Pride and Prejudice
Jeremy Lin and the persistence of racial stereotypes.
With Linsanity on full blast and the lens of the bball world focusing on the Garden as the Knicks take on the Lakers tonight, we’ve been inundated with emails, articles and videos about Knicks’ PG Jeremy Lin. Here, we present an academic look into JLin’s cultural significance for the Asian-American community. While the author’s opinions may not necessarily match those of SLAM’s editorial staff, we aim to provide the most complete forum for hoops commentary.—Ed.
by David J. Leonard / @DR_DJL
The recent success and national visibility afforded to Jeremy Lin has both inspired Asian Americans and has been driven by the adoration and pride he elicits from some within the community. Whether on Twitter, Facebook, or in the stadiums, it is clear that Lin is not simply a national phenomena but a treasure for the Asian-American community.
According to Jamilah King, “Regardless of how the rest of the season goes for Lin, and the Knicks, his moment in the spotlight is an important time to reflect on how the country views its Asian-American athletes.” Whereas past Asian athletes—whether it be Yao Ming or Ichiro—captured the global Asian Diaspora’s imagination, Lin is the most widely recognized Asian-American athlete on the American team sport scene. Timothy Dalrymple highlights the appeal of Lin to Asian-American males:
He particularly has a following amongst Asian-Americans. And some Asian-American young men, long stereotyped as timid and unathletic, nerdy or effeminate or socially immature—have fought back tears (which may not help with the stereotype, but is understandable under the circumstances) as they watched Jeremy Lin score 25 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds for the New York Knicks.
In “Asian Americans energized in seeing Knicks’ Jeremy Lin play,” J. Michael Falgoust elucidates his cultural power within the Asian American community in quoting the thoughts of several different people:
“I don’t care about the outcome. I just want to see him in action. He’s as good of an Asian American athlete as there is” — Rose Nguyen
“I’m so proud. I don’t care if he is Chinese or Korean. I had to see him… my boyfriend has been talking about him so much” — Christine Lee
“I’m really excited. He breaks so many stereotypes. And my friends are just as excited. If you go to my Facebook feed, it’s all Jeremy Lin. I like that he plays smart. But then he’s from Harvard. So that is expected. He is also humble. He reminds me a lot of Derrick Rose, who’s always crediting teammates” — Andrew Pipathsouk
Andrew Leonard similarly argues that Lin’s popularity among Asian Americans is emblematic of the power of social media and also the pride that athletic success garners for Asian Americans, otherwise seen as “nerds” not “jocks.” While problematically invoking the language of “genetics” that erases Lin’s tremendous athleticism/speed, Leonard concludes that Lin inspires Asian-American kids who yearn for a masculine role model given persistent invisibility and anti-Asian racism within the public square. “He’s a triumph of will over genetic endowment, a fact that makes him inspiring to an entire generation of Californian kids restless with their model minority shackles,” he notes.
On Monday, the social media world was also getting worked up about Michigan Republican Senate hopeful Pete Hoekstra’s racist Super Bowl ad, featuring a Chinese woman (labeled “yellowgirl” in the HTML code for the web version) gloating over all the jobs her country was taking from the US. Once thrown into the 24/7 crazy cultural mashup perpetual motion machine, it didn’t take long before anger about that ad ran head on into Jeremy Lin pride.
I have seen tweets urging Jeremy Lin to run for the Republican nomination for the Michigan senate seat, tweets warning that the only American jobs in danger from Asians are those belonging to New York Knick starting point guards, and even a tweet riffing off Kobe Bryant’s self-identification as “black mamba”—Jeremy Lin is suddenly the “yellow mamba.”
Lin has trended No. 1 on Twitter on three successive game days, was top-10 searched items on Sina Weibo and is all the talk of the sports world. For the moment, it is Jeremy Lin’s world and we are all just living in it.
The pride and possibility reflects the broader erasure and invisibility of Asian Americans within popular culture (minus this year’s Top Chef). “Asians are nearly invisible on television/movies/music, so any time I see an Asian on TV or in the movies, I feel like I’ve just spotted a unicorn, even though usually, I see them being portrayed as kung-fu masters/socially awkward mathematical geniuses/broken-English-speaking-fresh-off-the-boat owner of Chinese restaurant/nail salon/dry cleaners,” writes one blogger. “Anyway, this phenomenon is 10 times worse in sports. While there has been some notable progress with Asians in professional baseball, Asians are all but non-existent in the big three sports in the US (football, basketball, baseball).”
Lin breaks down, or at least penetrates, the walls that have excluded Asian Americans from popular culture. The pride, adoration and celebration reflect this history of exclusion, a history of erasure, and invisibility. The efforts to link Lin to Nike’s “Witness” campaign is illustrative in that we are all witness—maybe for the first time in history—of an Asian American sports hero, someone who challenges and defies expectations and stereotypes.
Amid the invisibility is a history of feminization of Asian American males. When present within media and popular culture, Asian-American men have been represented as asexual, weak, physically challenged, and otherwise unmasculine. Sanctioning exclusion and denied citizenship, the White supremacist imagination has consistently depicted Asian male bodies as effeminate. The entry of Lin into the dominant imagination reflects a challenge to this historic practice given the power of sports as a space of masculine prowess.