So I really didn’t want to write a post about Jeremy Lin, mostly because there’s so much talk about him already. And plus I feel like I don’t actually post real things about what happens in Mission Year… but cmon I had to. Next post will be more Mission Year related I promise. I not so secretly hope the traffic on my blog goes up because of people Googling Jeremy Lin.
As you may have noticed, six months in Mission Year has given me a weird sensitivity to racism, especially when it has to do with my fellow Asian brethren and sisteren. So as Jeremy Lin continues to tear it up, there are some weird feelings that have come up in me that I felt like would be good to discuss here, not only for my own processing, but so that other folks could be aware of it all too.
Jeremy Lin isn’t new to most Asian Americans who like basketball. Especially if you’re Asian and from the Bay Area, you probably heard a little bit about Jeremy when he was a star in high school, and, if you were like me, you watched him closely in the months leading up to the 2010 NBA draft. He was in the running for the Wooden Award for college ball’s best point guard and I saw some of his highlights from when Harvard played UConn and Georgetown and BU. When he wasn’t drafted, I was disappointed, but mostly apathetic; another Asian player who didn’t make it. Add him to the list next to Sun Yue and Sun Ming Ming. But then he got picked up by the Mavs summer league team and I saw the game against John Wall that got him picked up. I watched those highlights probably five or six times in a row. It’s weird. You can’t explain that kind of pride. Like, something in me wanted to wrap my identity up in his. He represented me. Here was an Asian American kid from the Bay Area, he’s a nerd, his interviews are pretty boring… besides the fact that he was 6’3 and extremely talented at basketball, he was just like me.
I’ll cut to the chase. I feel so much pride when I watch Knicks highlights. When I see his swag after a three point play or that game winner he had against the Raptors, I start to believe that maybe, just maybe, Asians in America could be seen as strong or competent or a force.
The guys at Breakthrough ask me about him. “I thought that was you on the TV, Nate!” “Hey Nate, do you know Jeremy Lin?” “You guys look alike!” Today a guy even called me Jeremy by accident. Like, seriously? It gets annoying after awhile, even if I do take the opportunity to say, “Heck yeah Jeremy’s my cousin!” or “What, you just think we look alike because we’re the only two Asians you know!” It’s empowering in a way, though. Everyone’s talking about him, even a bunch of homeless guys that get limited TV time. And they’re talking about a guy who’s just like me.
But there is a frustrating side to all of it. I love almost everything about what Jeremy Lin represents—his culture, his intelligence, his humility, his faith, his athleticism, his demeanor… but I fear that the reason he is so loved is because of the very thing that has crippled us for all these years; he is the perfect model minority.
Read all the reports, watch all the commentators and what do they say? … Lin, the first player of Chinese or Taiwanese-American descent, not scouted by any college teams, undrafted, cut by two teams, but worked his tail off, stayed true to his God, never complained, slept on a couch, and, when the opportunity arose, he became a star. And now that he’s a star, he’s been so gosh darn humble, always talking up his teammates, always deflecting attention from himself. This is not about race, this is about basketball. My goodness, Jeremy is the feel good story of the century.
Ignore the implications, forget that this is a microcosm of what white America has been doing to Asian Americans and African Americans for decades. Let’s put the meek and obedient Asian on the pedestal against the backdrop of a mostly black NBA. Let’s applaud his hard work, his no-excuse attitude, and his American Dream personality and turn a blind eye to the implied indictment on every other player who must not be working as hard or whose faith isn’t as strong or whose attitude isn’t as good. This is an American. This man pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Black America, pay close attention. Hispanic America, take note. All you need are your papers, a basketball, and hours in a gym and you’ll make it. Keep on working! Forget the fact that Jeremy’s parents came with resources, that he lived in Palo Alto, and has a Harvard education to fall back on if Carmelo starts hogging the ball again.
Sonita Moss said, “Some Americans, well-intentioned liberals, race apologists, and the privileged want to use Lin’s race as proof of how far we have come racially. See, he’s Asian and everyone loves him, race doesn’t matter anymore…. I decided to check out some of the memes and unfortunately, the whole “closing the racial chasm” route is being used quite a bit. The chop-sticky font, references to Asian films, “asian parents”, and even hackneyed Asian driving jokes are actually being used to pay homage to Lin. Some may view it as turning racism on its head, a sort of vindication through taking something denigrating and making it empowering. However, the oppressed party is really the only one who can fairly decide if they are empowered by this “reverse racism.” Call me a sociologist, but I just call it racist. We can celebrate Lin’s Asian roots, his Taiwanese descent, his Harvard education, and other overlooked facets without reducing him to a caricature.”
This is race relations 101. Why is Floyd Mayweather mad? It’s because of Pacquiao. It’s because Asians have always been pitted against blacks. And guess what, it’s the same media spinning the same story, the same guys who pitted blacks against Koreans in the wake of Rodney King and replayed, constantly, a Youtube clip of a Chinese woman fighting a black woman on a SF Muni bus. Somewhere in a bougie ergonomic chair, a white man is laughing at how easy it was to jump on Jeremy’s 25 points against the Nets and turn it into a worldwide reminder that minorities are simply there to make money for big time execs who hide behind the endorsements, the slogans, and stay especially hidden when different race groups start getting jealous of each other. Racism hasn’t come publicly out this bad against the Asian American community for awhile and I hate it. God help us.
It’s all just a reminder of who’s in charge. Of a broken system that pretends to worship hard work but really honors the almighty dollar. It’s why the guys at Breakthrough continue to stay entrenched on the bottom of society, why they continually receive messages of why they’re not good enough—too lazy, unmotivated, stupid. What they really mean is, if you’re not putting money into corporate pockets, then you’re worthless. The ones who made it, however, are great! But who has the power to bestow greatness? If Jeremy does everything a white-run, consumerist nation asks of him, then he simply succeeds in a game that they wrote the rulebook for.
Jeremy, please don’t be a marketing ploy. Don’t be the NBA’s golden boy. Don’t give in to the money, the deals, the tricks they’re gonna play on you. Don’t let them keep saying all the racist crap that they’ve been saying. Fight it with everything you are and everything we are. David Stern, the Madison Square Garden PR guy who put your face next to a fortune cookie, and every other money-driven man in the higher ups will take a swipe at your puppet strings. They’ll all try to cash in on Linsanity. And if you let them, you will become just another model minority Asian American who played by their rules and became successful on their terms, just another feel-good redemption narrative written by a white hand.
And that’s why I feel most prideful when Jeremy gets that look on his face after he gets the and-one. That face is mean. It invokes fear. That face breaks stereotypes. And I wish that Jeremy wasn’t so quick to say, “It doesn’t mean much that I’m the first Asian American, I’m just here to play basketball and serve God.” No, it means everything that you’re Asian American. You carry people on your shoulders. We live vicariously through you. I used to shoot pretend buzzer beaters in my backyard; you’re actually doing it! We plucked you off the end of the bench in NBA 2k11 when you were rated a paltry 62, even when Stephen Curry was an 82 and could hit the j so much more easily than you could. You represent the one who was able to break into the places we dreamed of going but were never allowed to. Do you know how many 5’7 Chinese kids said that they’d be the first Asian American in the NBA? Until they reached 18 and realized their physical abilities and the confidence of their coaches didn’t match up to their dreams? You are our voice. There are so few of us in the public eye. And now not only are you in the public eye, but you are king. People are listening. We need you to say something! Break the stereotypes, keep your swag, embody a new form of Asian American masculinity for all of our sakes.
Especially in the wake of Danny Chen, Harry Lew, and an offensive Hoekstra Superbowl ad, Jeremy embodies hope. He is a lonely success story put squarely against a backdrop of intolerance and racism. We cannot take Lin without also taking Chen and Lew and the Vincent Chins who live everywhere, who are still seen as perpetually foreign, unimportant, and insignificant people who don’t belong and just take up space. We have to ask: why did Lew and Chen commit suicide? It’s because we are still part of a society that calls us worthless, a world where Asian men are still seen as weak, feminine, and passive. And there are people of color everywhere being taught to hate themselves because of the color of their skin. Lew and Chen are not the anomalies here, Jeremy is. But his story is not without its ugliness too.
There was the MSG fortune cookie incident. And then Floyd Mayweather. And then Jason Whitlock. And then the ESPN headline. Not to mention the smaller acts of ignorance everywhere. Racism is real and just as bad as it’s ever been. Again, it’s the way white marketers are using this, and the way Jeremy is so compliant. In an article documenting the Mayweather quote, Eric Adelson makes a good point that, when this kind of stereotyping and racism happens against someone like Jeremy, there aren’t any Asian Americans to speak out against it. Again—there are no strong Asian Americans in the public eye that have a voice! It’s a freaking crime I swear. Mayweather was probably right—if Lin were black, he probably wouldn’t get as much attention. That much seems obvious—Lin is a first; he if was white, he probably wouldn’t get the attention either. But what Mayweather failed to see was the other side of the coin—if Lin were black, there would be a lot of advocates to defend him when people like Mayweather made ignorant and racist statements like that. Why did Spike Lee have to intervene after all of the racist Tweets? Why was he the one to finally say, “Stop the Asian profiLIN!” Where were other Asians to defend their own? Lin stands alone; he is the only voice to speak out against the injustices that happen against himself. It’s his cross to bear.
One thing I do wanna comment on real quick (probably not that quick) is Lin’s faith. Can I just put it out there—I hate the Tebow comparisons. First and most obviously, Tebow was highly recruited out of high school and won the Heisman in college while Jeremy never got any of that kind of recognition. But going deeper, just because they profess the same God and tend to refer to Jesus as their “Lord and Savior” doesn’t mean much about how they express what they believe. Some friends wonder why I’m so hesitant to jump on the Tebow bandwagon. Here’s why: to me, Tebow represents a white American Christianity that has always been the face of the American church even as it is now mostly made up of people of color, a church that has fled to the suburbs to remain segregated, just another damning example of racism and privilege, now perpetuated by the people of God. Tebow’s faith exudes America, consumerism, confidence… (I know that there are friends shaking their heads at me right now) His faith is loud, gets written on his eye black, gets turned into slogans, and shows up on commercials; I wouldn’t be surprised if someone wrote a book about his faith. Tebow’s faith makes money, it reeks of commercialism and politics. Jeremy’s faith on the other hand is a lot quieter, less in your face, and sometimes, at least to me, awkward and a little forced; it’s nowhere as smooth or outwardly confident as Tebow’s. Tebow is a man who is sure, certain, always peppy, never struggling. Let’s face it, Jeremy’s interviews, especially when he was with the Warriors, were just plain boring. I dunno about you, but I sure didn’t see the joy of the Lord in him. Dude looked more sleepy than anything. Like, wake up man you’re in the NBA. But no one would doubt his faith for a second and neither do I. There is an integrity about it. And that’s why I know Lin’s not gonna polarize the nation.
But there is something to say about Lin’s faith in the greater picture of society. All society knows is White Christianity. They know MacArthur, Warren, Piper, Osteen, Fox News, Pat Robertson, and once in awhile Rob Bell or Jim Wallis or Shane Claiborne. All white guys—loud, opinionated, confident, probably tall. This is the first time Asian American Christianity has a platform. And you know what’s great about it—it’s so boring and unassuming that no one’s gonna flip out over it! As much as I’ve struggled with the Asian American church, this is one time that I will stand up for it, fight for it, believe in its ability to redeem the sins of an Americanized faith that has pushed so many people away from the God who loves them. And I hope that people start to realize that the face of the church is no longer white; it is black and brown and yellow and it is growing. Minorities will soon outnumber whites in the American church. People talk about Christianity in America dying. It’s really not. It’s only the mostly-white churches that are hurting. Minority and multiracial churches are exploding right now. It’s just that white preachers are still the ones who get on TV, who write the books, who host the conferences, who determine orthodoxy, who are heard, and therefore who continue to be the face of the American church. Racism exists in the structures of religious institutions too, and Jeremy has a crazy opportunity to change the face of faith in this country.
And it goes even deeper: David Leonard writes, “The Tebow-Lin narrative reflects the centering of whiteness. In making the comparison, religion in sports and even Lin’s ascendance becomes all about Tebow. While black athletes have long given “thanks,” the efforts to construct Tebow as the source of a religious revival within America’s sports world is a testament to the wages of whiteness. “Black athletes who give a shout out to God aren’t seen as being evangelical but when someone like Tebow (i.e. white) does it, there’s a different ‘purpose’ being read into it,” notes Oliver Wang. “With Lin, I’d argue that because Asianness is coded as closer to white than Black, the Tebow comparison becomes almost automatic.” Wang highlights the profound impact of the comparison as it not only elevates Tebow as leader of the religious revolution of sports, but also furthers the coding of Lin as white body…. Represented through a dominant white racial frame despite his being subjected to racist taunts throughout his career, the comparison denies the power of race. It erases the ways in which whiteness serves as an anchor for the media sensationalism and celebration of Tebow; it erases the ways in which race and identity function with the source of pride Lin has delivered for the Asian American community or the ways in which Lin operates in relationship to narratives of whiteness; and finally it ignores the profound ways in which the celebration of their religious ideals and practices is overdetermined by the meaning of blackness within contemporary sports culture.”
Does anyone else get mad after reading that ? I can’t stand how white media has spun Jeremy. Honestly, I’m getting so tired of it. It almost makes me want to just say no to all of it. I’m not tired of Jeremy, but I’m so tired of his story being told by the wrong people whose words drip with privilege and ignorance and simply fortify the model minority myth and the walls that it builds between us and other people of color. There is a dark shroud over the Jeremy Lin story, and, as much as I want to be excited about all of it, I can’t help but feel a deep sense of lament.
I see in the Jeremy Lin story a reminder of the persistent reality of racism and a society that continues to keep people in their place even when they appear to honor them. When there is an Asian American voice that actually challenges the status quo, I will start to be convinced otherwise. Until then, I have to mourn over the state of our nation and how these injustices are built in and rooted so deeply in everything we do. Can God do anything about it? Can God redeem entire systems? Entire networks of injustice? Sometimes I feel hopeless. Will the people in my neighborhood ever experience anything but the poverty they have known their whole lives? Jeremy went to Harvard; he can place his security in something besides basketball. What about the kids at the playground who hope to get there too? If basketball is perceived as their “only way out,” can they be blamed for placing so much of their identity in it? If Jeremy thanks God from a place of Palo Alto and Harvard privilege, is his faith any different from the folks who beg God for their daily bread? Why is their faith not highlighted in a Yahoo article? What about Kev, who is working out with Derrick Rose’s brother, talking to the basketball coach at Ole Miss, and thinking about playing overseas? He thanks God and is trying to defeat the odds too; does it make a difference that he’s living in a homeless shelter right now? Is there something unsexy about that? If he makes it, who will write his story? Will he? Will a white guy? Will he even make it, considering the fact that he has to pay child support, that he has to work double shifts at Jewel Osco to support himself, his child, and his child’s mother? What’s glamorous about that? Aren’t those bad decisions? Why should we honor those things? Forget the poverty he was born into and the fact that it’s been rigged all along for him to fail.
The God that the men at Breakthrough and Jeremy and Tebow and I worship has always been about setting things right. The Cross is about bringing things back into right relationship, people with their Maker and people with each other. God Jesus into the world as a poor man into an underprivileged and oppressed nation that knew very well what racism was and felt like. He reminded people that love was the answer and that a better Kingdom was not somewhere far away that they had to escape to, nor was it an ethnic pride that would conquer their oppressors. Rather, it was something already inside of themselves. This love is what will restore peace to our neighbors and enemies and will heal the broken relationships in us and around us. Racism is the one of the most evil manifestations of broken relationships the world has ever seen; you cannot claim to fight injustice without being passionately against racism. The Bible promises us that God is able to make all things right again, and I can only hope that I will be fortunate enough to see small glimpses of racial healing, of lions laying by lambs, loving them, and defending them.
So, in the end, I don’t say these things to make less of what Jeremy Lin has done. I don’t mean to vilify the NBA or make you feel guilty about liking Jeremy so much, because I’m in love with him too. But I do mean to call attention to the underlying narrative behind all the inspiring ones on Yahoo or ESPN or on the FB statuses or whatever blogs written by whatever Asian people you know (like me). Maybe it’s naïve for me to ask so much out of Jeremy. If his faith makes him humble and hard working and good natured, so be it. I wish he would talk about his identity as an Asian American more, but it could be a lot worse. Jeremy has integrity, and I am thankful that he represents us and his God so well. But there is a part of me that hurts, something small and passionate in me that secretly wants Jeremy to fight and to rock the boat and stick it to the man. But it’s ok. I’ll continue to watch, and I am proud.
Jeremy, you remind me of what I love about our people—passion, grit, grace, and, every once in awhile, a look into the camera to tell everyone that we have arrived and we aren’t going anywhere.