Family Ties: On Jeremy Lin, “Tiger Moms,” And Tiger Woods
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.