#LinSanity and the Blackness of Basketball
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackman
Over the last week, there has been significant discussion about how race is playing out within the media and fan reception of Jeremy Lin. Focusing on anti-Asian slurs, prejudice, and stereotypes, the media narrative has not surprisingly provided a simplistic yet pleasurable narrative. Imagining racism as simply bias that can be reduced through exposure and education, the media discourse has erased the powerful ways that sports teaches race and embodies racism. As Harry Edwards argues, sports recapitulates society, whether it be ideology or institutional organization.
According to Marc Lamont Hill, professor of education at Columbia, “blackness is at the center” of the media’s Linsanity. Seeing basketball as a space of blackness, “the whole undertone is irony, bewilderment and surprise.” Harry Edwards, Sociology Professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, highlights the predicable narrative, which reflects the fact that “we live in a niche society.” This encourages people to “retreat into traditional storylines.” Irrespective of facts or specifics, the deployed media narrative has retreated to a place that depicts the NBA as a black-league defined by athleticism and hip-hop that is changing before our eyes. The arrival of Jeremy Lin, who the media continues to cast in the role of the “model minority” whose intellect, personality, and overall difference is providing the league with something otherwise unavailable, is constructed through a narrative black-Asian conflict.
Replicating stereotypes, the undercurrent of the Lin narrative, the media inducted fantasy, has been his juxtaposition to the league’s black players. “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,” noted Todd Boyd, Professor of Critical Studies at USC, in an email to me. “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.” From the constant references to his being “humble” and “team-oriented,” to his widely circulated idea that he came out of no where and that his career is one of low expectations and being overlooked, the media narrative has imagined him as the anti-black baller. The stereotypes of both Asian Americans and blacks guide the media narrative.
According to Oliver Wang, “Some in the Asian American community are following “Linsanity” with caution, especially as commentators praise Lin for being “hard working,” “intelligent” and “humble,” words associated with long-standing stereotypes of Asian Americans. Chuck Leung, writing for Slate.com, expressed the fear that “beneath this Linsanity is an invitation for others to preserve these safe archetypes.” Whereas black ballers are defined/demonized with references to selfishness and ego, a sense of entitlement that comes from societal fawning, Lin purportedly provides something else. Compared to black players, who are defined through physical prowess and athleticism, Lin, who is 6’3”, extremely physical and athletic, the media has consistently presented him as a “cerebral player” whose success comes from guile, intestinal fortitude, and determination, seemingly discounting his physical gifts and his talents on the floor. Marc Lamont Hill noted a report that described Lin as a “genius on the pick n’ roll.” Continuously noting his Harvard education, his high school GPA, his college GPA, and his economics major all advance the narrative of his exceptionalism and his presumed difference from the league’s other (black) players.
On Weekends with Alex Witt, Sports Illustrated columnist and Lin friend Pablo Torre celebrated Lin as a “student of the game,” and as an anomaly. Torre noted that Lin watches game footage at halftime, a practice he says isn’t seen within the NBA. While David West of the Indiana Pacers told me that watching footage is standard practice with the NBA, its usage here is just another example as how Lin is being positioned as NBA model minority and the desired body outside the sports arena.
Reflecting on the nature of this discourse, Hiram Perez in an essay about Tiger Woods, describes “model minority rhetoric” as both homogenizing the Asian American experience through professed stereotypes and celebration of Asian American accomplishments, but “disciplin[ing] the unruly black bodies threatening national stability during the post-civil rights era” (Perez, 2005, p. 226). The caricatured and stereotyped media story with Lin illustrates this dual process, one that reifies stereotypes concerning Asian Americans while at the same demonizing blackness. Historically, the model minority discourse has work to juxtapose homogenized identities, cultures, and experiences associated with Asian Americans and African Americans.
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