By Guest Contributor Dr. David J. Leonard
In a world that imagines basketball as the purview of African Americans, the emergence of Jeremy Lin has sent many commentators to speculate and theorize about Lin’s success. Focusing on religion, Eastern philosophy, his educational background, his intelligence, his parents, and his heritage, the dominant narrative has defined Lin’s success through the accepted “model minority” myth.
In other words, while celebrating Lin’s success as a challenge to dominant stereotypes regarding Asian Americans, the media has consistently invoked stereotypical representations of Asianness to explain his athletic success, as if his hard work, athleticism, and talents are not sufficient enough explanations.
Intentional or not, the story of Lin is both an effort to chronicle his own success in comforting and accepted terms and, in doing so, offer a commentary on blackness.
“Discussions about the NBA are always unique because the NBA is one of the few spaces in American society where blackness, and specifically black masculinity, is always at the center of the conversation, even when it’s not. Power is often defined by that which is assumed, as opposed to that which is stated,” notes Todd Boyd.
“Because black masculinity is the norm in the NBA, it goes without saying. Concurrently any conversation about race in the NBA inevitably refers back to this norm. In other words, people seldom describe someone as a ‘black basketball player’ because the race of the player is assumed in this construction. So any current discussion about Jeremy Lin is taking place within the context of a league and its history where the dominant players have long been black men. Lin is ‘the other’, as it were, but here the standard is black, not white, as would normally be the case in most other environments.”
Not only does the constructed Lin narrative exist in opposition to the normative blackness of the NBA, but also the specific rhetorical utterances often play upon the dominant assumptions of today’s black ballers.
Central to the efforts to explain Lin’s success, a process that renders him as exceptional, has a focus on his parents. In the New York Daily News, Jeff Yang argues that, “the secret to Lin’s success seems to have been a combination of high expectations and unconditional support–a kind of tiger-panda hybrid, if you will.” Emphasizing his Dad’s role as basketball tutor and coach extraordinaire who exposed Lin to the “signature moves from the likes of Dr. J, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and, most of all, Michael Jordan,” the media consistently depicts his father in the tradition of (white) American fathers who nurtured and encouraged athletic performance. His mom, on the other hand, is depicted as a “tiger mom” of sorts, as someone who balanced out the father by maintaining an emphasis on education. Requiring that Lin and his brothers complete their homework prior to basketball, the narrative describes Lin’s athletic prowess as being the result of the perfect marriage of “Asian values” and “American” cultural norms.
While the media often links black athletic success to “God’s gifts” or to physical “prowess,” the efforts to chronicle Lin’s rise as reflecting his cultural background reinforces dominant conceptions of both blackness and Asianness. Jenn Floyd Engel encapsulates this aspect of the narrative:
Scared of offending, we instead act like there are no cultural differences. We ignore the truth in an attempt to be a color-blind society. This is offensive to me, mainly because it seems so patently wrong. His being Asian-American is exactly why I am not surprised by Lin’s success in the NBA. And I am predicting more and more kids like Lin, raised to emphasize academics, to dominate athletics as already has happened in mathematics and engineering, law schools and medical schools, and almost every inch of an ever-tightening global job market.
Celebrating Chinese parenting and the values that emanate from this approach (the author does acknowledge the existence of black father “Tiger Moms” or single mom “Tiger Moms”), Floyd juxtaposes Lin’s success to the dominant frame about sports and its relationship to black youth:
He is not starring in Linsanity simply because of God-given talent, or because his AAU coach told him how special he was, or because he called home and his dad told him he was getting run over by racist coaches in college or the NBA. Linsanity is a product of him learning the skills, work habits, and inner confidence that fueled him.
Similarly, in the New York Times, Sam Borden and Keith Bradsher locate Lin’s success on and off the court within the context of his family. “If Gie-Ming planted the basketball seed in Jeremy and his brothers (through frequent trips to the local Y.M.C.A. and repeated viewings of old N.B.A. games he taped on his VCR), then Shirley, now 55, is the one who cultivated it,” they write in the New York Times. “As the Lins settled in Palo Alto, she quickly became a sort of hybrid ‘tiger mom,’ fiercely prodding her children to work tirelessly, but also advocating for them in whatever way she could.” Providing the perfect balance, “Shirley embraced the duality of her role. She was strict with Jeremy about academics, calling his coaches to warn them that a poor grade meant Jeremy would not be going to practice without improvement.”
The “model minority” myth, one that imagines Lin’s family as easily integrating into society, as using dominant institutions like sports as part of this process, and in reducing success to cultural values, is not a celebration of Lin but of the American Dream, a story bound up in assumptions about race, class, and culture. The Bleacher Report’s Jay Wierenga furthers the emphasis on Lin’s family, celebrating the story as an example of fathers and sons and the beauty of sports within the immigrant experience:
Lin was born to Taiwanese immigrants that came to the United States in the 1970s. His father, Gie-Ming Lin, came here to work on his PhD at Purdue University. He came to love the sport of basketball just from watching it on the tube. He taught himself how to play and when his kids were old enough, he brought them to the YMCA and began instilling in them the love of his new passion. This is what American fathers have been doing in this country for generations. Whether it is their first game of catch in the backyard or the first time you made that hoop, there is nothing more American than a father teaching his kid a game that he loves.
Now, like many things in sports, this has been corrupted over the years. Whether it is the slimy world of AAU basketball or the obsessive little league dads that are living vicariously through their kids, sports have become big business, even at the lowest level.
But Lin’s father wasn’t trying to make Jeremy his meal ticket. He was just bonding with his kids and playing the game he loves.
He also was helping to integrate his American-born children into his new home.
For immigrants, it is easy to retreat from your new land. It is a foreign place full of new and sometimes scary situations.
Therefore, seeking shelter amongst those that came from the same culture can be tempting.
But Lin’s father realized early on that he wanted to integrate his children into his new country.
In a narrative that is rarely afforded to black athletes, given the media’s emphasis on single mothers, poverty, and absentee fathers, the efforts to link Lin’s success to his father is striking given the ways in which the “model minority” myth often pits blacks against Asians.
In focusing on values, on the emphasis on education, the Lin narrative reinforces an ideology of “bootstrapism” and the Protestant work ethic. That is, in celebration of Lin’s success, one that because of racial ideologies requires explanation outside of the realm of hard work and athleticism, reinscribes both stereotypes about blackness and Asianness. From Forbes Magazine (the magazine of Gene Marks), which published a piece highlighting the lessons of hard work from Lin, to Sarah Palin, who described Lin as “an all-American story,” the power and appeal in the offered Linsanity tale rests with its efforts to invoke meritocracy, colorblindness, an the Protestant work ethic. This line of discussion is clearly evident in Marc Ambinder’s profile of Lin for GQ:
Look again at Lin’s own story: he faced discrimination as a kid playing on the courts of (even) Palo Alto, and slurs while at Harvard, but because of his superior natural abilities, rose up through the most meritocratic institution in society. There is no affirmative action based on race or last name. If you can’t play, you are not going to get on the court. That up-by-the-sneaker-laces narrative is a vital part of Lin’s appeal—and the Republican deal.
Aside from the fact that Lin’s basketball career points to the importance of affirmative action and the illusion of a meritocratic system, Ambinder encapsulates the popular appeal of the media-induced Lin fantasy that celebrates the American Dream and links its possibility to values, hard work, and determination. The “pull-yourself-up-by-the-sneaker laces” not only reifies a “model minority” myth but also blames those who have not found success on and off the court for their own nightmare.
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.
Lin’s success on the court is worthy of celebration. While only a few games, what he has done on the court, and the inspiration and pride he has provided to Asian American/Pacific Islander communities is important. Yet, I find myself increasingly uneasy about the imagined narrative, about the media framing, not because of anything Lin has done but because of the way in which this story has been told and the in which this works in opposition to the dominant sporting narrative that guides the consumption of black athletes.
Lin’s place in the media sporting culture, and society at large, cannot be understood outside of its relationship to blackness. Whereas Lin has the “right” family culture, and values, blackness is often defined as being deficient in those arenas.
“Constructions of deviant sexuality emerge as a primary location for the production of these race and class subjectivities,” writes Micki Mcelya in Our Monica Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the National Interest. “Policy debates and public perceptions on welfare and impoverished Americans have focused relentlessly on the black urban poor – blaming nonnormative family structures, sexual promiscuity, and aid-induced laziness as the root cause of poverty and mobilizing of welfare queens, teen mothers, and sexually predatory young men to sustain the dismantling of the welfare state.”
Lin’s middle-class professional “rags” to riches story, his story of immigrant parents teaching how to ball with humility, to break down opponents and equations, and to drop 3s and As is used to index his success all while marking the ways that players like Allen Iverson or LeBron James lack the requisite values and histories to be worthy of celebration.
Rather than celebrating through these stereotypical frames, and those narratives that are elevated in certain moments, it would be nice to just sit back and enjoy Lin’s game, along with that of Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James, at least until June when the annual Lakers championship parade will come to a neighborhood near you.