Karate Chopping Asian Stereotypes with the AAJA   Leave a comment

Note: This is memo 3 of 17 trying to figure out Jeremy Lin. It is going to take more than 3 posts to get through it all. This one’s meant to be a bit fun. 

Jeremy Lin gets it done with a 3.

Nobody likes being told what they can’t say. Forbidden words glow with a lurid power much the way certain forbidden actions become irresistible and exciting. but the discrete packages that are words harness the magic of forbidden words in a more wieldy manner. When everybody’s talking about the same thing, language becomes a marketplace, and the most sticky and resonant phrases become well-known and indexed in the collective consciousness. Clumsy, useless language fails to be duplicated and is forgotten. Not because some self-anointed authority banishes it, but because people who have encountered it and compared it to what it’s supposedly referring to see no accurate connection.

Something called the Asian American Journalists Association has issued a set of guidelines for media outlets covering Jeremy Lin. The memo lists seven “Danger Zones” or racial stereotypes to be avoided.  Political website The Daily Caller called the document “the funniest press release in history,” and I agree. It’s ridiculous. There’s a certain righteous pedantic flavor to it that kind of makes you smile. Maybe pretension is inherent to lecturing documents that tell you what you shouldn’t do. In any case, it probably does more lasting damage to the way Lin is covered than any of the incidents they’re claiming to respond to. Doesn’t even address the tweets sent out by Jason Whitlock and Floyd Mayweather, even indirectly.

The first words of the memo are (seriously) these: “Stop to think: Would a similar statement be made about an athlete who is Caucasian, African American, Latino or Native American?” Stop to think. How entirely idiotic is this guideline? Why yes, “chink in the armor” is said about all those types of athletes — and ESPN still fired a guy over it. Maybe I’m misinterpreting this guideline and it’s intending meaning is that you should only write something about Lin if you would write a similar statement about an athlete of any other race. “Chink in the armor” aside, of course.

Following this, there are two main sections to the memo, one labeled “THE FACTS” and the other the aforementioned “DANGER ZONES.” The Facts deal with Lin being an American born Asian American of Taiwanese descent who was unrecruited and undrafted. I haven’t seen this portrayed inaccurately in any professional articles, so it must be addressing The Internet and its’ lawless frontier. There’s a point to be made that Lin is an American and he faced setbacks every step of the way to get where he is. Seems a little overboard to suggest media outlets are implying that he’s from China or otherwise foreign. Watching his interviews will do more to indicate his citizenship.

Then THE FACTS get a bit more interesting:

3. Journalists don’t assume that African American players identify with NBA players who emigrated from Africa. The same principle applies with Asian Americans. It’s fair to ask Lin whether he looked up to or took pride in the accomplishments of Asian players. He may have. It’s unfair and poor journalism to assume he did.

On the surface, this is true. But the comparison to how black players are treated doesn’t seem relevant. Asian players before Lin had to at least deal with not having other people that looked like them around, and racial slurs and stereotypes about ethnic Asians don’t really discriminate between Asians and Asian Americans. On the other hand, it seems like Luol Deng, DJ Mbenga, and  Luc Richard Mbah a Moute — all born in Africa — are treated much like African American players without special media rules. If there’s a problem, it’s not so much asking Lin if Yao and Wang Zhi Zhi inspire him because that’s relevant as long as it’s acknowledged that Lin is American.

The fourth and final The Fact details that “Lin is not the first Asian American to play in the National Basketball Association.” Raymond Townsend and Rex Walters were Asian Americans. So it’s easy to see why people might think Lin is the first. Also a guy with an actual Asian name, Wat Misaka, played 65 years ago before the NBA merger. In three games. Obama is considered our first black president even though his mother was white, so with that referent, Townsend and Walters count.

Here’s the thing. That’s kind of unsatisfying. It feels like Jeremy Lin is the first Asian American NBA player, maybe modifying it “NBA star.” To the extent that being black can be considered to be an obstacle to the presidency and being Asian American an obstacle to NBA stardom, both parents’ backgrounds, and, yes, the individual’s appearance, seem relevant. Not to take anything away from Townsend, Walters, and even Misaka, but they didn’t exactly pave the way for Jeremy Lin. Unable to shake the inkling that Lin’s appearance might have contributed to nobody wanting him out of high school and college, Townsend and Walters seem less relevant, and Yao and Wang more so. The lesson from all of this is that considering race for race’s sake will never allow us access to the whole Lin story. Never.

Now, finally — get ready for some fun — we will address the “DANGER ZONES.” You know what? It’s probably better if I just copy them:


“CHINK”: Pejorative; do not use in a context involving an Asian person on someone who is Asian American. Extreme care is needed if using the well-trod phrase “chink in the armor”; be mindful that the context does not involve Asia, Asians or Asian Americans. (The appearance of this phrase with regard to Lin led AAJA MediaWatch to issue statement to ESPN, which subsequently disciplined its employees.)

DRIVING: This is part of the sport of basketball, but resist the temptation to refer to an “Asian who knows how to drive.”

EYE SHAPE: This is irrelevant. Do not make such references if discussing Lin’s vision.

FOOD: Is there a compelling reason to draw a connection between Lin and fortune cookies, takeout boxes or similar imagery? In the majority of news coverage, the answer will be no.

MARTIAL ARTS: You’re writing about a basketball player. Don’t conflate his skills with judo, karate, tae kwon do, etc. Do not refer to Lin as “Grasshopper” or similar names associated with martial-arts stereotypes.

“ME LOVE YOU LIN TIME”: Avoid. This is a lazy pun on the athlete’s name and alludes to the broken English of a Hollywood caricature from the 1980s.

“YELLOW MAMBA”: This nickname that some have used for Lin plays off the “Black Mamba” nickname used by NBA star Kobe Bryant. It should be avoided. Asian immigrants in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries were subjected to discriminatory treatment resulting from a fear of a “Yellow Peril” that was touted in the media, which led to legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act.

If you didn’t chuckle a bit getting through the list, there’s something wrong with you. This is the Asian American Journalists Association explaining stereotypes and why they’re not okay. Sans the “chink” reference, which gets used as part of a well-known sports cliché not referring to anyone’s race, these are all pretty harmless. Meant to be positive in most cases. That doesn’t mean they can’t be used maliciously, but really any language can. From watching recent Knicks games, I’ve seen fans holding these signs, and it seems all in good fun. Maybe a tad unaware, but if you’re not looking to be offended, you probably won’t be. Apparently the AAJA is cool with “Super LINtendo,” “I want you LINside me,” and the MSG references. If the AAJA wants to police all the Lin puns and be the sole arbiter of what’s acceptable, it can only be more entertaining.

Racial insensitivity in the media isn’t cool, but neither is being the language police, raining on people’s fun just to let them know there is an AAJA that exists. Kind of. They’re operating on a Tumblr page right now. Seriously. I want very badly for Jeremy Lin to be treated respectfully and shown the dignity afforded all athletes. Well, hopefully the media treats him better than they treat Tebow. But as the AAJA memo addresses its advisory of news coverage of Lin, its DANGER ZONES aren’t uttered by anchors, but seen on fan signs. Even if offensive, the media should show them to shame their bearers and increase awareness.

When you try to control the language, it usually doesn’t work. And you might embarrass yourself. The AAJA doesn’t represent Jeremy Lin or any other unitary group of Asian Americans. To claim to speak for any of us is more offensive than any of these signs. To desperately search for something to be offended by bogs us all down in oversensitivity and does no one any favors, Asian Americans included. To try to wedge Asian Americans into the Politically Correct culture will not benefit us. We have a unique place in the diversity of America, separate from other race relations paradigms, and Jeremy Lin is doing great as an Asian American representative without the AAJA’s guidelines about what the media can’t say. Good language will win out, just like good players. That’s why I’m so optimistic about Jeremy Lin.

Next time: What Jeremy Lin means to me. The gushing feelings of a fourth generation Japanese American who grew up loving basketball.


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