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 New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin. Here’s the third 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? We’ll discuss Lin and watch the Knicks-Bulls game!Thank God for Jeremy Lin, by Alden Loury
Not just for reinvigorating the fan base of America’s largest market, not just for igniting interest in basketball for perhaps millions of Asians across the globe and not just for providing the feel-good basketball story of the year. I’m excited about Lin’s outstanding play and the buzz it has created because Lin’s emergence has provided yet another moment for us to have critical conversations about race, perhaps some that we wouldn’t otherwise have. At first glance, the sports world may not seem like the proper place to have such deep, meaningful dialogue. But I’ve always believed that sports provide a unique opportunity to debate matters of race in America. After all, long before the civil rights movement, it was legendary sports figures like Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson who pushed back against commonly held racial perceptions and practices from stereotypes to segregation. The sports world was perhaps the first major industry to integrate and provide ample evidence to debunk long-held myths that people of color, particularly African Americans, were not smart enough, disciplined enough and talented enough to excel. Today, racial diversity exists in no industry quite like it does in sports, where people of color are leaders and contributors at the highest levels. And the playful nature of sports can disarm us. In sports, we often cheer and jeer with our hearts breaking free from the straitjackets in our minds that constrain our most coveted beliefs about race. It is the combination of those factors that makes sports one of the best Petri dishes to test just how far we’ve come with race – and to remind us of just how far we still must go. In the case of Lin, the litany of puns, insensitive headlines and other references to his Asian heritage coupled with the fact that his undeniable talent and skill were missed by almost everyone in professional basketball are stark reminders that we remain a nation where people of color are too often defined by what American popular culture expects from them. And when we encounter something that looks a little different, we slow down and stare – kind of like in a gapers’ delay. Sometimes we question it, mock it and even ridicule it.Lin’s racial identity is certainly a part of the story. Being the first American-born player of Chinese descent in the National Basketball Association is noteworthy. However, few of the stories about Lin ever make a point of mentioning that fact. We’re just not accustomed to seeing someone who looks like Lin doing what he’s doing on a basketball court. And, particularly in the case of Asian Americans and Native Americans, many of us aren’t accustomed to seeing them at all, which further increases the likelihood that our expectations are based on old and tired stereotypes. But Lin is not a novelty act. Our perception of the world is just that … a very narrow view of a much larger place. Just because we haven’t seen something doesn’t mean that it’s rare or impossible. The fascination with Lin’s racial identity – much like what we witnessed with Tiger Woods, Barack Obama and others who’ve broken racial barriers – shows how people of color are defined mostly by the color of their skin. We rarely talk about white people being white. And even when we do, it’s usually because their whiteness is uncommon in the worlds in which they thrive – like Eminem in the world of hip-hop. So, I’m thankful for the chance to see Lin in action – the guy’s got game. But I’m also thankful that he has sparked discussions that we so desperately need. As Americans, we typically retreat from the deep racial scars of our past and hide from the myriad ways in which we still live our lives based on the racial fears, lies and assumptions that have shaped our nation for centuries. But these conversations force us to confront our innermost feelings and opinions about race – even if just for a little bit. My hope is that the more we talk about the racial aspects of the Lin phenomenon and other issues sparked by race, the greater the likelihood that we will heed the lessons these moments can teach us and maybe inch the needle just a tiny bit closer to racial equality.
Alden Loury is a Senior Investigator with the Better Government Association