By all accounts, Jeremy Lin’s 2012 should be a banner year. Unfortunately, his success story as a New York Nicks point guard, has been marred by the popularity of racial and racist puns. That Lin is a star in a field dominated by African-American men is a great deal – whenever racial or gender barriers are busted, we should be thrilled: Tiger Woods success in golf or Sheryl Swoopes amazing career with the WNBA are just two instances of inspiring stories of folks not hampered by what society expects of them.
So why then does Lin’s case invite this kind of ridiculous hostility? Well, the answer moves beyond just basketball and we must look at the way our society looks at Asian or Asian-Americans in general. And in Lin’s case, we also have to look at what is being said about Asian or Asian-Americanmen. We first have to look at popular stereotypes of Asian-American males – specifically the emasculation of the Asian-American male.
Asian-American men have been presented by the media as either nerdy, effeminite or physically unassuming and weak; while Asian women are depicted as the exotic, sexualized “other,” Asian men on the other hand, are saddled with rough stereotypes that dismiss their sexuality. Very few, if any, Asian-American men are portrayed as physically fit and sexually appealing to the opposite sex.
So in the hyper-masculine world of basketball, Lin’s success is burdened with the baggage that his ethnicity carries; sportswriter Jason Whitlock infamously joined the schoolyard taunts of the media in response to Lin with some choice words perpetuating the myth that Asian men have small penises by posting on his Twitter, “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.” He has since apologized, but Whitlock doesn’t work in a vacuum – he’s merely a product of a larger-scale process at work – the constant reinforcement of Asian-American men as being physically and sexually nonthreatening to the mainstream.
Where does that process come from? Well, I’m not completely sure, but this is a theory: when looking at racial minorities, Asian-Americans don’t experience the same kind of racism that blacks or Latinos do – I’m not putting them in rank, as all racism is awful, but the nature of the racism against Asians is different to that of blacks and Hispanics; and because of the institutional racism that flourishes in our work force, government, justice system and education system, blacks and Hispanics have never been seen as a viable economic threat to the white male establishment. Instead because of the gross manipulation of the media, blacks and Hispanics are seen as physically dangerous, but not economically so.
Asian-Americans like Jews are seen by the white male establishment as the prime economic and socio-economic threat to the status quo – so to enforce some kind of authority and superiority, our culture instead emasculates Asian-American men (as it does Jewish men). Think about sitcoms where Asian men often play the role of the put-upon friend or neighbor, if not presented in some grotesque carichature (such as American Idol‘s audition of William Hung who played to almost every textbook racial stereotype out there). The Asian-American sitcom male is often seen as smart (though he can often be portrayed as cunning and dishonest), but never virile (unless he’s oppressing his wife and/or daughte with “ancient” tradition). His interests are never athletic, but solely intellectual – but it’s understood that because of his intellectual pursuits, he has eschewed social interactions, and is, as a result, terrible when interacting with women. Positive and complex portrayals of gay Asian men are also mired in our racist patriarchy as well (there’s also a layer of gay racism that plays out when looking at gay Asian men). The gay Asian men we see on TV or film confirm two-fold for our society erroneous notions of masculinity in both gays and Asian men (this could be why gay black men are all but invisible in our mainstream culture).
But moving beyond this dimestore psychology I’ve just hashed out, there’s also a permissiveness to the racism that Lin’s been subjected to – as well as a general lack of condemnation toward anti-Asian racism or humor. Rachel Fudge wrote a fantastic piece “Kiss Me, I’m a Fashionable Bigot” in which she skewers Abercrombie & Fitch and Urban Outfitters for trading in faux-ironic racist humor with their lines of graphic-print t-shirts. Fudge correctly maintains that for irony to work, there should be distance between what is being said and what is real – we don’t live in a post-racial world, so shirts that joyfully mock racism in some ill-fated attempt to disarm it, just contributes to what is already thought true in our society. It’s not funny to use Lin’s image and old-fashioned chinoisery because as proven by folks like Whitlock, there is still a pervasive belief that Asian men can be neatly aligned with these stereotypes.
So how do we get beyond this sort of thing? Well, for one thing, folks like Jason Whitlock should educate themselves – a fantastic way is to read (I know, I may be asking a lot from knuckle-dragging racists). Two fanastic sites, both of which I love and want everyone to visit are:
Asian Junkie at www.asianjunkie.com.
And Angry Asian Man at http://blog.angryasianman.com/.
Both sites discuss issues related to politics and popular culture and both have done a far-better job of discussing the issue of anti-Asian bias that I ever could….