The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.
Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
As we near the end of 2010, it’s fitting to review the major events, developments, and trends in U.S. racial/ethnic relations during the past year. Therefore, below is my look back at some of the positive highlights as well as the setbacks in terms of achieving racial/ethnic equality and justice, with a particular focus on Asian Americans (my area of expertise). This list is not meant to be an exhaustive review of all racial/ethnic news in 2010, but rather the ones that I covered in this blog and ones that I believe have the most sociological significance.
First, I hope everyone had a nice holiday season and that your new year is off to a good start.
As reflected in the origin of its name (Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings), the first month of the new year is traditionally a time to reflect on two “opposite” ideas. In this case, I’d like to use a recent Time magazine article profiling Harvard University basketball player Jeremy Lin as an opportunity to explore opposing and contradictory racial presumptions in college and professional basketball.
First, the article describes the success Jeremy is having as Harvard’s star player:
It’s been 64 years since the Crimson appeared in the NCAA tournament. But thanks to senior guard Jeremy Lin, that streak could end this year. Lin, who tops Harvard in points (18.1 per game), rebounds (5.3), assists (4.5) and steals (2.7), has led the team to a 9-3 record, its best start in a quarter century.
Lin, a 6 ’3″ slasher whose speed, leaping ability, and passing skills would allow him to suit up for any team in the country, has saved his best performances for the toughest opponents: over his last four games against teams from the Big East and Atlantic Coast Conference, two of the country’s most powerful basketball leagues, Lin is averaging 24.3 points and shooting nearly 65% from the field.
“He’s as good an all-around guard as I’ve seen,” says Tony Shaver, the head coach of William & Mary, which in November lost a triple overtime game to Harvard, 87-85, after Lin hit a running three-pointer at the buzzer. “He’s a special player who seems to have a special passion for the game. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the NBA one day.”
I think it’s important to first recognize Jeremy’s success. He’s worked hard academically and athletically to be in the position he’s in right now. In many ways, he represents a nice example of how Asian Americans can balance both model minority expectations with a physical or extracurricular passion on the way to a well-rounded sense of personal balance.
The article later acknowledges the elephant in the room and points out why Jeremy’s success is unique — he’s Asian American. Unfortunately, he’s also experienced some racism from opposing fans based on his racial identity:
A Harvard hoopster with pro-level talent? Yes, that’s one reason Lin is a novelty. But let’s face it: Lin’s ethnicity might be a bigger surprise. Less than 0.5% of men’s Division 1 basketball players are Asian-American. . . . Some people still can’t look past his ethnicity. Everywhere he plays, Lin is the target of cruel taunts.
“It’s everything you can imagine,” he says. “Racial slurs, racial jokes, all having to do with being Asian.” Even at the Ivy League gyms? “I’ve heard it at most of the Ivies, if not all of them,” he says. Lin is reluctant to mention the specific nature of such insults, but according to Harvard teammate Oliver McNally, another Ivy League player called him a c-word that rhymes with “ink” during a game last season.
Just last week, during Harvard’s 86-70 loss to Georgetown in Washington, D.C., McNally says one spectator yelled “sweet and sour pork” from the stands. In the face of such foolishness, Lin doesn’t seem to lose it on the court. “Honestly, now, I don’t react to it,” he says. “I expect it, I’m used to it, it is what it is.”
It would be simple enough to point out the obvious contradiction in Jeremy’s situation — why is it apparently acceptable (or at least tacitly tolerated) to hurl racial slurs at an Asian American basketball player but not at say, African American players?
How would bystanders, teammates, coaches, security personnel, and even opposing players react if a fan in the stands yelled the N-word at a Black basketball player at a game? Chances are, that “fan” would immediately face backlash and would be ejected from the building faster than you can say “codes of conduct.” In fact, Dartmouth recently issued an official apology to Harvard in the wake of anti-Semitic and homophobic slurs hurled at some of its squash players at a recent match.
But in Jeremy’s case, there doesn’t seem to be any sense of collective backlash or outrage over the racist comments he routinely receives on the court. Apparently it’s another sad example of Asian Americans being seen as the invisible minority, perpetual foreigners, or as easy targets for racism.
But beyond that, I have to wonder whether his status as an Asian American — as opposed to an Asian — player plays a role as well. In other words, we have seen an influx of professional athletes from Asia in basketball (Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian) and baseball (Hideo Nomo, Ichiro, Daisuke Matsuzaka, etc.) recently but unfortunately, there is still a glaring underrepresentation of Asian American professional athletes in the highest-profile sports such as football, basketball, and baseball.
Although it’s a documented fact that many Americans can’t or won’t distinguish “Asians” from “Asian Americans,” my question is, are Americans (or in this case, sports fans) likely to accept Asian athletes more readily than Asian American ones?
Perhaps fans consciously or unconsciously are more comfortable with the idea that Asian athletes are likely to remain “foreigners” and therefore will eventually return to “their own” country and won’t settle down in the U.S. and be in direct competition with Americans for jobs, etc., while Asian American athletes are in fact homegrown and are perceived to be a greater economic “threat” to “real” Americans. After all, many already perceive Asian Americans to be “taking over” other areas of American life such as colleges and universities.
So based on these perceptions, perhaps fans are unconsciously spewing racism — or at least remaining silent when such slurs are made — at Asian American athletes as another form of backlash against the ongoing socioeconomic success of Asian Americans.
The mentality and contradictions of racism are always subject to speculation but the examples keep adding up.
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Update: If you’re reading this, you probably know that in January 2012, Jeremy was signed by the New York Knicks. He promptly seized this opportunity and has since blown up the basketball scene and is now a national and international sensation. To read my sociological take on this “Linsanity” phenomenon, check out my recent post “Jeremy Lin Mania and How to Relates to Colorblindness.”
As the 2008-2009 season of the National Basketball Association (NBA) prepares to start later this week, NBA fans should already know that when Yao Ming began playing in 2002, he opened up professional basketball to aspiring Chinese back in China, and to Chinese Americans as a potential fan and marketing segment for his team, the Houston Rockets, and the NBA in general.
Following in his footsteps is Yi Jianlian, the second high-profile NBA player to come from China. After playing his rookie season last year for the Milwaukee Bucks, Yi was traded and is now set to play for the New Jersey Nets.
The Nets happen to be located in the New York City metropolitan area, home to an estimated 650,000 Chinese Americans. As the NY Times reports, these numbers and the potential revenue from the Chinese American fan base in squarely in the minds of the Nets organization:
Yi’s name recognition runs high, and people in Chinatown said they would go watch him, if time and funds allow it, but would not necessarily go out of their way to cross the Hudson River. . . .
The Nets are hopeful that Yi connects with the nearly 650,000 Chinese-Americans in the New York area and beyond, reeling in a coveted new fan base. And like Yao, the Houston Rockets center, Yi carries global appeal in hailing from the world’s most populous nation. . . .
“He has to build a relationship with the community,” said Sunny Moy, president of the Asian American Youth Center. “Right now, everybody is more into Yao because Yi is still nearly a rookie. Yi is a good player, I’ve seen him play, but he has to donate tickets, connect with the kids in order to have an effect.” . . .
The Nets are offering a four-game package aimed at the Chinese-American community for games against the Rockets, the Golden State Warriors, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Rockets and the Lakers feature the league’s two other Chinese players in Yao and the rookie Sun Yue.
The Nets hired a multicultural marketing agency and are planning game-night promotions that include a night serving as Yi’s interpreter and a celebration of the Chinese New Year.
As I’ve said before, whether Americans like/want it or not, the world is getting smaller and the many manifestations of globalization will only continue to become more prominent in American society. In this case, it comes in the form of the Nets trying to market Yi to the Chinese Americans in the NYC metro area and the 1.3 billion Chinese back in China.
It’s also nice to see Asian athletes continue to become more popular in professional sports. At the same time, as I’ve also said in the past, it would also be nice if Asian American (as opposed to international Asian) athletes get to enjoy the same kind of popularity.
Fortunately, with the recent rise and fame of athletes like professional golfer Anthony Kim, to name the most recent example, we (hopefully) seem to be moving slowly in that direction.
A pre-Olympics “slant-eye” pose by the Spanish men’s basketball team could leave the gold medal contenders with a black eye as they compete in Beijing. . . .It’s a racially pejorative pose not often associated with goodwill in the United States and many other countries, where a similar gesture is more likely to be seen on a school playground than coming from Olympic statesman.
“It’s something that I haven’t seen since I was a kid,” said Sarah Smith, a spokesman for the Organization of Chinese Americans in Washington, D.C. “I can’t speak for what is considered funny in Spain. I don’t know if it has the same impact that it would here. It’s clearly racist, and not even in a jovial way.” . . .
This is not Spain’s first racial controversy involving sport. In 2004, FIFA, the world ruling body in soccer, fined the Spanish Football Federation nearly $90,000 after Spanish fans showered black English players with racist chants during a “friendly” match in Madrid.
The governing body for Formula One auto racing announced in April an anti-racism campaign after British driver Lewis Hamilton, who is black, was racially taunted by racing fans in Madrid. A group, wearing dark makeup on their faces, wore shirts that read “Hamilton’s Family.”
As any Asian American will tell you, this “chink eye” gesture is deeply hurtful and offensive to us. Many of us have experienced the pain and humiliation associated with this racist gesture throughout our entire lives, whether it’s in the playground of our elementary school, or as we walk down the street even as adults. For Asian Americans, it is the visual equivalent of being called a “nigger.”
With that in mind, as the ABC News article mentions, this is not the first time that Spain has been in the news for making racially offensive gestures. While I cannot make a blanket generalization about the racial sentiment of the Spanish people in general, I can say that combined with the previous soccer and Formula One/Lewis Hamilton episodes, this “chink eye” incident does not reflect well on the country.
At the same time, for the sake of argument, I can accept that in this specific circumstance, Spain’s basketball team did not intend this “gesture” to be ridiculing or offensive to the Chinese or Asians in general. For now, I am willing to accept that they were not aware of the cultural meaning of this gesture for Asians and Asian Americans.
But unfortunately, this “lack of awareness” is at the heart of the problem and in fact, forms the basis for much of the racism that Asians and Asian Americans encounter on an everyday basis. In other words, most non-Asians (most of whom are admittedly White) don’t purposely intend to be racist when make jokes or casual comments about Asians.
But when they do so based on their ignorance of Asians and Asian Americans, they only reinforce and perpetuate their racial privileges as Whites. In other words, because Whites are the demographic and cultural majority in the U.S. (and in Europe), they have the privilege of not having to think about their racial superiority — it’s a given, based on their country’s history.
That privilege also gives them the “right” to not have to worry about saying or doing offensive things about other racial groups because basically, who cares about Asians? That is, their racial privilege gives them a larger “comfort zone” to say and do things that they think are funny or harmless but ultimately, minorities find very offensive.
Even if most Whites don’t have this consciously or even unconsciously in their minds when it comes to Asians, this climate of racial ignorance is a reality and functions to “protect” and “insulate” Whites — whether or not they’re even aware of it — at the expense of people of color.
Of course, many Whites will respond by basically saying that even if the Spanish basketball team meant it as a joke, Asians should just shrug it off, that it was harmless and that we Asians should just lighten up and not take things so seriously.
The problem with that argument is that it ignores the larger historical and cultural context. What we need to recognize is that there are fundamental institutional power differences inherent in situations in which Whites denigrate minorities.
Each time an incident like that happens, it reinforces the notion of White supremacy — that Whites can say and do whatever they want toward anybody at any time without facing any negative repercussions.
Ultimately, suggesting to us that we should just “get over it” only serves as another clear illustration of White privilege — of those with in an institutionally superior position telling those below them what to do and what they should think.
Within this larger sociological context, the Spanish basketball team’s gesture, unfortunately, is really nothing new.