Jeremy Lin, the NBA, and Hegemonic Masculinity.

You may or may not know that I used to maintain a blog where I mostly wrote about sports in a sociological context.  It was a good blog that I enjoyed writing immensely.  Unfortunately, grad school and life kinda derailed me from maintaining it, and due to very unfortunate technical circumstances (me trying to fool around with the CSS and javascripting), I lost all of it.  Anyways, as my life transitions out of academia, I anticipate being able to devote more time to writing about the things I think about while chained to my cubicle all day.  I’m planning a full-on relaunch of the website and the blog in the next three or four months, but I have some technical things to iron out before I can really get that going.  In the meantime, here is a taste of what I will be writing about.

Those of you who follow the NBA closely know that today everyone is talking about Jeremy Lin.  For the uninitiated, Jeremy Lin is a second year guard out of Harvard, and after a season of shuttling between the benches of Golden State and Houston and the D-Leauge, has had a 2 game coming out party with the New York Knicks, putting up a line of 53 points-7 rebounds-15 assists over those two games.  In addition to being a nice underdog-coming-out-of-nowhere story, what makes the Lin story even more unique is that Lin is Asian.  Lin is not the first Asian to play in the NBA.  Most recently Yao Ming had a very successful career as Houston’s center.  But Yao was a freakish 7’ 6” center from China who barely spoke English and owed much of his success to his ridiculous height.  No, Lin is an average size (for an NBA player) Asian American kid who grew up in the Bay Area that plays point guard.

I find it curious that the sports blogosphere is glossing over the fact that he’s Asian American, sticking mostly to the narrative that he is succeeding despite the fact that he went to an Ivy League school and was undrafted.  For me, nearly all of my excitement stems from the fact that he is an Asian American that is succeeding in sports.  In fact, I’m out of my friggin’ mind about Jeremy Lin.  Let me tell you why. Like other ethnic groups, the representation of Asians in popular culture is well…problematic.  First, Asians are nearly invisible on television/movies/music, so any time I see an Asian on TV or in the movies, I feel like I’ve just spotted a unicorn, even though usually, I see them being portrayed as kung-fu masters/socially awkward mathematical geniuses/broken-English-speaking-fresh-off-the-boat owner of Chinese restaurant/nail salon/dry cleaners.1

Anyway, this phenomenon is 10x worse in sports.  While there has been some notable progress with Asians in professional baseball, Asians are all but non-existent in the big three sports in the US (football, basketball, baseball).  So even last year when Lin was riding the pine for the Warriors, I tuned in whenever I could, checked the box scores every day.  It didn’t even matter to me that he was a benchwarmer.  There was an Asian American in the NBA and that was awesome.

Apparently, not all NBA fans are into the anti-racism aspect of Lin's arrival.

You see, one of the things that people of color have to deal with is stereotypes.  And one stereotype that Asian males have to deal with is the idea that Asian males are not masculine.  There are lots of different tropes that this particular stereotype is realized through, but the idea is that Asian males do not embody any of the traits of what Michael Messner would call hegemonic masculinity.  There’s a long history of this stereotype that dates back to when Chinese male immigrants came to the US in the 1800s to build the railroads.  The Chinese often did what was considered women’s work, wore silk robes, often had braids in their hair, et cetera.  And since they were considered an economic threat to the white population, these stereotypes were used to marginalize them.  This also happens to be one of the most popular portrayal of Asian men in television/movies, with the apotheosis being the character of Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles, setting an almost unreachable bar for offensive Asian movie characters.

If you just played the gong sound effect in your head, that means you're racist!

Practically speaking, this manifests itself in a lot of different ways in a male Asian’s life.2  In my own life, as petty as this may sound, I think it’s probably affected my dating life,3 as many women simply don’t find Asian men attractive.4  My good friend H-dawg Lee interviewed some Korean men for her dissertation and she reported that this was a pretty common sentiment among the men she talked to.5

In doing my dissertation, one conclusion that I’ve come to is that sports as it is practiced here in the states is almost entirely about the expression of masculinity.6  In other words, playing sports is a way to assert your manhood.  Obviously, it’s a little more complicated than that….actually, it’s not.  That’s what the majority of people are doing whenever they do anything involving sports.7  In any case, the ultimate expression of masculinity is success in sports.  And the ultimate expression of that is success in professional sports.8  I’m not saying I was actively excluded from sports or anything, but I was never really ever encouraged to pursue it either.9  So the lack of Asian athletes didn’t help my own or other’s perception of Asian masculinity.

So in Lin, we have that breakthrough.  And my guess is that Asian males across the country are just as psyched as I am.10 And really it was enough that he just made an NBA team last year.  When you’re starving for some kind of representation in sports, anything will do.

But this:

Well this was wholly unexpected.  Not only did Lin contribute greatly, but he was the best player in the game for both nights.  As they say, he was the man.11  Yay for busting stereotypes!

Of course, I’m glad that everyone is being realistic and not expecting him to become Chris Paul overnight, but it’s very encouraging to see that people are at least discussing whether or not Lin has what it takes to be successful in the long run.  His shooting range seems a little suspect right now and he definitely needs to cut down on the turnovers,12 but one thing seems certain.  He can run the pick and roll pretty well.  And since today’s NBA pretty much revolves around a team’s ability to run or stop the pick and roll, this bodes well for Lin’s future I hope.  In turn, hopefully his success will work towards getting rid of things like this.

In short, you should support Jeremy Lin because in doing so, you’re fighting racism!

Update 2/10/12: I chatted online with a friend last night and I realized that I didn’t do a good job necessarily of making a point about all of this.  And my point is, the media seems to be debating how much Lin being Asian accounts for the media storm.  A lot of writers seem to want to dismiss it as being only a small part of the story.  My argument, is that for me, and for lots of Asian males, and actually for a lot of people, it is THE story.  And not talking about it reeks of that bad sentiment that just talking about Lin’s race is somehow racist.  It’s not.  Race is a huge part of this story, whether people want to talk about it or not.13

  1. Obviously, that part of the deal sucks, but when you’re starving, Vienna sausages taste like filet mignon, know what I’m sayin? []
  2. The most pernicious being the stereotype that Asian males have small peepees.  And let me tell you ladies, I can tell you from first hand experience, that is patently false…HEYOOOO!! []
  3. Seriously, isn’t racism the only plausible explanation as to why my awesome self is single? []
  4. Remember that movie Romeo Must Die, with Jet Li and Aliyah (RIP)? It originally ended with  Jet Li and Aliyah kissing, but that didn’t test well with audiences so they cut it out.  Even when we have super masculine portrayals of Asian men, we still don’t get the girl. :( []
  5. Before you start, I fully realize that this stereotype is not as bad as say, the ones that make black males 9 times more likely to be incarcerated in their lifetime.  And yes, I’m complaining about the fact that Asian males don’t get to fully participate in patriarchy and don’t get to oppress women as much as non Asian males, so I know that there are much worse things to be stereotyped as.  But all stereotypes come from the same bad place homie. []
  6. I strongly suspect that this is why many of my academic friends aren’t into sports, because they recognize how it contributes to patriarchy.  That and they’re all super lame []
  7. I should write more about this to justify such a bold claim, but I’m not trying to get published or anything, so really you should take my word for it.  I’m an expert on this kind of stuff []
  8. The big 3 sports I should say.  This is why Asians don’t get that excited about say…Kristi Yamaguchi’s success in figure skating…not too masculine, ya know? []
  9. But I was definitely encouraged to pursue math and the violin.  Ask me about my high school journalism experience one day.  Seriously, high school teachers can be really racist []
  10. Here’s a secret.  Asian-American males LOVE sports.  And they love love LOOOOVE basketball. I suspect that this is related to having their masculinity marginalized while young. []
  11. Get it? Reinforcing masculinity…clever huh? []
  12. He’s also super Christian, which I always find annoying with athletes, but like I said, beggars can’t be choosers.  But seriously, check out his twitter profile pic, ugh. []
  13. Yes, I know it’s kinda cheating to add on to your blog posts a few days later, but like I said, I’m trying to remember how to blog, so you’ll have to forgive the growing pains.  Plus SLAM online just linked me :) []
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3 Responses to Jeremy Lin, the NBA, and Hegemonic Masculinity.

  1. Pingback: SLAM ONLINE | » Pride and Prejudice

  2. Pingback: Jeremy Lin: A New Asian American Role Model is Born Yet Stereotyping Remains! | JadeLuckClub

  3. NDiv says:

    Well, who is responsible for the paucity of Asian males in sports? In my experience, it’s Asian families themselves. The range of sports that Asian parents usually even want their child to enter is limited (tennis mostly) and they certainly don’t want them to pursue a career in it. Contrast this to the number of white and black parents who encourage their children to compete in a wide range of sports.

    To a large degree, I think we have ourselves to blame for the modern perception that Asian men lack masculinity. Both in China and the United States, our parents discourage us from pursuing things which are the normal expressions of masculinity. The focus is always on studies which bring financial rewards and security.

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