Consuming Jeremy Lin: Centering Race in Professional Basketball

In this blog post, Kathleen Yep, author of Outside the Paint: When Basketball Ruled at the Chinese Playground puts Lin-sanity in context.

As a former basketball player and as an Asian American, I am inspired by Jeremy Lin’s recent athletic showcase. On February 4th, the Taiwanese-American Jeremy Lin, exploded on the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) stage. He came off the bench to score 25 points and lead the New York Knicks to a comeback win over the Nets. The undrafted, twice-cut NBA player, Lin started the next eight games, scoring over twenty points a game including an astounding 38 points against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.

In the last weeks, Lin has captured the imagination of the United States and of basketball fans around the world. Thousands of newspaper articles, facebook posts, and blogs are reflecting/producing dominant narratives of sport, race, and masculinity through the phenomenon of “Linsanity.” On the heels of his meteoric stardom, the sports-industrial complex is poised to sell the transnational product of Jeremy Lin as evidenced by  Adidas creating a jersey targeting the China market.

As a sociologist, I am intrigued by the media and fan frenzy dubbed “Linsanity.” Touted as the ultimate “American” story, Lin is hailed by the mainstream media as the underdog who quietly toiled under the radar to find an unexpected entry to the big stage. Tucked within this “Linderella” narrative is the notion of sport as a metaphor for “American” liberal multiculturalism and meritocracy. With this color-blind framework, sports commentators, NBA athletes and fans declare Lin as “simply” a basketball player. But here is the elephant in the room: denying the role of racialization in Lin’s circuitous journey in the NBA is a part of the broader project of centering race. In the predominant black-white frame of the NBA, a “post-racial” framing of Lin as “just an athlete” or “one of the guys” works in concert with the racialized rhetoric of Lin as the model minority or model Christian, Ivy-league educated athlete. The liberal multiculturalist framework of not seeing his skin color elides the the hyperracialization of simultaneously touting him as a hero as a Chinese American and questioning his media attention because his athletic achievements supposedly do not warrant this scale of coverage (read: the media are inflating his alleged average play because he is Chinese.)

The social construction of Linsanity resonates with the sports discourse about Chinese American basketball players in the first half of the twentieth century. Outside the Paint explores the politics of sport in relation to Chinese American female and male basketball players in the 1930s and 1940s in San Francisco. Discussing a playground, a professional men’s basketball team, the first Chinese American to play at Madison Square Garden, and championship women players, the book explores themes that echo today’s construction and consumption of Jeremy Lin. Seventy years prior to “Linsanity,” the first and only Chinese American men’s professional basketball team, the Hong Wah Kues, traveled around the country playing teams like the white Bearded Aces, the Harlem Globetrotters and a Native American team in the late 1930s.

Similar to the media coverage of Lin, the spectacle in the 1930s was the unexpectedness of Chinese Americans as talented basketball players. Similar to today’s frenzy over Jeremy Lin, there were multiple currents of consumption in the late 1930s from not only the mostly non-Asian American spectators but also the Chinese American communities on the basketball tour. The invisible and marginalized Chinese Americans in the 1930s marveled at the visibility of players who looked like them. In 2012, Lin’s transcendence into a popular culture hero validates the vast network of Asian American players and basketball leagues that have thrived for over one hundred years. Similar to the debates about whether Lin is getting attention because he is a novelty, the 1930s Chinese Americans professional basketball players moved the usually black-white discourses around sport to the interplay of Chineseness, blackness, and whiteness.

So, when I jump on the “Linsanity” bandwagon–I am going to buy a Lin jersey for my father’s birthday–it is challenging to separate the racial and gendered depictions of the 1930s Chinese American basketball players with today. And it is challenging to separate the pleasure of watching a great Chinese American basketball player burst onto the NBA scene from the problematic discourses that homogenize and celebrate all Asian Americans as the model-minority who do not confront poverty, underemployment, residential and linguistic segregation and challenges as immigrants. This is a crucial moment to shift the conversation: instead of debating whether or not race is involved with Linsanity, we explore how race in sport is constructed through the interplay of Asianness, blackness, and whiteness. How does the sports-industrial complex simultaneously circulate colorblind and hyperracialized rhetoric about African American, Chinese American, and white players? How are these circulations similar and different for the various racial groups yet part of a similar mechanism?

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