Linsanity is not a story of Jeremy Lin or even basketball but a story that gains power from the deployment of ideologies of colorblindness and racial progress. Lin, like Tiger Woods when he first enters the national consciousness, symbolizes the possibilities and the purported exceptionalism of the United States. Interestingly, Woods, like Lin, was celebrated as “America’s son” not only because of his success in golf but because of the values and ethnics instilled in him by his parents.
“Woods celebrity depends on a eugenical fantasy that stages a disciplining of the black male body through an infusion of Asian blood and an imagined Confucian upbringing,” writes Hiram Perez.
“Just as model minority rhetoric functions to discipline the unruly black bodies threatening national stability during the post-civil rights area, the infusion of Asian blood together with his imagined Confucian upbringing corrals and tames Tiger’s otherwise brute physicality. Some variation of his father trained the body and his mother trained the mind is a recurring motif for sports commentators diagnosing Wood’s success at golf.” While Lin operates through a different point of reference, the dominant narrative continues to represent his success as the result of his father’s ability to teach him about basketball, knowledge he learned from watching the NBA’s black superstars, and his mother’s emphasis on learning, school, and values. Whereas Asianness was depicted as the necessary disciplinarity to transform Tiger into a phenom, Lin, as product of family and culture, is imagined as antidote to the NBA’s ills–its blackness.
Though it is unsurprising, it still stings a little to see that fans of Lin are invoking the same racist imagery to uplift him. “The Yellow Mamba” was written on a poster of the Knicks vs. Lakers game, the event that kicked off “Linsanity” to the nth degree because Lin took on Kobe Bryant – and won. Lin scored more points than the inimitable Kobe, the man who has led the Lakers to five world championships (not to mention remain a fan favorite even after facing sexual assault charges). Since then, everyone’s buzzing about this kid and generally loving him – but sometimes painfully so.
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. But what makes Lin’s story so interestingly unique, the fact that he came out of nowhere, is how his race contributes to his path to fame. He was a star basketball player in high school and college, but was overlooked in both arenas because he is Asian, a little too light and a little too yellow for fans who see basketball as a largely black and white sport, even his high school basketball coach lamented it.
I’ve heard people say that they don’t really believe that he has the staying power, that his record-breaking start was a fluke, that a Harvard graduate with an Economics degree should head to Wall Street. Some question Lin’s love for the sport as if it is disingenuous, as if his appreciation for education [and 4.2 high school GPA] is indicative of not really belonging. Negative or positive, race is playing a major role in the portrayal of the rookie baller.
For Asian Americans, there is often a double-bind to media representation. Increased media attention is often met with a personal, stomach-jerking reaction of giddy eagerness (like seeing two Asian American characters in Glee‘s first season) or sheepish embarrassment (American Idol’s William Hung). But that additional representation is often dismissed as being tokening, stereotypical (Han from 2 Broke Girls), superficial, unquestioning, and ultimately buttressing systemic injustice.
These Asian Americans in the media usually have relatively little agency: mainstream editors took excerpts of Amy “Tiger Mom” Chua’s work out of context, and actors generally have very little say in how they are cast in movies and TV shows (like in this Super Bowl ad). On the basketball court, however, it should just come down to how you play. And the Knicks haven’t had an Asian-American player since Wat Misaka, in 1947. The attention years ago surrounding Yao Ming, a Chinese citizen who also played for the Rockets, celebrated Asian-ness.
But the birth of “Linsanity,” exploding across both mainstream and social media, is excited about his Asian American-ness. And this I find infinitely more energizing. As another Asian American blogger, Popchef, recently wrote: “He doesn’t have a duty to embrace Asian America, speak for Asian America, or represent Asian America because right now he IS Asian America. Go to Church, drink that blue shit, but don’t you ever, ever, ever, stop being the normal-ass Taiwanese-American you are.”