Jeremy Lin: 'The Great Yellow Hope'

March 8, 2012

The Illinois Humanities Council has commissioned a number of people - from the arts, media and academia - to share their thoughts on the cultural swirl around Jeremy Lin. Here's another one in the series of their posts that I'm featuring on my blog over the next few days. You are also invited into the conversation! Leave your comments below and join us at the IHC's event Monday: Linsanity: What's Beyond the Hype? They'll discuss Lin and screen the Knicks-Bulls game!

 

The Great Yellow Hope, by Claire Jean Kim

"Linsanity" makes me uncomfortable. As someone who teaches Asian American Studies classes, I get what the craze is about. Lin is offering in the space of a few smoking months to redeem that which has always been denied to Asian American males in the white imagination — their athleticism, their masculinity, dare I say their full humanity. For all those who have suffered being seen as nerdy, physically weak, passive, feminine, even poorly endowed — in a word, unmanly — Jeremy is a savior. Suddenly, young Asian Americans, especially young males, have someone to cheer for, someone whose triumphs they experience as their own. 

Yet Linsanity unsettles me, and this is because it is actually more about mythmaking than it is about myth-busting. The Lin narrative bolsters two myths that naturalize inequalities in this society. 

The first is the notion that race is a kind of essence that defines and bounds a coherent people with organically similar interests. Chinese Americans, Asian Americans, mainland Chinese, and Taiwanese all claim Lin as their son, and this claims-making is reported matter-of-factly, with no hard questions asked. 

Yet Asian Americanness is in the first place as much a political fable as the putative unmanliness of Asian American males. It is a fable that has produced positive changes and that means a lot to some people.  But there are always distinct pitfalls to racial thinking of this kind. Wouldn’t it seem strange if white Americans took a special liking to Dirk Nowitzki because he’s white? And while Asian Americanness was forged in response to white supremacy, is it possible that the cure is in some way coming to mimic the disease?  All identities are exclusionary, so who is left out of the Asian American love affair with Lin?

The second myth in play here is the model-minority myth. Lin is a child of immigrants who graduated from Harvard and then worked his way up out of obscurity to NBA stardom through, we are told, sheer determination and a shrewd program of skills improvement. Slicing his way to the basket, Lin slices his way past obstacles; he is the minority who overcomes. To be sure, we have been rudely reminded of a few of those obstacles—as when two ESPN folks used the phrase “chink in the armor” when discussing Lin and when Ben & Jerry’s announced that its new flavor, “Taste the Lin-sanity,” included ground-up fortune cookies. But this has only served to heighten the dramatic overcoming Lin seems engaged in.  Americans like to celebrate rugged male individuals who appear to defy both the odds and social norms — in Palin’s unforgettable lingo, those who are “mavericky”—when these individuals’ stories actually, upon closer look, rearticulate our most cherished cultural myths. I think of this every time I see the 9-foot bronze statue of “The Duke” at John Wayne Airport near my house. Does the rehabilitation of (Asian) masculinity through athletic conquest really signal a breakthrough moment in the annals of social justice?

Every iteration of the model minority myth is a triangulated story — there are the neutral whites whose racial fair-mindedness allows for minority achievements, the striving Asian Americans whose natural abilities and fierce work ethic vault them to the top, and the Black (and sometimes Latino) third parties who can’t quite follow suit. Some Black ESPN commentators openly queried whether Lin is getting special treatment because he was Asian American. Maybe he is getting special treatment because he is not Black in a sport dominated by Black athletes. Maybe he is the Great Yellow Hope. Maybe this is a story not about our progress as a nation in transcending racial categories but, to the contrary, about our stubborn refusal to think in any other terms than racial ones. In any case, there may not be a happy ending in store. My 8-year old son, who is partly of Asian descent, lost some of his innocence when he asked and was told why ESPN used the word “chink” with reference to Lin. He sympathizes with Lin but he has to tell it like it is: Lin is good but the Miami Heat will be taking him and the rest of the New York Knicks down this year, no doubt about it.

 

Claire Kim is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian American Studies at the University of California-Irvine.