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Knicks' Jeremy Lin holds mirror up to America

BILL PLASCHKE

As Lin captivates fans with basketball prowess, he also makes people confront their biases and reassess why Asian Americans have been publicly categorized in ways unacceptable for other minorities.

February 20, 2012|Bill Plaschke
  • All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony makes his return from injury to join budding star Jeremy Lin (17) in the Knicks lineup against the Nets on Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony makes his return from injury to join budding… (Peter Foley / EPA )

Of all the drives, dunks and dazzling shots Jeremy Lin is forcing upon the stars of the NBA, none of it compares with the moves he's putting on a larger collection of everyday people.

Jeremy Lin has dribbled America into the previously quiet corner of its casual prejudice and lazy stereotypes of Asian Americans.

The true beauty of his story is in awareness of the ugliness that has been found there.

It's been barely two weeks since the beginning of a tale that rocked the sports world with great basketball and bad puns, but so much already has changed. When America now looks at Lin, it should see more than an Asian American kid from Harvard who overcame ignorance at every level to become a star guard for the New York Knicks.

America should see itself in the murky reflection of a society that has long considered it reasonable to publicly categorize Asian Americans in ways that would never be acceptable for other, more vocal minorities.

America should see the writer from Foxsports.com who began the barrage of ignorance last week by tweeting a tired joke about the assumed size of Lin's manhood. The guy apologized, but his company did not, which should not be surprising considering Fox Sports is also the outfit that last fall aired a segment in which a reporter ridiculed Asian Americans at USC for not understanding football.

Can you imagine a major American media company tolerating this sort of blatant racism if it were directed toward any of Lin's African American teammates?

America should see the game video from the Knicks' MSG network in which cameras focused on a homemade sign that showed Lin's face above a fortune cookie with the words, "The Knicks Good Fortune.''

Can you imagine, five months from now, that same television director willingly airing a shot of a sign that made fun of the heritage of a Latino member of the New York Mets?

If America has the stomach, it should even watch the tape of the WNYW morning show in New York where one of the anchors, upon hearing a reporter list Lin's physical attributes, asked, "What about his eyes?"

The newsman made the slur, he sort of winked with glee, the entire news desk laughed and I'm thinking, you're kidding me, right? In a media world that is reluctant to even cite a subject's ethnicity unless it is relevant, it's suddenly OK to openly laugh about Lin's cultural characteristics because, well, because he's Asian American and everybody does it?

"In this country, Asian Americans are stereotyped as the meek and the mild, the ones who will always take the racism," said Daryl Maeda, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado who specializes in Asian American studies. ''There is a perception that it's OK to offend Asian Americans because they simply won't fight back.''

There was finally push-back last weekend at ESPN, which fired one employee and suspended another for separately describing the Knicks' first loss with Lin as a starter as a "Chink in the armor."

The guy who was fired amazingly felt confident enough to put it in a mobile website headline. The guy who was suspended said it on the air during a conversation, and it seemed impulsive enough that he was probably just throwing out a cliché without thinking.

In marginalizing the Jeremy Lin story, that newsman actually illustrated its real importance. This newfound basketball force has forced Americans to take a deep breath and think. He has forced America to realize it has become too comfortable compartmentalizing Asian Americans with a list of stereotypes that are misguided, mean-spirited and just plain wrong.

Such as that one that says, you know, they can't play sports.

"The one thing I think is interesting about this whole Jeremy Linsanity is that it has forced us to think about how we think and talk about race in general,'' Maeda said. "Asian Americans have long been put into this safe little slot, and Jeremy has taken us out of those places.''

This is what sports does. This is one reason sports matters. Through the shared understanding of the human condition that so publicly exists in sports, society is often forced into self-realization and change, and where else can that happen?

America really needs to watch the "Saturday Night Live'' skit in which three sports reporters laughingly discuss Lin while using Asian American slurs, yet when a fourth newsman tries to discuss other Knicks by using African American slurs, they become offended.

"This all shows how Asian Americans have long been the invisible minority,'' Maeda said.

Not right now, not in NBA's biggest city, as the most celebrated Asian American in league history is in the backcourt for one of the NBA's marquee teams, in the center of what could end up being the sports story of the year.

Jeremy Lin's heritage is a wonderful part of this story and should not be ignored. But can't we do that without being ignorant?

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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