Monday, February 20, 2012

The Invisibility (or Linvisibility) of Asian Americans

My friend and colleague Tim Yu has a piece on CNN's Opinion Page, "Will Jeremy Lin's Success End Stereotypes?" It is a very smart and very thoughtful piece, and I hope you will all take a look at it. I had also been queried about the topic of racism and Asian Americans related to Jeremy Lin--although my piece didn't get placed with CNN (honestly I think Tim's piece is much better, so I'm glad it got picked over mine) I figured I'd share my own 800 word essay with everyone here. After all, the great thing about blogs is that you can have multiple voices chime in -- and Jeremy Lin's ascent in the NBA has touched on so many arenas of Asian American and critical race studies--it's really been a wonderful 2 weeks!

Three weeks ago, before the world knew the name Jeremy Lin—before all of the punning word play (Linsperational, Linsational, Linbelievable) that pays homage to Lin’s incredible 7 game winning streak (and most recent win over NBA champions Dallas Mavericks), before the world could chant the basic details of this Linderella story—led his high school team to a state championship but wasn’t recruited in college, ended up at Harvard but wasn’t drafted immediately, eventually picked up by the Golden State Warriors but then let go and picked up by the Houston Rockets but then let go and then ended up at the Knicks , where he slept on the couches of his brother and teammate, but were it not for a series of tragedies and accidents among his teammates, he could have found himself without a contract, his NBA hoop dreams dashed—before Linsanity had swept the globe, my college classroom in North Carolina said that they had no idea that the the acronym F.O.B. (fresh-off-the-boat) was an offensive term directed, primarily, at Asian Americans.

I begin here because, like my students, there are a lot of people who may not understand that words like “FOB” and “Chink” have a history, a very particular racist history. ESPN found itself under fire when one of their broadcasters, following the Knick’s loss to the Hornets, asked whether there was a “chink in the armor,” and then later that night on the ESPN mobile app this same expression appeared in a headline with a picture of Jeremy Lin underneath—the implication, and distasteful allusion, being that Lin is now the “chink,” both in terms of being a potential weakness in the strength of the Knick’s defense and because he’s the target of this racist slur as someone of Asian ancestry. I think that when people try to give the benefit of the doubt to ESPN by saying that it’s a harmless phrase, we miss the point that words are never harmless, and context is always everything. The word “chink” does mean a rift or crack, but its more insidious meaning has been with us for over a century. To call someone a “Chink” in the U.S. or to insinuate that someone is a “Chink” is always to invoke a history of systemic, institutional racism.

This is what has been missing from a lot of analysis about race and Lin. There’s a whole history of Asians in America that is simply missing from our general knowledge base. And this history is one in which Chinese men were lynched on the West Coast in the late 19th and early 20th C. because of fears that Chinese laborers were taking jobs away from white men or that Chinese men were a danger to the purity of white women. And as Lin himself has recounted, slurs like “Chink” were used to demean him while he played basketball for Harvard. And I’m sure that Asian Americans, regardless of ancestry, have had this term used against them. The fact that we don’t talk about this, that racism against Asian Americans goes almost unnoticed outside of select circles, is a result of the persistent invisibility of Asians in America – or a limited visibility in which Asian Americans are known only through dominant stereotypes: we’re good at math, we speak broken English, we know martial arts, we’ve overly sexualized (if we’re women) and we’re overly feminine (if we’re men), we built your railroads, washed your laundry, and now we do your nails, sell you coffee at the corner store, but we do not show up on prime time t.v. except as your sidekick best friend or your nerdy co-worker. And this invisibility of Asian Americans on the U.S. media landscape is a result of systemic, institutional racism. It is a result of not believing that Asian Americans have multi-dimensional lives—that we are more than Tiger Mothers pushing and punishing our children to be Carnegie Hall prodigies. That we are more than model minorities who took your son or daughter’s spot in college admissions. That we are more than what mainstream media has shown us to be.

Except now we have Jeremy Lin. Now we are fast; we are athletic; we are strong; we are mentally tough; and we’re smart (we’ve always been smart, remember Jeremy did go to that ivy league school in Boston, I mean Cambridge). Yes, we’re humble. Yes we are people of faith. Yes we are close to our families. But we can also strut and swagger with the best of them. And we have confidence in ourselves; we can dominate and lead. And by the way, did we mention, that we can dunk? We are Asian Americans. We are proud. We are loud. Get used to us.

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