LINpowerment: One Asian American’s Perspective on Jeremy Lin

Esther Ha, Asian American Student Union (AASU) Council Chair, discusses her own racialized experiences in Madison and talks about how #LINsanity is reshaping the popular media landscape and conversation around Asian-Pacific Americans. 

LINspiration, LINsanity, LINning.  Everyone is talking about New York Knicks basketball player Jeremy Lin and for good reason. I was a huge tomboy as a kid, often shooting hoops with my dad and admiring Ray Allen’s three-point game.  But, as I grew older, I grew out of that phase and lost interest in basketball for a decade…until now.

Why now?  For the same reason hundreds of thousands of Asian-Pacific Americans (APAs) from all over the U.S. are now religiously watching Knicks games and obsessively checking out smart phones for updates when we can’t.  Not only is Jeremy Lin “one of us,” he is also damn good. Admittedly, I don’t understand all the technical aspects of his game, but I understand what it means to be ethnically Asian in America. It is clear to me that “Linsanity” is changing the face of Asian America.  This is exactly why, like all other APAs, I’m rooting for the Knicks (even when they play against my home team…sorry, Bucks!).

Jeremy Lin gives APAs a new kind of representation—not to mention an unprecedented amount of positive media attention.  I can finally see someone on T.V. who looks likes me but isn’t a ninja, a karate master, a computer analyst, a corner store owner, a “Fresh Off the Boat” immigrant, a hypersexualized China doll, or a subservient house wife.  As a marginalized people, it’s bad enough that we lack representation in the media, but whenever we are seen fit to grace the television screens in American homes, we are portrayed as one of the aforementioned caricatures.

When most people picture a basketball player, the first image that pops in their mind is not a six foot three, Asian American.  Before Lin, there were no examples of highly acclaimed Asian American basketball players…even though the first person of color to be drafted into the NBA was a Japanese American, Wataru Misaka.  Misaka, a Nisei, also played for the Knicks, but he was cut after a year. Also, Yao Ming doesn’t count because he’s actually from Asia (Wait! There’s a difference between being Asian and Asian American? Oh yes indeed). With constricting media stereotypes, it’s no wonder why Jeremy Lin, a Taiwanese American (A what? A Taiwanese American?! But aren’t you all Chinese or Japanese? Nope, there’s a difference between Chinese Americans and Taiwanese Americans as well), was un-drafted and dropped by two NBA teams before getting his big break.

I knew a talented Korean American who trained with South Korea’s Olympic basketball team.  He could have played for UW-Madison but didn’t end up trying out because he knew Asian Americans weren’t taken seriously in the NBA.  His changes of going pro were slim.  But now, “Linsanity” has opened a “LINdow of Opportunity for APAs by adding “skilled basketball player” to our repertoire of media representations.

For my Asian American brothers around the U.S., Jeremy Lin’s success has also altered the emasculating image of APA males.  Asian-Pacific American males are generally seen as lacking sex appeal or desire or physically weak to the point of being feminine.  Historically, Asian male emasculation resulted from racist anti-immigration laws in the 19th century, which prevented Asian males working in the U.S. from bringing their wives or brides to America in order to limit Asian population in America.  In conjunction with anti-miscegenation laws, the anti-immigration laws created a large community of Asian American bachelors who had to perform the duties of wives because they had none.   Asian American male emasculation from the 19th century continues today through the unfounded, yet stigmatizing, stereotype that Asian American males have smaller genitalia, as well as through media representation of Asian American men as sidekicks, sexually unattractive, and forever “friend-zoned” by attractive women; etc.  Yet, Jeremy Lin challenges these stereotypes by gaining recognition in a rough, “masculine” sport where physically strong and tall men typically succeed.

What does this mean for Asian American men?  A Youtube video entitled, “The Jeremy  Lin Effect 2,” humorously predicts that more women will become attracted to Asian American men.  In the video, an attractive Asian American woman, who initially finds Asian American men unattractive, dumps the white male she’s with for an Asian American male after watching a Jeremy Lin highlight reel.  The highlight reel works like a charm, making the girl instantly fall in love with the Asian American man walking before her.  Is this an exaggerated scene just for laughs?  Perhaps, but people do say that humor is based on truth, and there were rumors that even Kim Kardashian personally requested a double date with Jeremy Lin.  Maybe people are beginning to see Asian American men in a different light and that’s something to think about.

Racism in this country has long been spoken of in terms of black and white, with occasional mention of Hispanics, but “Linsanity” has brought the topic of racism toward Asian Americans into the spotlight.  During AASU’s Asian American Sexuality Workshop last year, the APAs in my group discussed how we hated walking down State Street on a weekend night because someone, almost without fail, would say a racist comment.

This came as a surprise to a white person in the group who asked, “Things like that really happen in Madison?,” which, to me, translated to, “Racism still exists?”  Yes, racism still exists and is very prevalent even on our campus.  However, since overt racism is no longer acceptable in our politically correct, “post-racialized” society, racism has taken more covert forms, such as microaggressions or institutionalized racism.

Regardless, it’s hard for those who think racism is a thing of the past to see a sign with Jeremy Lin’s head above a fortune cookie, a sign that Madison Square Garden Network zoomed in on during a Knick’s game, and say that racism is dead. By zooming in on the fan sign, I assume the network thought it was clever, thus, condoning the inappropriate act.

This is especially true when considering ESPN’s headline, “Chink in the Armor,” which, at the outrage of the APA community, was posted on their website to taunt Lin after the Knick’s seven game winning streak was broken.

Thirty minutes later, the post was taken down, and ESPN made a public statement of apology for the offensive headline.  Recently, ESPN announced that the employee responsible for the headline was dismissed and an ESPN news anchor, who also used the phrase, has been suspended for 30 days. 

What is especially disturbing about these two instances is that these acts of racism were committed by prominent media networks, not racist individual making hateful posts at home.  So tell me again…how is racism no longer an issue?  Yet even under ESPN’s official state of apology, a handful of people commented that everyone was being hypersensitive, arguing that it’s a common phrase used in sports and an easy mistake.  This, to me, is evidence that racism is still alive and well in our society when a racial slur like “Chink” can be excused as mere ignorance.  Racism cannot and should not be excused for ignorance. There comes a point when ignorance becomes a choice, because the ignorant are choosing not to learn from their mistakes or what those potential mistakes are.

Even though racism may rain down on our glorious “Linsanity” parade, you can bet that we APAs will continue marching on using our “Linspiration” ponchos and “Linsanity” umbrellas, because Jeremy Lin has made a visible impact on the Asian-Pacific American community.  As one of our AASU board members perfectly iterated: “You feel that?  That feeling? It’s called empowerment!”

AASU will be hosting their annual Asian American Sexuality workshop on Thursday, March 8th from 7-9pm in the MSC Lounge. This year, they are collaborating with the Campus Women’s Center to discuss some major topics such as the objectification of Asian American women and the emasculation of Asian American men. 

Related great read: Chink in the Stands – An Asian American Fan’s Notes. Jen Wang of articulates her feelings over the Jeremy Lin race conversation by reflecting on her own experiences growing up.

To read more about the diversity and social movements of the Asian American diaspora, the MSC recommends some books by scholars and activists that connect culture to politics and identity to activism. 

3 thoughts on “LINpowerment: One Asian American’s Perspective on Jeremy Lin

  1. Pingback: Recommended Reading: Asian American Identity and Activism | Threads

  2. Pingback: TV’s Newest Tokens: South Asians as Sitcom Nerds | Threads

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