Monday, February 20, 2012

Jeremy Lin – Changing Asian American Stereotypes through Sports Media Culture

Until about two weeks ago, the idea that an Asian American man would be the new star of the NBA was laughable. Then came Jeremy Lin, a 23-year-old Harvard Economics graduate who upon his graduation was not drafted by the NBA and when he did get to the league, was dropped by two teams. He was picked up by The New York Knicks at the end of January then was sent to the D-League, played a few games there, did well and was recalled to the Knicks on January 23rd. The Knicks were a loosing team and this streak was going further down hill due to Knick injuries, including one of their stars, Carmelo Anthony and also personal loss by Amere Stoudemire. The Knicks couch, Mike D’Antoni was near the career chopping block as his strategies and ability to lead the team were failing. In desperation, D’Antoni put Lin in the game on February 4th against the New Jersey Nets and he scored 25 points that game and it was obvious that his presence on the court with D’Antoni’s type of strategies was game changing. Since then, Lin has started in every game and had a 7 game winning streak, one loss against the New Orleans Hornets followed by a win against last years champions, the Dallas Mavericks. Because of this there has been an influx of puns using his last name, such as “Linsanity” “Linning” “Linstopable” and so on. Jeremy Lin has become the star that the NBA never could have scripted and it is his story that makes him so appealing. It is truly a Cinderella story; an underdog tale that resonates even though sports’ narratives have been soap opera like in their mythologizing. In addition to the story, another important aspect of the Lin tale is how issues of race and stereotypes have been put into the spotlight a well.

Being an Asian American is not easy. Most non-Asians think that we (yes, I am Asian) have it pretty good when it comes to stereotypes as we are considered to be apart of the “Perfect Minority.” The Perfect Minority consists of Asians, and South East Asians and it reflects high intelligence, dedication to school, work and family, silence, non-confrontational, and the desire to please others. For Asian females, many times there is a fetishized sexuality that has them playing the role of eager, obedient concubine or non-verbal sex toy in the form of a prostitute or a schoolgirl. In turn, Asian males are stripped of their sexuality and are the most feminized group within American culture. They are less male then even women and their penis size and sexual ability is reduced to nothing and their ability to stand up for themselves or for anyone else is non-existent, unless they inhabit the role of a kung-fu master with dubbed voice over. With every stereotype there is a grain of truth; yes, there is a focus on schooling and family within Asian cultures, and the wars with Vietnam, Japan and Korea have made the female a sexualized object and the men a source of physical satire. The sources do not make any justifications for the continued racism that is directed at Asian Americans and South East Asians in America today though. The introduction of Jeremy Lin to the public is the best thing any Asian could have hoped for to try to amend some of these issues.

Racial slurs, jokes and imitation of Asians are made and done all the time not only by jerks in elementary and high school but throughout all groups and tiers in American society. It is not only tolerated but also rewarded by laughter and it is shielded as a “joke.” Some of my personal favorites are; bowing (always), “sucky sucky long time” (this is international, I have had this said to me in many different countries) “me so horny” (same as sucky) “are you related to Bruce Lee?” (all of school) “Chink” (always), “Gook” (older white guys), “Go back to your own country” (middle aged white women) “You must be good at math” (white teachers) “Pork fried rice” (in an Asian accent, males of any race), slanting of eyes (everyone) and many more. These are just some lovely slurs I have received, I’m sure each Asian has respectively gotten their fair share of these and others, but the oddest thing about this, is that it is okay for it to happen. Of course it’s not “really okay” but 99% of the time if something like the above is said in public there isn’t a public outcry or defense or requirement for apology, most times it is met with smirks, laughter or silence. And if you defend yourself, which I always do, that makes things even worse.

This reflex that it’s okay to be racist to Asians because it is all a “big joke,” is also happening to Jeremy Lin. There is the bowing, which some do with respect, others to be asses, there are endearing “Lin” puns but also some that are on the verge of “what the heck.” And then most glaringly was the ESPN headline that was published on their site that read “Chink in the Armor” after Lin’s first loss after 7 straight wins to the Hornets. Really? Really? Did that just happen? In addition, an ESPN anchor also read that same headline on TV. Really? Really? You’re a professional sports anchor? The writer of the headline is now fired and the anchor was fined but who in their right mind would ever even think that was okay? Another offensive thing was from the Knicks own arena, Madison Square Garden, which had Lin’s face popping out of a fortune cookie that said “The Knicks Good Fortune” maybe not as shockingly awful as saying, “Chink” but who the hell thought that was okay? If any black basketball player’s head popped out of an African American associated food, all hell would have broken loose. Issues of this double standard, this idea that it is funny and harmless to be racist towards Asians has largely been the norm until Lin. This is because up to this point, there has been no major public figure or platform to address these issues. I’m sure that this will get even more intense and if Lin losses games, the ferocity and unfettered racism of headlines, talking points and all else will be greater still.

Why Lin? There are a few key reasons why Jeremy Lin is the fist person in American media culture to bring these issues to the fore. One, his underdog story. America loves narratives of trial, perseverance and never quitting. He has all of this in his ascent to his position in the Knicks. From being dropped, put into the minors, and overlooked, his is the story that is the American fiber of re-invention, luck and hard work. Two, he is a “perfect minority.” Lin is a smart young man and he has a humility to him that is loved by the sports community and also by Americans. He went to Harvard for Economics so we know he has brains. He is a devout Christian and listens to Christian rock music, wants a Christian girlfriend and he is proud to be Asian but doesn’t talk excessively about that or himself. Three, he is an Asian man in the NBA. The NBA’s players are predominantly black and although there have been a few Asian players in the league, most notably Yao Ming, Lin is different as he is the first Chinese(Taiwanese) American born player ever to be in the league. The fact that Lin is playing in this highly masculine sport dominated by black men, who are still stereotyped to be the most potent sexually in American culture, gives Lin more credence as being masculine and being sexual. Breaking down this most dismissive stereotype of Asian men being inferior to other males is incredibly important. Also, this role has even more impact because it is not proving masculinity in a separate, foreign sport such as marital arts but within an American institutionalized sport with a mass audience.

Sports have always functioned as a means of social integration, acceptance and conversation. America has a full history of these confrontations and it is from this linage that Lin’s story is also a part of. Sports are a funny thing in that they function in many ways. Some think that it is a mere opiate to the masses, some brain-draining drone of spectacle, savagery, unnecessary minor accomplishments but I think that is a closed way to think about it. Sports are like everything else that humans endeavor upon to measure skills, abilities, awareness and progress as human beings. The components of physical ability and mental and emotional will that are required by athletes are incalculable but there is a system that measures performance of an athlete and through this validation occurs. It is with this validation and proof of merit that spectators accept and praise that athlete. There is a beauty to sports that I have never and probably will never see in the arts. Jeremy Lin has made more progress in confronting issues of race faced by Asian Americans than any book, painting, poem, song, video, film or any other art form that I have seen in my lifetime. Why that is probably has to do with the audience, big issues need big audiences. Race relations in this country are still very unresolved and although some may not like it, if it takes sports to get that conversation started, bring it.