Jeremy Lin, race and lessons learned
Just as the abundance of low-scoring games showed what happens when NBA teams have limited training camp, the inappropriate words some have used to describe Jeremy Lin demonstrate how ill-prepared the culture at large was for an Asian-American playing in the NBA.
Lin didn't come with a manual. He burst on the scene and sent everyone scrambling for the right words to reflect what was happening. For some people, that meant the easiest way to describe him was to revert to base Asian stereotypes. They went to places unimaginable if the subject had been African-American (as "Saturday Night Live" captured in this satirical sketch), because they felt they had the liberty to do so -- or simply didn't know any better.
The boundaries hadn't been explored to this extent before, not even with Yao Ming. Yao was from China and, when he first arrived in Houston, his English wasn't strong enough to conduct interviews with many in the media. He was a foreigner. Lin is American-born, and he talks that way. But his looks still make him stand out on the court. Which differences do we emphasize and which do we ignore? How do we define him? What references do we use?
We're used to the NBA serving as a launching ground for racial discussions. But this time, Asian fans are setting the terms, raising concerns over what is and isn't offensive. This is their account.
Sure, Lin is a great sports story, an inspiration to anyone who ever picked up a basketball. But he has a deeper resonance for Asian-Americans. It's been fascinating to read Asian-American perspectives on Lin, to understand his significance and to learn about their culture in the process.
In this column by Kevin Ding of The Orange County (Calif.) Register, I learned how Lin might change the paradigm of Asian-American parents who de-emphasized sports because they didn't perceive any long-term benefits. (As in: If you can't do it for a living, why bother?)
From several articles, I learned that even stereotypical attributes that might be considered positive -- such as diligence and humility -- can feel confining if you aren't "allowed" to be anything else.
I love to learn, which is why I love what Lin is doing. Unfortunately, the process can be painful. This is what happens when the unfamiliar intersects with the status quo. Think back to early in Tiger Woods' career, when something as basic as the traditional champion's dinner at the Masters caused Fuzzy Zoeller to make a crack about fried chicken and collard greens. Of course, that can change. At some point after his breakthrough Masters victory and before his tabloid-chronicled downfall, we actually discussed Woods strictly in terms of his golfing ability.
Lin is nowhere near that stage yet. He's still a novelty, which means there is still peril. Every trailblazing step Lin takes destabilizes the ground around him. That's a greater reflection of the audience than the protagonist. It's not about the intention of what's said about Lin, it's about the interpretation -- and that's beyond the speaker's control.
He also has defied the default, same-race comparisons we often make between players, which are usually lazy and show a lack of imagination. For example, Jimmer Fredette was supposed to be J.J. Redick. We can't do that with Lin because there's no one of his ethnicity to compare him. So far, we've come up with Steve Nash, which makes sense because they both hold on to their dribble and flourished in coach Mike D'Antoni's offensive system. But Lin, who is from Palo Alto, Calif., has said his favorite player growing up was Latrell Sprewell. And there's a touch of Allen Iverson in Lin's game, as well. Even if he doesn't exactly mirror Iverson stylistically, they do compare statistically; right now, Lin's player efficiency rating of 24.2 is virtually the same as Iverson's PER in his NBA Most Valuable Player season of 2000-01.
But, as we have learned, even when the techniques or numbers are similar, we can't always use phrases to talk about Lin that we would use to describe other players. At the Lakers-Knicks game, I was teasing a colleague about his exceptionally wrinkled suit pants. It looked as if he had slept in them, then somersaulted down the street to Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile, Lin was having his way with the Lakers, scoring or assisting on seemingly every point. I was about to joke on Twitter that the only way Lin could be more impressive would be if he got the wrinkles out of those pants.
I decided against it because it would have been too inside, a joke lost on just about everyone not sitting next to me. It wasn't until later that I realized someone could easily have misinterpreted the joke, believing I was playing off the stereotype of Asian dry cleaners. That wasn't a part of my initial thought process. I would have made the same joke about Kobe Bryant or any other star of the night. But Lin brought the possibility of a pejorative into play.
The rules have changed. The lesson is to exercise greater caution, to consider all the ramifications of what we say. It's not too much to ask. It will lead to smarter conversations. And if that's the place to which Jeremy Lin has brought us, it's another way his impact resonates far beyond Madison Square Garden.
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