‘We Don’t Have Anything to Call Our Own Yet’: Jeremy Lin and Narratives of Achievement Among People of Color
The recent surge of media coverage on New York Knicks overnight sensation Jeremy Lin has been an almost Cinderella story (replacing pretty-white-poor-female, with handsome-skilled-Asian-men’s basketball player). And though his success on the court is undoubtedly due to his athletic abilities, the narrative painted for him on the sidelines (and beyond) has brought to light the complex issue of race, masculinity, and citizenship in this country, giving pause in the seemingly simple fairy tale.
As the recent Colorlines article states, “Jeremy Lin wasn’t supposed to matter. But now he does. And that fact both unearths and challenges some deeply held assumptions about the place of Asian-Americans in U.S. culture.” And as we watch the expected anti-Asian stereotypes latch on to Jeremy Lin’s image while flooding our media outlets and social networking sites, some of us cannot help but ponder the social ‘assumptions about the place of Asian-Americans in U.S. culture.’
The sensation of Jeremy Lin has provided an opportunity to critically reflect upon the way narratives of “achievement” among People of Color are constructed, and notions of citizenship, assimilation, and marginalization are (re)defined and/or imagined. And while some attention has been given to the anti-Asian rhetoric or the ‘subtle bigotry’ propelling Lin into super stardom, the basketball court is being re/conceptualized as the last frontier toward true Asian-American citizenship, while also relying on the assumptions that the frontier is a court of true Black citizenship.
The fear, titillation, and spectacle, surrounding both the strong-Black-buck and the emasculated-weak-Asian male, have its place in U.S. culture. And the cultural imaginary is undoubtedly fueling the off-court chatter surrounding Jeremy Lin. However, the simple juxtapositions and the attempt to shatter said stereotypes through the overnight sensation is painting an interesting narrative for Asian Americans while also highlighting the peculiar position of Blacks in U.S. culture.
I am concerned with how People of Color imagine and document achievement, particularly when Black history is used as a barometer in measuring success rate. If the Jeremy Lin story (one of an Asian-American basketball player coming from the depths of low expectations and becoming an NBA star amidst a field dominated by Black bodies with the highest expectations) is raising questions concerning the place of Asian-Americans in U.S. culture, what other questions might we raise inside our conversation of sports, basketball specifically, and Blackness? Further, how do we make these leaps of thought in an ethical way? One that does not use Black bodies as the stepping-stone into the national citizenry, while displacing the centrality of ‘the problem of the negro as a problem for thought.’
In the above mentioned article, “The Subtle Bigotry That Made Jeremy Lin the NBA’s Most Surprising Star,” Jamilah King takes the usual route of pairing whatever non-white, non-hetero, identity is up for discussion with racial Blackness (i.e.: ‘gay is the new black’, ‘flying while brown,’ ‘they’re taking the jobs blacks won’t do,’). King’s effort in pushing her reader to understand the achievement Jeremy Lin is making becomes necessarily tied to imagining a certain Black privilege. And my argument is not that Jeremy Lin has not achieved something of great importance, nor am I arguing against the actuality of Asian-American stereotypes. Rather, I am stressing the dangers in leaving unexamined a narrative of struggle where the prelude is always Black racial oppression and the final chapter is overcoming Black dominance.
King states, “Although 1950 is usually seen as the year when two black basketball players broke the color barrier, Japanese-American Wataru Misaka technically did it two seasons before in 1947-48, when he played for the New York Knicks.” Besides the fact that the 1950 Black history fact is most likely not that well known (at least not to warrant the word “usually”), she is correct in assuming Japanese-American Wataru Misaka’s 1947 inclusion into the NBA is an even lesser known fact. However, that raises more complex questions on what bodies may be included into the NBA, and further the citizenry.
If our cultural memory marks 1950 as the year the NBA’s color line was broken, what does that say about whiteness and its permeability and exclusions of Blackness? Which again, is not to argue that the exclusion of non-Black People of Color does not exist, but rather to complicate our notion citizenship and illuminate the complexity of achievement.
Oftentimes the 1946 Mendez v. Westminister case is held up as the precursor to 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education (and often times gun-slung in conversations that could be titled “Racial Olympics”), while missing the fact that Mendez never ruled segregation wrong, just that it was wrongly applied to Mexican and Mexican-American students. And while 1954 will continue to reign as thee moment of desegregation, the Mendez story should be told, and it should spark the much-needed conversation of how citizens are made, and how racial Blackness operates in our cultural memory and imagination.
There can be no doubting Black bodies dominate the sport of basketball. Growing up as a scrawny Black queer boy I can attest to the fact the burden of expectations weighs on Black people in complex ways. And just as basketball centers on stereotypes of Black bodies, it excludes many other bodies in its perverse focus on Black athleticism. How do we cope? Since the 1930s Asian and Asian American basketball leagues were being formed all around the West Coast, (particularly in Los Angeles and San Francisco). These leagues, still present today, have proven to be a sustaining environment where Asian and Asian-American children and adults can develop basketball skills and competitively compete. In a 2006 San Francisco Gate article, Richard Twu (the executive director of San Francisco’s Dream League), was quoted, “We don’t have anything to call our own yet…What I mean by that is, anything homegrown here in the U.S., from our own ‘hoods, not imported by our parents. Sushi, Chinese opera and kung fu don’t count.”
The self-exclusion vs. self-preservation argument is not a new one, and not unique to Asian-American culture. And it is not an argument this author wishes to engage now. Instead, Jeremy Lin is forcing people to reconsider who/what can make an elite NBA athlete. This is not the first time, but it provides a unique opportunity to examine how People of Color write their narratives into U.S. culture.
Flloyd Mayweather tweeted, “Jeremy Lin is a good player, but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise,” which is reminiscent on the late 1980s comments of Isaiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman concerning the hype of Larry Byrd (Byrd being a white basketball player). If the Lin story is causing us to think about the position of Asian-Americans in U.S. culture, while still raising familiar questions of Black bodies, sports, and the place of all others, we must begin to question the way we carve out our narratives. Narratives that are strangely familiar. How do we find something to call our own?
- Ryan Davis, Negro Sunshine