August 22, 2014

Jeremy Lin forces National Discussion on Asian-Americans

2012/03/06 5:30 am 120 1 comment


As Asian-Americans who grew up playing basketball, my sister and I have a keen interest in the Jeremy Lin phenomenon.  We identify with Lin in many ways, so we’ve found ourselves deeply-invested in his journey — so much so, that we cheer for him as if he were a part of our family.

Last week, we went to the local pub to watch the Knicks take on the New Jersey Nets. We sat down next to an Asian family, who was also there to watch Jeremy Lin.

As the game went on, a man at the bar began cheering for the Nets. He exploded with a “YES!” and clapped intensely each time the Nets made a big play or went on a run.  He ended up cheering a lot that night — it was clear that the Nets had the momentum and the Knicks couldn’t find a flow.

The Knicks would ultimately fall to the Nets, a disappointing loss after their triumph over the NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks – a game that was nationally-televised the previous day.

Right as the game ended, the Nets fan stood up from the bar, faced our tables, and blurted out,  “You chinks can’t win two straight!” before turning and walking toward the front door.

After some initial shock, my sister and I followed him. What ensued was a little yelling and pushing that ultimately led to the man leaving the bar.

It was odd. Up until our confrontation, neither my sister nor I — nor the Asian family seated nearby — had any interaction with him all night. Yet this man, for whatever reason, couldn’t wait to tell us off and hurl a slur before heading for the exit.

Despite the initial feelings of anger and frustration, I’m glad this man did what he did. Reflecting on the incident, I now see his outburst for what it was: a reaction to Jeremy Lin’s breakout success and inescapable media coverage

Jeremy Lin has forced our nation to deal with Asian-Americans, and it has manifested itself in different ways. A Nets fan (or not) explodes with bigoted joy in a crowded pub in San Francisco. The onslaught of coverage has prompted visceral reactions: public figures airing their ignorance on Twitter, companies faltering despite their good intentions, and the media stumbling in their attempts to navigate uncharted territory.

The Jeremy Lin story is an amazing one, one that has had a much deeper significance than the NBA rags-to-riches narrative that we’ve read so much about.   Lin’s rise has given way to a national discussion on Asian-Americans.

Jeremy Lin’s experience with racism in basketball

Lin has struggled with more than just being undrafted prospect, being waived by two NBA teams, and sleeping on his brother’s couch.  He’s had to deal with a lifetime of battling stereotypes on and off the basketball court.

Lin has been candid about his experiences; referring to the racism he’s faced on multiple occasions.  As one of the rare Asian-American basketball players competing on a high level, Lin was presented with barriers that most in his situation weren’t.

It’s a sport for white and black people,” Lin told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008. “You don’t get respect for being an Asian-American basketball player in the U.S.”

Despite Lin’s accomplishments on the court, he has had to continually show that he belonged on the same floor as other similarly accomplished players.

“You can’t prove yourself one time. It has to be over and over and over again.” Lin recently told ESPN. “And, 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.”

Not only did Lin have to prove himself to his peers, but he also had to endure racially-charged comments from fans.

“When it first started happening, I was in junior high and high school, I was definitely surprised and kind of shocked. The higher the competition got, the more racial slurs came my way,” Lin told NPR in 2010. “Fans would yell out ‘beef and broccoli’ or ‘sweet and sour chicken.’  Sometimes, I heard ‘Chinese import,’ ‘go back to China,’ ‘slanty eyes,’ ‘can you see the scoreboard’ ”.

And it didn’t stop there. The racial taunts continued into college, sometimes involving opponents.

“It’s everything you can imagine. Racial slurs, racial jokes, all having to do with being Asian,” Lin said. “I’ve heard it at most of the (Ivy League Schools), if not all of them.”

So the issue isn’t that Lin was simply overlooked. The problem goes deeper than his talent, or lack of talent.  Jeremy Lin was rejected for what he wasn’t and was ridiculed for what he was.

And when Lin’s NBA Cinderella story gained traction, we saw the same issues he faced in junior high, high school, and college being played out on a much larger stage.

Linsanity places spotlight on racism

As Jeremy Lin strung  together good game after good game, and the wins began to pile up for the New York Knicks, the media ate it up. Lin was finally succeeding on the highest level of basketball.

Though the scenery changed, the ignorance Lin had faced in high school gymnasiums hasn’t. Instead of fans shouting racist comments from the stands, it’s now public figures nonchalantly making racist statements on the national stage.

In a local news segment discussing Lin’s physical attributes, Greg Kelly, an anchor for the FOX New York affiliate, slyly asked, “What about his eyes?”  Jason Whitlock posted an insidious racist tweet based on an old stereotype of Asian male masculinity.

The ease with which their comments flowed demonstrated the pervasive racism and low-level ignorance that plagues Asian-Americans today.

Last week, the ESPN mobile site featured the unfortunate “Chink in the Armor” headline after the Knicks’ seven-game winning streak fell to the Hornets.

Later that week, Ben and Jerry’s began selling a limited-edition flavor in honor of Jeremy Lin. The flavor — “Taste the Lin-Sanity” — had three ingredients, two of them being lychee honey and fortune cookies which were supposed to honor Lin’s Chinese-Taiwanese heritage.

Stefon Diggs, a highly-rated Football prospect, tweeted a response to a Jeremy Lin fan. “Everybody need to get off Jeremy Lin egg roll and dumplings he’s good though.”

These tweets do not signify a country that is post-racial and these comments aren’t a result of institutionalized racism.  What we’ve witnessed in these controversial responses to Lin is the most basic level of ignorance akin to schoolyard name-calling.

Dumplings. Fortune Cookies. Egg Rolls. Jokes about Lin’s eyes. Emasculating comments about his penis size.

These are the types of ignorant statements that Asian-Americans have faced growing up in a country where we’re misunderstood and severely under-represented in the popular media.

Without Jeremy Lin, we wouldn’t be having these conversations about Asian-Americans. You definitely wouldn’t be reading this article.

And I would have never crossed paths with the Nets fan in that pub.

Much-needed visibility, understanding for Asian-Americans

Whether Jeremy Lin continues his trajectory as an NBA star or falls off the face of the earth, these last few weeks has given Asian-Americans much-needed visibility and has forced many to deal with Asian-Americans in a way that they’re unaccustomed to.

Without Lin, those old stereotypes and deep-seated ignorance of Asian-Americans would remain, surfacing in our everyday lives.

With Lin, Asian-Americans have the power of pop culture, which has been influential in quickly changing the social conscience and shifting our behaviors.

I don’t believe that any of these offenders consider themselves racist, but they clearly haven’t thought deeply enough about what racism is and how it may apply to other cultures. They’ve bought into a “lazy ignorance” — if no one is telling me it’s wrong, it must not be.

They know now. Many of those who have stumbled publicly were shouted down for the world to see (and learn from). Whitlock was trounced upon from all sides.  ESPN was quick to remove their headline, apologize, and fire the headline writer. Ben and Jerry’s reacted quickly to their misstep.  Diggs apologized and closed his Twitter account. The fired ESPN headline writer publicly apologized. Forums and blogs are on fire with opposing views.

The resulting coverage — both good and bad — was needed to create this space for dialogue the Asian-American experience. The biggest of the controversies ended as quickly as they came — with resounding confirmations that stereotypes and lazy ignorance against Asian-Americans is no longer fair game.

As Lin continues — with every contorting layup, crossover, assist, or dunk — he further captivates the nation to take notice of this twice-released, fourth-string, no-scholarship, couch-surfing, undrafted point guard who has completely changed the face of the New York Knicks.

Jeremy Lin also happens to be Asian-American.  Discuss.

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