Pride and Prejudice
Jeremy Lin and the persistence of racial stereotypes.
Whether shock or celebration, Lin’s cultural power rests in his juxtaposition to the stereotyped Asian-American male. According to Timothy Dalrymple, “their astonishment at the sight of Jeremy Lin outperforming the other players, their consistent references to how exhausted he must be, and how “magical” a night he’s having (rather than a natural result of talent and hard work) suggests that they’ve bought into the stereotype of the physically inferior Asian-American male.”
Lin’s recent ascendance is not simply about success or dominance within the sports world, a place defined by masculine prowess. It reflects the cultural and gendered meaning of basketball. Lin is excelling in a world defined by Black manhood, an identity the White racial frames construct through physicality, strength, speed and swagger. Unlike other players who burst onto the American scene (Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian, Wang Zhizhi), Lin is a guard, who has found success because of his athleticism and skills as opposed to his presumed freakish stature.
“The best part is how viscerally pleasurable it is to watch Lin play: His game is flashy, almost showoffy, and requires him to have guts, guile and flair in equal measure,” writes Will Leich. “The drama of it is, it’s obvious, what’s most fun for him. It is all you could possibly want as a feel-good story.”
In other words, Lin’s appeal comes from his ability to ball like a street player to face off and dominate against Black players at “their own game.” The celebration of Lin as a challenge to the denied masculinity afforded to Asian-American males reflects the ways in which Black masculinity is defined in and through basketball culture.
While surely offering fans the often-denied sporting masculinity within the Asian body, the power of Jeremy Lin rests with his ability to mimic a basketball style, swagger and skill associated with Black ballers. Pride emanates from the sense of masculinity afforded by Lin, a fact that emanates from stereotypical constructions of Black masculinity.
“Through no fault of his own, Lin stands at a bombed-out intersection of expected narratives, bodies, perceived genes, the Church, the vocabulary of destinations and YouTube,” wrote Jay Caspian Kang, who’s Asian American, about Lin’s electrifying play at Harvard. “What Jeremy Lin represents is a re-conception of our bodies, a visible measure of how the emasculated Asian-American body might measure up to the mythic legion of Big Black superman” (cited by King in Colorlines).
Fulfilling a fantasy for a “White American fantasy of an athletic prowess that can trump African-American hegemony in the League” (Farred, p. 56) and the appeal of a masculinity defined by its association with Blackness, the celebrations, parties, and various public adoration are wrapped in these ideas of race, gender, and nation. Writing about Yao Ming, Grant Farred reminds us about these issues:
The body of the athlete, which has a long history of standing as the body of the nation, is simultaneously reduced and magnified in the Yao event, in its micro-articulation (Asian American), it is asked to refute the myth of the feminized ethnic by challenging—and redressing the historic wrongs endured—those ‘American’ bodies that have been dismissed the physicality of the Asian male. As representative of the Chinese nation, Yao is expected to remain a national subject even as his basketball heritage seems difficult to unlearn and continues to disadvantage him in the NBA… In his representation of the ‘Chinese people,’ Yao will not become an NBA—which is to say ‘African American’—player. He will not trash talk, he will not develop an ‘offensive personality,’ in more senses than one, and to his detriment, he will not become more ‘physical’ (62).
Lin is confined by this trap, so his wagging tongue (that was blue during one game), his trash talk, his swagger, his reverse layups, his flashy speed, and now his dunk, all confirms that Lin isn’t just a basketball player but a baller.
Lin is therefore not breaking down stereotypes (maybe denting them), but in many ways reinscribing them. Celebrated as “intelligent” and as “a hustler,” his success has been attributed his intelligence, his basketball IQ, and even his religious faith. His athleticism and the hours spent on the court are erased from the discussion. And, in positioning him as the aberration, as someone worthy of celebration, the dominant media frame reinforces the longstanding stereotypes of Asians as unathletic nerds.
Likewise, the juxtaposition of his identity, body and basketball skills to the NBA’s Black bodies simultaneously reinforces the dominant inscriptions of both Blackness and Asianness. While JLin brings something new to the table—an Asian-American basketball role model; Knicks’ victories—we must not forget the many things that remain in place.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs at No Tsuris. Follow him on Twitter @DR_DJL.