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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.
Think Jeremy Lin should be included? I certainly cast my vote for “definitely!” Among their list of nominees, there are several Asians and Asian Americans, so if you’re so inclined, cast your vote for those who you think should be included in Time’s list. The deadline for voting is Friday, April 6.
In my recent post titled, “Jeremy Lin Mania and How it Relates to Colorblindness,” among other things, I noted that Jeremy’s emergence as a media sensation and explosion onto the center stage of mainstream U.S. popular culture does represent a small step toward the eventual ideal of colorblindness. At the same time, I also argued that the reality is that unfortunately, we are still a long way from being a truly colorblind society.
This past week, several public incidents have solidified the sad fact that many Americans still think that we are already in a colorblind society and as such, they can basically say anything they want about Jeremy, including offensive references to him as a Chinese American. Unfortunately there have been several examples of racial insensitivity in the past couple of weeks, but in this post I will focus on two in particular.
First, after the Knicks defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in which Jeremy scored 38 points, FoxSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock tweeted “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.” Whitlock later apologized for the remark, but you can’t unring that bell — clearly he thought it was perfectly acceptable to invoke the emasculating racial stereotype about Asian men having small penises.
But wait, there’s more.
A few days later, after Jeremy committed nine turnovers in a game that the Knicks eventually lost, thereby snapping their 7-game winning streak, the following headline made it onto ESPN’s mobile website (screenshot below): “Chinks in the Armor: Jeremy Lin’s 9 Turnovers Cost Knicks in Streak-Snapping Loss to Hornets.”
The headline was apparently taken down after being public for 35 minutes but again, the damage was done — the editors at ESPN apparently had no idea or did not care that the term “chink” is a blatantly racist term against all Asian Americans but particularly and deeply offensive to Chinese Americans. I might expect people outside the U.S., such as Spain’s national basketball team, not to know that the term “chink” is racist, but it is very disappointing to learn that many Americans still think it’s perfectly fine to use in reference to a Chinese American.
Disappointing, but unfortunately not really surprising.
That is because many Americans already believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we are already a colorblind society. As such, they have been taught, socialized, and desensitized to naively think that all racial groups are equal now, that no racial discrimination ever takes place nowadays, and therefore, it’s fine to casually use terms such as “chink” in everyday conversation.
These particular incidents may not be as blatantly offensive as the racial taunts Jeremy encountered back when he played for Harvard, but they nonetheless illustrate a woeful level of ignorance and lack of sensitivity about Asian Americans, our history, and our community.
Imagine what the public’s reaction would have been if Jason Whitlock was referring to a Black player and his remark invoked the racial stereotype about Black men having large penises. What would the public’s reaction had been if ESPN went public with some headline that referred to a Black player using the ‘N’ word? I think it would be safe to say that the American public would be shocked, outraged, and furious if these hypothetical examples occurred in reference to a Black player.
To Whitlock’s and ESPN’s credit, they both apologized and in ESPN’s case, fired the person responsible for the website headline and suspended one of their sportscasters, Max Bretos, who repeated the “chink in the armor” phrase on air. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and decisively ESPN acted in regard to these incidents. In the past, more than likely, ESPN would have taken days to issue a half-hearted apology and probably would not have disciplined any of their staff involved. I suppose ESPN’s actions in this matter do represent an encouraging sign of progress.
Fortunately, there are others in the mainstream media who “get it” — those who understand the contradiction and inequality that exist when such racial/ethnic stereotypes are in reference to, say Blacks, versus when they reference Asian Americans. Specifically, leave it the crew at Saturday Night Live to use comedy and satire to deftly illustrate this contradiction:
So I suppose that it does represent progress that when these types of racially ignorant incidents happen, the mainstream media nowadays does recognize it and take disciplinary action (or use satire to point out the absurdity of such ignorance) more quickly than in the past. Now if we can just get to the point where such incidents don’t happen in the first place.
Back in 2010, I wrote about Jeremy Lin, who was leading Harvard University to a league title, a birth in the NCAA postseason tournament, and was poised to become one of the first Asian American players in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Back then, I pointed out how he represents an example of Asian Americans balancing both model minority expectations with an extracurricular passion, and in doing so, is expanding the definition of success for Asian Americans.
Since then, Jeremy went undrafted in the NBA after graduation but has now landed with the New York Knicks and is now exploding onto the basketball scene, as this New York Times article describes:
On Saturday night [Feb. 4, 2012], Lin came off the bench and powered the Knicks to a 99-92 victory over the Nets at Madison Square Garden, scoring a career-best 25 points with 7 assists. Two nights later, he made his first N.B.A. start and produced 28 points and 8 assists in a 99-88 win over the Utah Jazz.
Knicks fans now serenade Lin with chants of “Je-re-my!” and “M.V.P.!” while the franchise uses his likeness to sell tickets and teammates and coaches gush with praise. . . . Lin is raising expectations, altering the Knicks’ fate and redefining the word “unlikely.” On Twitter, fans and basketball pundits are using another term to describe the phenomenon: “Linsanity.”
[H]e became the first player in more than 30 years to record at least 28 points and 8 assists in his first N.B.A. start. . . . When the Knicks claimed Lin off waivers Dec. 27, he was fourth on the depth chart at point guard. Now he is No. 1, continuing a long pattern of low expectations and surprising results.
As another example of the accelerating Jeremy Lin bandwagon, ABC News just named Jeremy its “Person of the Week” and profiled him in the following news segment video:
Needless to say, Jeremy’s explosion into the U.S. cultural mainstream has inspired many Americans, and particularly Asian Americans. Beyond the mainstream media’s ever-increasing proclamations of him as “Linsanity,” “Lincredible,” “Going All Lin,” “Lin Your Face,” or “May the Best Man Lin,” Jeremy has also been described as Asian Americans’ version of Tim Tebow, both for embracing his Christian faith and for the media sensation and “Linspiration” that he has become for so many Asian Americans. For the record, Jeremy is the first monoracial (that is, both his parents are Asian) Asian American (either born or raised in the U.S.) to play in the NBA, and one of the few monoracial Asian Americans to play professional team sports in the U.S. at all.
In so many ways, Jeremy represents a big step forward for Asian Americans and U.S. society in general in terms of racial inclusion and being considered part of mainstream U.S. culture. Jeremy’s success actually follows a similar breakthrough moment for Asian Americans last year, as the hip-hop group Far East Movement became the first all-Asian American musical group to hit number one on the music charts with their single “Like a G6.” As another example of the “mainstreaming” of Asian Americans, the creators of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” are apparently in the process of creating a version that features an all-Asian American cast, to be called “K-Town.”
From a sociological point of view, the cultural emergence of Jeremy Lin, Far East Movement, and K-Town demonstrate that Asian Americans are indeed increasingly part of the U.S. mainstream. Up to this point, because of the relative scarcity of Asian Americans in the mainstream media and popular culture, it was usually a shock when we did see an Asian American on TV, in the movies, or on the music charts.
But as Asian Americans becoming increasingly common in these areas of U.S. popular culture, are we headed for a day when it is no longer a “big deal” when we see Asian American faces in the media, just like it’s taken for granted when we see White faces or Black faces? Ultimately, yes, that is the goal — for us as a society to no longer consider it “strange” or “unusual” to see Asian Americans in the media or in other prominent positions in U.S. social institutions.
If this idea sounds familiar, you might know it by its more common name — colorblindness.
In other words, part of being colorblind is what I just described — an ideal situation in which everyone in U.S. society is considered equal and when social, political, and economic distinctions based on race or ethnicity are no longer important or carry any sort of advantage or disadvantage. So in many respects, Jeremy Lin’s success gives us hope that, as a society, we are moving a little closer to the ideals of colorblindness.
Therefore, much like the idea of Asian Americans as the “model minority,” I think we should definitely embrace and celebrate the emergence of Jeremy Lin, Far East Movement, and other examples in which Asian Americans are recognized for their success. Their accomplishments reflect how it is not a contradiction to recognize both their racial/ethnic uniqueness and their position as an integral part of mainstream society.
At the same time, we should also keep in mind that while we are getting closer to the ultimate ideal of colorblindness, there is still a lot of work to be done. Along with that, in order to keep working toward a time when true equality exists across all racial/ethnic groups, we need to understand that racial/ethnic distinctions still exist and still matter, and that the success of one person or a few people within that racial/ethnic minority group does not yet mean that members of that group no longer experience any injustice or discrimination.
In the meantime, despite my roots as a Los Angeles Lakers fan, I will definitely be rooting for Jeremy to keep lighting up the scoreboard and the “Lin-magination” of all Americans and beyond.
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.”