With Linsanity on full blast and the lens of the bball world focusing on the Garden as the Knicks take on the Lakers tonight, we’ve been inundated with emails, articles and videos about Knicks’ PG Jeremy Lin. Here, we present an academic look into JLin’s cultural significance for the Asian-American community. While the author’s opinions may not necessarily match those of SLAM’s editorial staff, we aim to provide the most complete forum for hoops commentary.—Ed.
by David J. Leonard / @DR_DJL
The recent success and national visibility afforded to Jeremy Lin has both inspired Asian Americans and has been driven by the adoration and pride he elicits from some within the community. Whether on Twitter, Facebook, or in the stadiums, it is clear that Lin is not simply a national phenomena but a treasure for the Asian-American community.
According to Jamilah King, “Regardless of how the rest of the season goes for Lin, and the Knicks, his moment in the spotlight is an important time to reflect on how the country views its Asian-American athletes.” Whereas past Asian athletes—whether it be Yao Ming or Ichiro—captured the global Asian Diaspora’s imagination, Lin is the most widely recognized Asian-American athlete on the American team sport scene.Timothy Dalrymple highlights the appeal of Lin to Asian-American males:
He particularly has a following amongst Asian-Americans. And some Asian-American young men, long stereotyped as timid and unathletic, nerdy or effeminate or socially immature—have fought back tears (which may not help with the stereotype, but is understandable under the circumstances) as they watched Jeremy Lin score 25 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds for the New York Knicks.
In “Asian Americans energized in seeing Knicks’ Jeremy Lin play,” J. Michael Falgoust elucidates his cultural power within the Asian American community in quoting the thoughts of several different people:
“I don’t care about the outcome. I just want to see him in action. He’s as good of an Asian American athlete as there is” — Rose Nguyen
“I’m so proud. I don’t care if he is Chinese or Korean. I had to see him… my boyfriend has been talking about him so much” — Christine Lee
“I’m really excited. He breaks so many stereotypes. And my friends are just as excited. If you go to my Facebook feed, it’s all Jeremy Lin. I like that he plays smart. But then he’s from Harvard. So that is expected. He is also humble. He reminds me a lot of Derrick Rose, who’s always crediting teammates” — Andrew Pipathsouk
Andrew Leonard similarly argues that Lin’s popularity among Asian Americans is emblematic of the power of social media and also the pride that athletic success garners for Asian Americans, otherwise seen as “nerds” not “jocks.” While problematically invoking the language of “genetics” that erases Lin’s tremendous athleticism/speed, Leonard concludes that Lin inspires Asian-American kids who yearn for a masculine role model given persistent invisibility and anti-Asian racism within the public square. “He’s a triumph of will over genetic endowment, a fact that makes him inspiring to an entire generation of Californian kids restless with their model minority shackles,” he notes.
On Monday, the social media world was also getting worked up about Michigan Republican Senate hopeful Pete Hoekstra’s racist Super Bowl ad, featuring a Chinese woman (labeled “yellowgirl” in the HTML code for the web version) gloating over all the jobs her country was taking from the US. Once thrown into the 24/7 crazy cultural mashup perpetual motion machine, it didn’t take long before anger about that ad ran head on into Jeremy Lin pride.
I have seen tweets urging Jeremy Lin to run for the Republican nomination for the Michigan senate seat, tweets warning that the only American jobs in danger from Asians are those belonging to New York Knick starting point guards, and even a tweet riffing off Kobe Bryant’s self-identification as “black mamba”—Jeremy Lin is suddenly the “yellow mamba.”
Lin has trended No. 1 on Twitter on three successive game days, was top-10 searched items on Sina Weibo and is all the talk of the sports world. For the moment, it is Jeremy Lin’s world and we are all just living in it.
The pride and possibility reflects the broader erasure and invisibility of Asian Americans within popular culture (minus this year’s Top Chef). “Asians are nearly invisible on television/movies/music, so any time I see an Asian on TV or in the movies, I feel like I’ve just spotted a unicorn, even though usually, I see them being portrayed as kung-fu masters/socially awkward mathematical geniuses/broken-English-speaking-fresh-off-the-boat owner of Chinese restaurant/nail salon/dry cleaners,” writes one blogger. “Anyway, this phenomenon is 10 times worse in sports. While there has been some notable progress with Asians in professional baseball, Asians are all but non-existent in the big three sports in the US (football, basketball, baseball).”
Lin breaks down, or at least penetrates, the walls that have excluded Asian Americans from popular culture. The pride, adoration and celebration reflect this history of exclusion, a history of erasure, and invisibility. The efforts to link Lin to Nike’s “Witness” campaign is illustrative in that we are all witness—maybe for the first time in history—of an Asian American sports hero, someone who challenges and defies expectations and stereotypes.
Amid the invisibility is a history of feminization of Asian American males. When present within media and popular culture, Asian-American men have been represented as asexual, weak, physically challenged, and otherwise unmasculine. Sanctioning exclusion and denied citizenship, the White supremacist imagination has consistently depicted Asian male bodies as effeminate. The entry of Lin into the dominant imagination reflects a challenge to this historic practice given the power of sports as a space of masculine prowess.
Whether shock or celebration, Lin’s cultural power rests in his juxtaposition to the stereotyped Asian-American male. According to Timothy Dalrymple, “their astonishment at the sight of Jeremy Lin outperforming the other players, their consistent references to how exhausted he must be, and how “magical” a night he’s having (rather than a natural result of talent and hard work) suggests that they’ve bought into the stereotype of the physically inferior Asian-American male.”
Lin’s recent ascendance is not simply about success or dominance within the sports world, a place defined by masculine prowess. It reflects the cultural and gendered meaning of basketball. Lin is excelling in a world defined by Black manhood, an identity the White racial frames construct through physicality, strength, speed and swagger. Unlike other players who burst onto the American scene (Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian, Wang Zhizhi), Lin is a guard, who has found success because of his athleticism and skills as opposed to his presumed freakish stature.
“The best part is how viscerally pleasurable it is to watch Lin play: His game is flashy, almost showoffy, and requires him to have guts, guile and flair in equal measure,” writes Will Leich. “The drama of it is, it’s obvious, what’s most fun for him. It is all you could possibly want as a feel-good story.”
In other words, Lin’s appeal comes from his ability to ball like a street player to face off and dominate against Black players at “their own game.” The celebration of Lin as a challenge to the denied masculinity afforded to Asian-American males reflects the ways in which Black masculinity is defined in and through basketball culture.
While surely offering fans the often-denied sporting masculinity within the Asian body, the power of Jeremy Lin rests with his ability to mimic a basketball style, swagger and skill associated with Black ballers. Pride emanates from the sense of masculinity afforded by Lin, a fact that emanates from stereotypical constructions of Black masculinity.
“Through no fault of his own, Lin stands at a bombed-out intersection of expected narratives, bodies, perceived genes, the Church, the vocabulary of destinations and YouTube,” wrote Jay Caspian Kang, who’s Asian American, about Lin’s electrifying play at Harvard. “What Jeremy Lin represents is a re-conception of our bodies, a visible measure of how the emasculated Asian-American body might measure up to the mythic legion of Big Black superman” (cited by King in Colorlines).
Fulfilling a fantasy for a “White American fantasy of an athletic prowess that can trump African-American hegemony in the League” (Farred, p. 56) and the appeal of a masculinity defined by its association with Blackness, the celebrations, parties, and various public adoration are wrapped in these ideas of race, gender, and nation. Writing about Yao Ming, Grant Farred reminds us about these issues:
The body of the athlete, which has a long history of standing as the body of the nation, is simultaneously reduced and magnified in the Yao event, in its micro-articulation (Asian American), it is asked to refute the myth of the feminized ethnic by challenging—and redressing the historic wrongs endured—those ‘American’ bodies that have been dismissed the physicality of the Asian male. As representative of the Chinese nation, Yao is expected to remain a national subject even as his basketball heritage seems difficult to unlearn and continues to disadvantage him in the NBA… In his representation of the ‘Chinese people,’ Yao will not become an NBA—which is to say ‘African American’—player. He will not trash talk, he will not develop an ‘offensive personality,’ in more senses than one, and to his detriment, he will not become more ‘physical’ (62).
Lin is confined by this trap, so his wagging tongue (that was blue during one game), his trash talk, his swagger, his reverse layups, his flashy speed, and now his dunk, all confirms that Lin isn’t just a basketball player but a baller.
Lin is therefore not breaking down stereotypes (maybe denting them), but in many ways reinscribing them. Celebrated as “intelligent” and as “a hustler,” his success has been attributed his intelligence, his basketball IQ, and even his religious faith. His athleticism and the hours spent on the court are erased from the discussion. And, in positioning him as the aberration, as someone worthy of celebration, the dominant media frame reinforces the longstanding stereotypes of Asians as unathletic nerds.
Likewise, the juxtaposition of his identity, body and basketball skills to the NBA’s Black bodies simultaneously reinforces the dominant inscriptions of both Blackness and Asianness. While JLin brings something new to the table—an Asian-American basketball role model; Knicks’ victories—we must not forget the many things that remain in place.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs at No Tsuris. Follow him on Twitter @DR_DJL.
Share on Facebook