Perhaps it was inevitable that some folks would try too hard on the Jeremy Lin story, attempt to go beyond puns like Linsanity, Lincredible, Super Lintendo and so on. The New York Knicks guard has enthralled the nation — landing on the cover of not only Sports Illustrated but also Time — and he appears to be having a blast. Naturally, others want to join in.
But a significant part of Lin's novelty is his racial heritage: His parents migrated from Taiwan to California, where he was born and raised. So he's not a just a sudden, unexpected star; he's also the NBA's first Asian-American star. And that has led to some questionable, if not downright offensive, imagery.
The New York Post was criticized for its headline — "Amasian!" — after Lin hit a 3-pointer to win Tuesday's game in Toronto. The MSG Network, which airs Knicks games, came under fire Wednesday for airing the image of Lin's face over a broken fortune cookie with the words "The Knicks Good Fortune." Likewise, ESPN's decision making was questioned when it aired a sign that referred to Lin as "The Yellow Mamba."
The latter is a play on Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, whose nickname is "The Black Mamba." But there are two problems with altering the handle for Lin: 1) Unlike black mambas, there are no yellow mamba snakes; and 2) referring to African Americans as "black" isn't considered offensive, unlike using "yellow" to refer to Asian Americans.
Opinions of the New York Post headline were mixed, but comic Jon Stewart didn't see any gray area. During an appearance on CBS' The Late Show With David Letterman, Stewart said, "It'd be like when Sandy Koufax threw a perfect game, you just wrote on there "Jewtiful!' … I feel like it's very 'Lin-sensitive."
Andrew Kang, senior staff attorney at the Asian-American Institute in Chicago, said that he would prefer MSG didn't show the fortune cookie sign. "I could imagine people finding it humorous," he told the Chicago Sun-Times. "But I think it does go to what people think when they think of Asians. They think of food. Because that is really their only point of contact, or awareness, with the Asian-American community."
Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock apologized after posting a lurid tweet about Lin based on an Asian stereotype, although boxer Floyd Mayweather stuck to his argument that all the hype is based on Lin's race. Arguably the worst offense was an ESPN headline after Lin committed nine turnovers Friday night: "Chink In The Armor."
Slights and slurs are nothing new for Lin. Some of them were detailed in Time magazine in 2009, including a fan yelling "Sweet-and-sour pork!" from the stands during a game against Georgetown in Washington, D.C.
"Honestly, now, I don't react to it," he said in the article. "I expect it, I'm used to it, it is what it is." But his emergence as an international superstar in the span of two weeks is causing everyone to re-examine their views on diversity and stereotypes of Asian Americans. There might be some accidental racism along the way — like the signs and headlines — but the journey should prove enlightening and leave us in a better place.
"In some ways," Kang said, "I'm grateful that it is coming out so we can talk about it and people can really start to challenge what are their preconceived notions about the Asian-American community or Asian-American athletes."