The Jeremy Lin spectacle pointed to a gaping absence in American life. The universal surprise, ignorant racial slurring, media frenzy, and high expectations poured onto the 23-year-old burst forth from a decades-old dam of suppressed frustration and misunderstanding.
Jeremy Lin’s race matters. How, in 2012, when we are a supposedly post-racial society in which Asian-Americans are supposedly succeeding and where discrimination has supposedly ended, did this symbiosis of fascination and condescension emerge? Talking about race is hard for Americans; when it comes to Asians we seem to be at a complete loss.
This is not an essay about Jeremy Lin. I admire his talent and conduct on and off court, but his life story has already been discussed and rehashed many times.
The great elephant in the room is the lack of precedent, and no one seems able to say why that is so. Absences are harder to talk about than icons.
Where are the Asian-American basketball stars?
In the cultural and political life of America, being here in large numbers is never itself enough to ensure representation. Chinese people have been in America since the mid-1800s. Not one of them could jump? I have seen a lot of commentators more or less explain that “Asians just don’t play sports.” Assume, for a second, that this is true.
There has been an amazing growth of Asian professionals since the 1965 immigration bill – doctors, lawyers, bankers, scientists. This is the origin of the most pervasive and insidious stereotype against Asians in America today: “model minority.” Let’s please leave aside the tales of mythical-Asian-genius or Confucian-spiritual-scholar-quest. Take a simpler example: if your family witnessed the crushing poverty and brutality of the Cultural Revolution in China, making your kids do extra homework to ensure a good job doesn’t sound so extreme. The concerns of Asian immigrants (like everyone else’s concerns) are attributable to material and historical forces rather than some pseudo-scientific “inner work ethic.”
White-collar stability is the great American promise to the children of hard-working immigrants. So if “Asians don’t play sports,” it is because a career in professional sports, unlike a white-collar path, is an unstable and uncertain gamble. I don’t need to repeat the many statistics about drop-out youths led by unreasonable hopes, of injuries leading to ruined careers and poverty.
But then, Asians do play sports – lots of them. Just not on TV. The lack of Asians in professional sports perpetuates the idea that no Asian can make it. A lot of people have speculated that Lin’s Asianness might have been a barrier to his recruitment. I cannot offer an opinion there. But I do believe that in hiring rooms across the country, particularly for leadership positions, people tend to choose people who look like those they are used to hiring. I imagine something similar happens when picking teams on high school courts. And on the flip side, if a talent like Lin can be passed over by recruiters, what reason do other Asian youth have to try?
Jeremy Lin broke a color line. It was not a hard rule like the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ Jackie Robinson upset sixty-five years ago, but took far longer to cross. Race lines in contemporary America are not written as law, but work in a system of de facto barriers that are far harder to measure: media representation, racial assumptions, educational and economic opportunity.
Where are the Asian men?
If you have read the blog Angry Asian Man or the article “Paper Tigers” by Wesley Yang, you know that a lot of Asian men are, indeed, angry. Until Jeremy Lin, most of America didn’t notice or care, let alone ask why that might be.
Think of all the popular images of Asian men you have seen, from Mickey Rooney’s yellow face role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to the character Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles to the smiling figures on Abercrombie and Fitch’s laundry t-shirt (“Two Wongs Can Make It White”) to the host of background caricatures of waiters, cooks, laundrymen, deli owners, and crime bosses on TV and in movies. Asian men find themselves caught in a paradox: even if they are revolted by those images, they are forced by repetition to internalize them.
This demoralizing cycle has its roots in the 19th century, when Chinese male laborers vastly outnumbered Chinese women: a threat to polite white society. While Asian women were exotified, Asian men were vilified. In popular American culture, Asian men have played the roles of coolies, opium lords, communist spies, and, most recently, nerds; throughout they have been silent, untrustworthy, and inscrutable. The culture industry encourages the repetition of stereotypes rather than breakouts: we expect to see Asians in certain roles, Asians are cast in those roles, and so on.
Writers like Eddie Huang and Jay Caspian Kang talk about Jeremy Lin like the second coming – the first being Bruce Lee. Lee, like Lin, broke a color barrier, changed his industry, and became a hero to a legion of young people, especially Asian men. He also suffered a slew of hatred and parody. Lee died almost forty years ago – it is unbelievable that America has gone this long without another game-changer.
When Jeremy Lin scores in the double digits, invents a handshake with Landry Fields, yells after sinking a three, he chisels at the monolith of stereotypes that we have been fed since the 1800s.
The most surprising reaction I have seen to Jeremy Lin has been from many Asian-American friends and colleagues: fear. They are on edge every time the Knicks lose a game, hold their breath when Lin stumbles. What they fear, I think, is an onslaught of racial slurs and jeers, a backlash that dismisses Lin’s rise as a fluke that changed nothing. The ESPN headline incident proved their fears founded.
To the rest of America: don’t keep us in fear. We shouldn’t have to cringe every time the Knicks play. Admire Jeremy Lin, but ask the harder questions. Lin came out of nowhere, but that nowhere is what Asians have been dealing with for years.
Thank you, Jeremy Lin, for forcing us to have this conversation. Now it’s on the rest of America to rise to the occasion.