The Linvisible Man

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FOR THE PAST TWO WEEKS, I have tried to avoid contributing to the Internet hoopla. After all, it seems like every news outlet has been overdosing on Linsanity. His face is plastered on magazine covers; “Lindiculous” memes being spawned by the second; every sports show spent discussing his previous and/or upcoming games. I don’t remember a subject being so overly dissected since…well, Tebowmania.

Alas, I’ve failed. Not so much because my information streams have been “Linundated” or because my parents can’t stop talking about him over dinner. I’ve failed because, whether I was consciously aware of it or not, I am interconnected with his story, whether I like it or not.

With the improbable and sudden ascent of a relatively obscure and overlooked point guard, I have found myself following his every move, rooting for his success on every play, and even cheering for the Knicks. (I never thought I’d write that in a sentence.) Because of his underdog story, winning play and winsome demeanor, Lin is a player that every man would want to root for.

But in the midst of it all, I had to stop and ask myself: what are we exactly rooting for here?

Because of his ethnicity and figurative “rags-to-riches” story, Lin is more than just an athlete. He is a symbol. A statement. He has crossed the sports realm and now figures effectively in political, cultural and mainstream discussions. People who don’t care or know nothing about basketball are suddenly obsessed about the New York Knicks. And why not? He has crossover appeal (no pun intended)–people from various backgrounds can identify with his faith or his ethnic heritage or Ivy League school or current professional team or heroic story.

Yet, it does not escape me how much of a factor the issue of race has played in this movement. I’m getting involved because the movement around his success inherently involves me–it has forced me to examine in greater depths the composition of my Asian American identity.

When It All Falls Down

AN ARTICLE CALLED “PAPER TIGERS” was published in 2011 that explored the thinly-veiled hints of racism and culture that permeate through the fabric of American society. Among other things, the piece argued about prejudice being fueled not only by overt discrimination and stereotyping but by misunderstandings resulting from pointed differences between Asian and American cultures. Yang argues that this is evidenced by the lack of Asian American leadership in the professional hierarchy.

Is Linsanity further buttress for this argument? When asked about Lin’s sudden emergence in the league, Kobe Bryant offered this insight: “Players don’t usually come out of nowhere. If you go back and take a look, his skill level was probably there but no one ever noticed.” If this is true–and I would concur–then the issue begs the question: how does someone with his resume and skill set go unnoticed?

One of the undercurrents of Lin’s heroic journey to stardom is how he has had to battle against racial stereotypes and prejudice. For starters, an underlying stereotype persists that Asian Americans are not athletically gifted, and that their realm of strength lies elsewhere in academia or art. How many Division I schools passed on him or judged his talent prematurely because of this belief?

Unfortunately, racism is still alive. It can be subtle and yet so pervasive. Just last week, after the Knicks’ first loss with Lin as a starter, ESPN posted a headline that read “Chink in the Armor.” This tells me that we, as a nation, still do not get it. (I’ll probably receive some comments about being “oversensitive,” which will only prove my point.) It shows me that many people still believe “Asian” is an ethnic term synonymous with punchlines, ridicule and scorn.

Not long ago, America had a golden opportunity to openly address racism. During the 2008 Presidential election, Americans had the chance to prove that race wouldn’t be a factor. They could vote for a president, not on the basis of skin color, but rather on how well he or she would do the job. How the masses responded showed me that we didn’t get it then either. We had people who voted against Obama simply because he was Black; conversely, we had people who voted for Obama solely for that very reason. To do either one is to commit prejudice by escalating race to a higher degree of judgment apart from one’s abilities.

(Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that we have a Black president. I would love it more if we had a president who, regardless of race, would be able to get the job done. America–we’ve come a long way, and yet we still got a long way to go.)

The great thing about sports is that it serves as a unique platform in which on-field or on-court performances speak for themselves. There is less subjectivity, and thus, less bias. Granted that Lin is given the opportunity to play–which is a battle in and of itself–he is able to prove his value as a player as measured by wins and personal statistics. No matter what you believe, you cannot deny 7 wins in 9 starts, with averages of 25 points and 9 assists as a starter.

In the 1936 Olympics, Jesse Owens emphatically rejected Hitler’s notion of Aryan superiority by winning 4 gold medals. In 2012, Jeremy Lin is unequivocally declaring that yes, Asian people can play ball just like the rest of them.

From Nowhere, A Face

WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE of this current movement? The residual, far-reaching effects of Lin’s success cannot yet be determined. People will have to reassess this special moment years or decades from now to determine with greater certainty. For now, it is safe to say that Lin has galvanized an entire people group that has been longing to stand out amidst a crowd in which its voice has been muffled.

In her book Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, Helen Zia describes the lack of Asian presence in her childhood during the 1950s: “There was no place for me in the debates over national issues like the war or racial equality. People like me [Asian Americans] were absent from everything that was considered to be ‘American’–from TV, movies, newspapers, history, and everyday discussions that took place in the school yard.” Now, more than 60 years later, Asian Americans are still struggling to make a pronounced mark in the media.

Lin’s rise to the forefront of American consciousness, therefore, has achieved what Asian Americans in this storied nation has been lacking for so long: a face. For better or worse, Lin is the embodiment of all our hopes, dreams, strengths and weaknesses. In a world full of stereotypes, he is working to debunk some and rewrite others. Lin is the most tangible Asian American symbol we’ve had to date.

What’s more, Lin has caused us to hold a mirror to our identities (to borrow from Bill Plaschke) and forced us to examine race in greater ways than we ever did before. The consciousness of my ethnicity has never felt more dissected than now. As a second generation Chinese American, I had to look in the mirror and ask myself some hard questions: Do I need Jeremy Lin to validate my ethnicity? Should I feel an extra sense of cultural pride or confidence? Do I need his success in a business run by a rich White minority with a product featuring predominantly Blacks and Whites to tell me that I can likewise make it in this world?

If I answer yes, then I am implicitly stating that my identity as an Asian American was not complete or sufficient on its own, that I somehow internalized the stereotypes and beliefs perpetrated against Asians even as I externally fought against them. Yes, we are all guilty of carrying and perpetuating stereotypes–this is what Linsanity is making us realize. As much as I hate to admit it, even I pick the Black kid over the Asian to play on my team.

With all this being said, I understand that this is a learning process for all of us. I am currently living with four White guys in a predominantly White and Latino/Hispanic region. Though I am well-aware of my ethnicity in this house, I’ve never been disparaged or felt lesser because of it (all jokes aside). There have been occasional misunderstandings, but overall we embrace our differences. I love these guys like brothers, and I know what we share is a greater spiritual bond that extends beyond race and color. Being in this house with these guys reminds me of everything that is great about America.

As minorities, Asian Americans must never forget the sacrifice of our ancestors to get us to this place. They battled and waged wars against hate and discrimination in ways we couldn’t even imagine. However, we also must not forget how our White, Black and Latino brothers and sisters have worked hard to help get us here, too. None of us is perfect–all the more, then, we must strive to educate, lift and help one another.

I still believe in King’s dream. There will be a day when the content of character wins out. There will be a day when more players like Lin shine, and people won’t think twice about his ethnicity. We are still a long ways away from that. But for now, I hope we can all sit back and enjoy the Linsanity a little bit longer.

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2 responses to “The Linvisible Man

  1. Good take.

    I think as much talk as there is about ignoring race, it’s always going to be around in some form as long as there is a distinction made based on it. It’ll change with the times (I’m sure at one point people would say “who? Oh that black dude on the team” whereas now it might be “the white dude on the team”) and if we as humans eventually move away from ‘racial’ distinctions, well find another way to group ourselves. That’s not necessarily bad, since finding differences with some also allows us to find common ground with others, probably a natural part of being human.

    That said, it is good to see Asian-Americans brought into the spotlight at a national level. Hopefully, with things like basketball as something in common, Asians in the US can go from being seen as perpetual outsiders to being just normal people who live next door.

  2. Dennis, thanks for reading and for contributing your thoughts. I totally agree! We cannot and should not ignore race–that’s part of what makes us beautiful as a collective human race. I’m just saying that we cannot use race as a lens to make judgment on one’s abilities. I didn’t address that fully (as it is subject for another discussion), but I’m glad you brought it up. We definitely need to embrace our diversity and learn from each other!

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