The phenomenon known as Linsanity is more than a feel-good sports story. It’s a societal breakthrough like no other for Asian-Americans.
At a time when there are more Asian-Americans than ever (17.3 million, roughly 6 percent of the nation’s population), Jeremy Lin’s explosion into our consciousness as a 6-foot-3-inch NBA basketball star is allowing a new pathway to understand the community.
Certainly, there have been other Asian-American breakthroughs in the United States. But when Norm Mineta became the first Asian-American to serve in two presidential cabinets, we didn’t exactly have Norm-mania.
In fact, Asian-Americans still remain relatively invisible. Most view Asian-Americans as straight out of central casting: the nerdy, ineffectual math whiz, the first-chair violin, the effeminate male in chick flicks, or the unaccented local TV anchor gal.
Lin, the first American-born Chinese of Taiwanese descent in the NBA, is forcing us all to look beyond that, as well as notice the difference between Asian and Asian-American. They aren’t the same, though the immigrant experience connects the two.
About 60 percent of Asian-Americans are foreign-born, the highest proportion of any group, according to the U.S. Census. And of these immigrants, in the last few years, a vast majority have naturalized. They represent 17 different Asian ethnicities and each year, as more begin families, the number of native-born Asian-Americans grows.
When Lin, a son of first generation immigrants from Taiwan, burst on the scene, many people may have thought of the now-retired NBA star Yao Ming — the Chinese national. They are worlds apart.
Linsanity has provided us with more than just a few awkward media moments, especially with a bull run on the Lin pun. Lin favors the coinage “Super Lintendo.” Here’s my contribution: “Linphomania,” for the nonstop love everyone feels for Lin.
But when writers get giddy, they lean on stereotypes. Fox.com sportswriter Jason Whitlock went with a penis joke. ESPN resorted to using a cliched phrase to describe Lin’s high number of ball-handling errors. Unless you’re talking about Sir Lancelot, “Chink in the armor” doesn’t really cut it.
It may be subconscious racism, but apparently, there’s a lot of that.
It’s ironic that Lin’s rise comes during Black History Month, when we remember the likes of Jackie Robinson, who broke through barriers and made the sports world a little more tolerant. Because of Robinson, a writer wouldn’t dare celebrate Kevin Durant’s 51-point game the other night by breaking out a watermelon and fried chicken reference. But there was no hesitation to show a graphic of Lin popping out of a fortune cookie.
Linsanity doesn’t have to give in to the inanity of racism. Indeed, Lin’s success is a triumph over racism.
But Lin’s biggest lesson goes beyond race. He represents everyone who was never given an opportunity, but never gave up.
Undrafted out of college, cut by two teams, Lin is the part of affirmative action you don’t hear about. While you wait for your opportunity, you work hard, you get even better qualified. You stay ready. You believe.
Lin got his chance and has excelled. He’s an inspiration to all of those who still wait and work and believe.
Emil Guillermo is a former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He writes for the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund at www.aaldef.org/blog, and at www.amok.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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