Jeremy Lin and the Post-Racial Playing Field

02/23/2012

Pacific Standard

Linsanity has pointed out some residual glitches in the American psyche, in particular how the nation struggles to accept genuine racial diversity.

If he were still alive, Sigmund Freud might have been a Jeremy Lin fan. At the very least, he would have recognized what was going on when an ESPN.com writer used the headline “Chink in their armor” to describe the Knicks’ first loss since Lin took over as point guard. “A suppression of a previous intention to say something,” Freud wrote, “is the indispensable condition for the occurrence of a slip of the tongue.”

ESPN offered an apology and fired the headline writer. But the slip of the tongue, one among a list of many other awkward and revealing moments that have accompanied Lin’s rise, have been amusing and offensive but ultimately extremely useful. Let’s get the stereotypes out in the open so that we can then proceed to the important work of developing a dynamic, collective vocabulary to talk about Asian Americans.

While Lin’s across-the-board popularity may fulfill Americans’ desire to celebrate a postracial moment — in the same way that President Obama’s election was supposed to mark the nation becoming post-racial — it is also the racial moment that his presence can help illuminate.

Even before Lin arrived on the national stage, he had experienced plenty of racist taunts at various Ivy League college gyms through his basketball career at Harvard. As Lin starting playing well, the stock footage on Asians and Asian Americans was brought out of the vault.

After a win against the Kings, the MSG Network showed a graphic of Lin’s face coming out of a fortune cookie, accompanied by the text: “The Knicks Good Fortune.” The New York Post came up with this winning headline: “Amasian.” And then there was the journalist Jason Whitlock and the boxer Floyd Mayweather via their Twitter accounts: Whitlock tweeted and then half-apologized for “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple of inches of pain tonight,” while Mayweather suggested that Lin was getting all the attention because he is Asian.

Both Whitlock and Mayweather were making similar statements about black-Asian differences. While Whitlock was crude in his age-old stereotype of Asian men having small penises compared to black men, Mayweather’s comment — “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” — points to the more complex ways Lin is being read.

On one hand, Mayweather was speaking to the fact that Lin is indeed crossing established color lines. However, by attributing Lin’s popularity to this, and downplaying his skills on the court, Mayweather also echoes long-standing tensions between ethnic minorities. These tensions can be fueled by a problematic racial hierarchy in American consciousness, with whites at the top, blacks at the bottom, and Asians somewhere in the middle, moving closer toward whiteness. Mayweather suggests that it is this proximity of whites and Asians that helps explain the media and fan love affair with Lin. In a sport filled with rich black men, Lin is seen as the antidote.

Embedded here is the model minority idea that Asian American success is tied to the notion of American possibility. This story that has been told ad nauseum when writing about Lin — the hardworking immigrant parents, the Harvard education, the perseverance, the humbleness, the god-lovingness.

But there are other stories of Asians in America: Their arrival to work the sugar cane fields of Hawaii and to build the transcontinental railroad, followed by a history of legalized exclusion from American society through discriminatory laws on land ownership, citizenship, and intermarriage; the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, which demonstrated how much Asian Americans were, and continue to be, perceived as being foreign; a vibrant overlapping history of black, Asian, and Latino movements for civil rights; a wide-ranging diversity within Asian America.

And here is where Lin comes in. With every game he plays, he seems to make himself less and less foreign. He has a pretty good crossover move on the court, but it is his wider crossover in public life that is intriguing. We have never been here before. There was Michael Chang in the 1980s, but that was tennis. And there was Yao Ming. But he was foreign. He needed a translator. Lin doesn’t. Not his words, certainly not his game.