanity.” As Jeremy said in his interview with Nichols concerning racism, “You can’t prove yourself one time, you can’t have one good game and everyone be like, ‘He’s the real deal.’ It has to be over and over and over again.” He’s not asking for special treatment, just equal treatment. But he knows he’s not going to get it, so he will have to work hard these coming years. As I said before, he has the ability. He’s already shown he does. After the Lakers lost to the Knicks with Lin at point, Kobe Bryant said, “Players don’t usually come out of nowhere. If you go back and take a look, his skill level was probably there but no one ever noticed.”

Lin is young. Lin needs to grow. Lin needs to adapt. I think he will, but even if he doesn’t, he’s still achieved a lot despite the adversity he’s faced, and I will continue to cheer him on in whatever he does.

Oh, there is one thing I’m thankful for in all of this. When I see how Lin excites basketball fans of all ethnicities, that gives me hope.

Conclusion

I had high ambitions for this post, but every week I’ve been catching a new flu. Rather than constantly delay, I’ve decided to publish the little that I have. I hope the reader found some of the content useful. Also, here are some helpful language guidelines.

To sign out, let me quote a mentor of mine:

Historically in America, the Asian male symbolized an emasculated lackey to the white man. This is in contrast to the defeated but nobly defiant Native Indian, and the strong but menacing black man who was a constant threat to the “virginal” white woman. That this subterranean psychology continues to surface in our culture is not surprising, though disappointing. Maybe a little Linsanity is a helpful remedy to our 400 years of racial insanity.

*[My Facebook reaction to Mayweather's tweet.] Well, yes, of course. That is, if Mayweather’s referring to shooting, dribbling, passing & dunking. However, Mayweather’s statement is patently false in every possible way that matters. Lin was a fourth string point guard, undrafted, waived by two prior teams, sent down to the d-league on more than one occasion and was about to be cut by the Knicks. It is this guy who led the Knicks to five straight wins, turning around a dying and irrelevant franchise, scoring 109 points in his first four starts along with posting 33 assists, 16 rebounds, with a shooting percentage of 51.3%. The number of NBA players who’ve done that, white or black, is extremely small. Of course, he’s got much room for improvement, and we still have to see how he lasts for the longterm, but any player who came off the bench and did what he did would get a whole lot of attention. I concede that his being Asian is a factor, but it’s only been a factor in that it’s been used to discriminate against him in the past, which has made his current run even more surprising to the very racists who thought so lowly of his skills.  Sadly, it was an intersection of injuries and a desperate situation that allowed for Lin the opportunity to show us what he is capable of. If circumstances were not right, Lin would still be lost in obscurity. Unfortunately, not many people are aware that it is more than skill that gets folks noticed as well as play time. There are plenty of articles that document everything I just wrote as well as reach the same conclusion. Mayweather should refrain from commentary and analysis as it is clearly not his strong suit.

2 thoughts on “The Racist Landscape Surrounding Jeremy Lin

  1. Pingback: Tim Keller on Linsanity & Racism – An Asian Reaction | everything is beautiful*

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