Examining the Jeremy Lin Phenomenon Through a Critical Lens
Erica Chito Childs / Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center
Amidst media reports about America’s post-racial state, NBA player Jeremy Lin seemingly appeared out of nowhere to bring the struggling New York Knicks a slew of victories. The success of Lin, a Taiwanese-American, has sparked a media sensation, or in other words, a Linsanity. The media coverage and public debate over Lin may be referenced as further evidence of post-racial America, yet it is better understood by looking at the historical context of race relations, constructions of racial stereotypes and systemic racism.
On one hand Jeremy Lin has captured America’s attention because his story affirms the American Dream. As Sports Illustrated writes, Lin succeeded “against all odds” with hard work, determination and perseverance.
The media touted Lin as the quintessential underdog, deserving of this attention even more because of his modesty and morality. There were inevitable comparisons to the NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, as Lin was similarly described as a man of great faith. The characterization of Lin not only fit into the ideology of the American Dream, but also the model minority myth where Asian Americans have been constructed as a successful racial minority group due to their intelligence, work ethic and demeanor. While seemingly positive, the model minority myth simultaneously marginalizes Asian Americans, creates interracial tensions between non-whites, and maintains white privilege (which will discussed more in a later section).
Lin’s Story in Historical Context
While the Lin phenomenon was presented as something new, Lin’s story follows a distinct pattern well documented through historical conditions and contemporary practices. The historical realities, the way history is retold, as well as who and how contemporary stories are told is part of what Gramsci described as the way those in power “establish a certain ‘definition of reality’ which is accepted by those over whom hegemony is exercised.”1 While slavery and legalized segregation has disappeared, these representations and ideologies of the intersections of race and gender are an integral part of contemporary racial oppression or what Joe Feagin terms systemic racism, “the racist framing, racist ideology, stereotyped attitudes, racist emotions, discriminatory habits and actions and extensive racist institutions developed over centuries by whites” which permeates all of society.2
Scholars such as Ronald Takaki and Gina Marchetti have traced the idea of Asians as dangerous to the West’s fear of the “East,” as early as medieval Europe’s fear of Genghis Khan. Immigration practices and laws were intricately tied to these constructions of Asian men and women. Since Asian immigration was largely used as a tool for cheap labor recruitment of Asian males, who were viewed as “temporary individual units of labor rather than as members of family groups,” the immigration of Asian women was restricted.3 These restrictions also served to desexualize Asian men, as they were denied the ability to have families, constructed as asexual and non-masculine, and the Asian American population was minimized.4
While being characterized as asexual and feminine, the legal exclusion of Asians through various immigration acts affected Asian American communities until the eventual abolishment of “national origins” as a basis for quotas with immigration in 1965. Asian men were unable to start families because immigration laws banned the immigration of most Asian women and anti-miscegenation laws prohibited men of color from marrying white women. Accompanying the structural factors preventing Asian men from marrying, cultural narratives characterized Asian men as hypo-masculine and sexually deviant, eunuchs and rapists.
Asians were also constructed as the “Yellow Peril,” posing a threat from military invasion, business monopolization through foreign trade, competition for labor positions, and miscegenation with whites.
Asian men were depicted as de-masculinized and desexualized, such as the character of Charlie Chan or the evil enemy of the white man, like Dr. Fu Manchu who wanted to take over the West, yet was still depicted as feminine, wearing a long dress, long fingernails, and homosexual desires.((See Chin and Chan1972; Espiritu 2000; Hoppenstand 1983; Wang 1988)) Traditionally Asian men have been depicted as the opposite of desirable masculinity. Still today, Asian American men are rarely cast as lead actors in mainstream American films, and even rarer, as romantic leads.
The Lin Connection
Connecting this to Jeremy Lin’s supposedly sudden rise to NBA fame, Lin’s success was far from overnight. In contrast, these very stereotypes of Asian-American men had been in play throughout Lin’s career. Despite a stellar high school basketball career at Palo Alto High School where he was named first-team All-State and Northern California Division II Player of the Year, he received no athletic scholarships or offers to play college basketball. With an impressive grade point average, instead he went to Harvard where he was guaranteed a place on the basketball team. At Harvard, he demonstrated his basketball skills and set Ivy League records in points scored and other areas, yet he went undrafted. Eventually he went to the Golden State Warriors before ending up on the New York Knicks bench. Arguably, Lin was invisible because of these racial stereotypes of Asian-American men as weak and lacking athletic prowess.
Despite the fanfare surrounding Lin, his newfound success has also spurned a slew of racial stereotypes. On Facebook and countless blogs, these type of images are making the rounds.
On Friday February 17, ESPN posted a commentary on the New York Knicks loss, headlining the story with “Chink in the Armor.” ESPN quickly removed it after less than an hour and offered an apology, yet the tenacity of racial stereotypes was clear.
On the blacksportsonline website, the commentary accompanying this ESPN screenshot read,
My messages to those people, stop being so sensitive and enjoy the General Lin ride. Sometimes you have to understand the intent, before you get your panties in a bunch and the intent was to celebrate Lin’s skills, not offend anyone.
This brought to light a point raised earlier about how racism and racial stereotypes pit racial groups against each other. Sports commentators such as former NBA player Steve Smith expressed these same sentiments, arguing that charging racism over the use of the phrase “chink in the armor” was not justified, or at least not the same as someone using a racial slur towards African Americans.
Boxing champion Floyd Mayweather responded to Jeremy Lin with the following tweet.
Given the history of systemic racism where Asian American men have been characterized as intellectually superior yet de-masculinized while African American men have been characterized as hyper-masculine yet intellectually inferior, these reactions are not surprising. Whites remain the norm by which others are judged. “Whiteness represents the cultural norm the implicit standard from which blackness deviates,”5 and Latinos, Asians, all non-white Others fall somewhere in between. In particular white privilege and dominance is maintained against the beliefs about men of color as asexual (particularly Asian men), or sexual savages. Saturday Night Live offered an insightful yet controversial response, highlighting the stereotypical and racist responses to Jeremy Lin in the media.
Contemporary representations of racial Others are based on the ideologies that were created to justify historical conditions and reflect contemporary debates over racial identity, racial locations, nationalism, and citizenship. The problem lies not in the images but in the social relations that underlie, inform, and exist outside which contribute to the subjugation and degradation of certain races and ethnicities. As we see from looking at historical and contemporary practices, racial representations have been used to privilege, protect and illustrate the power of whiteness, particularly for white men. The connection between the treatment of racial and ethnic groups in society and their treatment in the media reveals patterns, which we can use as a framework for understanding contemporary racial attitudes. Rather than point to a post-racial America, Jeremy Lin’s rise to NBA super-stardom has highlighted the lingering racial stereotypes and racism. While garnering widespread support, the media and public reaction to Lin has also been plagued by continual racial references and racist comments. Jeremy Lin fascinates the American public because his story embodies the racial narratives that have dominated such as the model minority myth and the American Dream ideology, yet it also stands to challenge racialized and gendered stereotypes.
2. CBS News
3. Sports Illustrated
4. Wikipedia Commons
5. Black Sports Online
6. You Offend Me You Offend My Family
8. Laker Life
9. Jim Romenesko
- Page 173 in Chantal Mouffe, “Hegemony and the Integral State in Gramsci: Towards a New Concept of Politics, page 167-187, in (Eds) George Bridges and Rosalind Brunt, Silver Linings: Some Strategies for the Eighties (London: Lawrence and Wishart Ltd). [↩]
- Feagin 2006: :xii [↩]
- See Espiritu 2000:9-10 [↩]
- See Espiritu 2000; Goellnicht 1992; Lyman 1968 [↩]
- Hunt 2005:4 [↩]