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Jeremy Lin & The Race Issue: A Critical Perspective

New York Knicks PG Jeremy Lin has been the talk of the town for weeks. But, because of his ethnicity, he has opened the door to discuss Asian Americans and popular culture.

It’s odd how something so seemingly innocuous can spark a debate that needed to be discussed.

Jeremy Lin has become one of the big stories, not only among the sports media, but in popular culture. From the depths of the bench, and from humble beginnings, Lin has exploded as the impetus for a New York Knicks resurgence, and is helping to lead the team to a possible postseason run. In the month of February, he has averaged 21.0 points and 8.1 assists per game, and had made history by becoming the first player in league history to tally at least 20 points and 7 assists in each of his first five starts.

Furthermore, Lin, a player of Taiwanese descent, has become a media darling, becoming the first Asian-American player in the NBA. He has represented a source of pride to much of the Asian-American community at large, and has risen to be one of the few prominent Asian figures in Americana. The term “Linsanity” was coined (along with a plethora of “Lin” puns) to illustrate the fervor of Lin’s viral fame. In the course of this popularity streak, however, issues have arisen regarding his race, and the catalyst came recently – surprisingly enough – from a frozen yogurt flavor.

Ben & Jerry’s recently released a flavor of frozen yogurt to honor Lin’s unprecedented success in the NBA, dubbed “Taste the Lin-Sanity,” at a local shop located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, close to Harvard University, where Lin played college ball. Reportedly, it consisted of vanilla frozen yogurt with swirls of lychee honey and fortune cookie pieces mixed in. This prompted complaints about the perceived insensitivity to the Asian American community, and, subsequently, the flavor was pulled and the company apologized.

And, this wasn’t the first case of racial insensitivity towards the Asian-American community in regards to Jeremy Lin: an editor working for ESPN.com was recently fired for blazing a headline on their mobile website that read “Chink in The Armor” after a Knicks loss to the Denver Nuggets two weeks ago – unknowingly referring to a racial slur against the Chinese. An ESPN anchor was recently suspended for making the same unfortunate remark on the air.

But, these incidents have put the issue of race and the Asian-American and Asian communities at the forefront. ESPN writer Lynn Hoppes, an Asian-American, wrote a thought-provoking piece about Jeremy Lin, admitting that he has heard enough of the Knicks star, believes that political correctness has been at the forefront of a racially oversensitive culture. What’s more, because Asians, as a whole, have not been so prominently featured in Americana over the course of American pop culture history, it is difficult to know what is considered offensive and what is not for much of the non-Asian population.

ESPN writer Lynn Hoppes (left) and Stephen A. Smith had a fascinating discussion on the subject of Asian Americans and racial insensitivity in Americana on ESPN’s First Take on February 28.

Let me see if I can shed some light on the conversation.

I am a Filipino. I moved to the United States with my family when I was six months old. As a Filipino, I have not seen many in the media who are like me – especially in the realm of sport. Manny Pacquiao is the only prominent Filipino athlete out there. When I was little, I dreamed of being like Jeremy Lin – a professional basketball player. So, while I am not Taiwanese, I have a vested interest in Lin, as he represents a sense of pride within me, for a number of reasons. I am not the only one – friends of mine in the Filipino-American community share that same sentiment.

While some, including Hoppes, believe that the “Taste the Lin-Sanity” fervor is much ado about nothing, I beg to differ. I believe that it IS offensive – to a certain extent. I won’t go so far as to say that it is racist – it isn’t, at least, in my book. But I will say that it is, at the very least, racially insensitive. Let’s break it down: the “Taste the Lin-Sanity” flavor is based around the idea that fortune cookies are supposed to represent SOMETHING about Jeremy Lin. I guess it would have been one thing if Lin had admitted that fortune cookies were his favorite dessert. But, as far as I know, he didn’t, so understand where the idea had to have came from:

“He’s Asian, and what can we throw into an ice cream flavor that represents Asians? FORTUNE COOKIES!”

Is that an unfair characterization of where the idea came from? I’m not so sure. My point is that the idea had to have come from some place – some thought that the flavor, and the inclusion of fortune cookies, had to represent something. In this case, I can’t see it as anything else than the stereotypical characterization of Jeremy Lin being Asian, being represented by the inclusion of fortune cookies.

Am I saying that I wouldn’t want to try this concoction? No – as a matter of fact, the idea of a frozen yogurt flavor with fortune cookie bits and lychee honey sounds delicious. I just think it’s in poor taste to package it to represent an Asian American phenomenon in sports. Am I saying that there was malice behind the idea of “Taste the Lin-Sanity?” Far from it – I do believe that they were trying to honor Jeremy Lin in doing this. But, that doesn’t mean it still wasn’t in poor taste.

But, beyond that, the issue is not just about a frozen yogurt flavor – it’s about what it represents. The fact remains that Jeremy Lin has come to represent an entire ethnic community in the world of sport. But, with Lin’s visibility in popular culture, the American representation of Asian culture has also come to the forefront, and that has obviously led to some problems. And, somehow, that point got lost in all of the monologue.

On ESPN’s First Take this morning, Hoppes appeared with Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith to discuss whether there was an oversensitivity to race, as a result to the media incidents involving Lin’s ethnicity. And there were a few things that stuck out for me.

For example, Hoppes brought up the question as to why we, as the media and as a society, are focusing so heavily on the fact that Jeremy Lin is an “Asian American basketball player,” and not as “a good basketball player who happens to be Asian.” I tend to agree that it shouldn’t be – the same as not focusing on, say, Michael Vick or Donovan McNabb as black quarterbacks, but as good quarterbacks who happen to be black.

Though, I am not ignorant to the fact that Lin represents an aberration in the NBA. And, if the media wants to harp on the fact that he, as an Asian-American player in the NBA, is an aberration, that’s fine. I actually don’t have a problem with that. However, when it becomes the ONLY thing we focus on beyond the fact that he is good, that’s when there is a problem. When it leads to things like “Chink in the Armor”, turning his role in the pop culture conversation as nothing more than the fact that he is Asian, that’s when there is a problem – because then, he becomes a caricature of himself, based solely on his race.

Stephen A. Smith made the point that Americana is, for the most part, unaware of what is deemed offensive by the Asian and Asian-American communities, and asked why that is the case – especially in the realm of sport. After all, he wouldn’t know – nor would the majority of non-Asian America would know – that the term “Flip” is considered derogatory towards Filipinos. I wouldn’t necessarily hold it against anyone who didn’t know that was the case.

I think the answer is simple: it’s because Asian-Americans, especially, compared to other ethnic groups, are vastly under-represented in popular culture, in general. There are obviously a lot of stereotypical, and sometimes downright insulting, representations of Asians in popular culture. Asian culture, in general – not even getting into the individual ethnicities, themselves – is so much more than its stereotypes.

But, because we, as Asians, do not have many mainstream avenues to showcase our individual cultures for the rest of Americana, something has to fill that void as a representation for Asians and Asian-Americans for non-Asians. So, what is that something? Unfortunately … it’s the stereotypes.

Finally, Hoppes asked the age-old question in the debate of racial sensitivity: who dictates what can and can’t be said? He makes a valid point – every individual is subjective as to what he or she finds offensive or not. And, if everyone else were to operate under the assumption that, if one person finds something racially offensive, it shouldn’t be said, then we couldn’t function as a society.

However, this is where he loses me. The fact is, there is a general decorum when it comes to what is considered offensive from an communal standpoint – especially when it comes to racial identity. When an insult is lobbed, not aimed at the individual, but at an entire ethnic community, that’s a problem. That’s considered racism.

Hoppes asks why it matters. Again, the answer is simple: when an individual, or a community, takes pride in the fact that they belong to that community, the insult toward that community, sometimes, cuts a lot deeper than any personal insult. Ethnic pride is a very powerful force: If you lob an insult at me based on my race, you may not be insulting me, but you’re insulting my heritage, you’re insulting my family, and you’re insulting my community. In many cases, them’s fightin’ words.

I give a lot of credit to what Jeremy Lin has done for Americana, and opening the dialogue between Asian-Americans and the rest of Americana should actually be one of them. I just hope that the dialogue continues.

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