Race, America, and the Meaning of Jeremy Lin: An Interview with Jeff Chang

Jeremy Lin is an overnight NBA superstar. Back in spring, Lin led the New York Knicks to nine wins in 12 games in his first 12 starts, creating a media firestorm—dubbed “Linsanity”—that quickly swept across the world. Lin, who is Asian-American, is a basketball phenom in a sport hugely popular in East Asia and among Asian-Americans but in which few Asians have excelled in the world’s top league.  I spoke with Jeff Chang—radical historian, journalist and author of the forthcoming book Who We Be: The Colorization of America—about the meaning of Jeremy Lin for race in America.  

SB: In reference to the Jeremy Lin phenomena, you’ve said “we’ve just turned a page in the way Asian-Americans are represented in the United States.” What do you mean?

JC: I don’t want to overstate this–because it’s not like everyone should now applaud the end of racism against Asian Americans. But for a couple of weeks in February, everyone was talking about the complexity of Jeremy’s story and pondering its significance. When Asians in the U.S. have not been portrayed as unknowable, permanent strangers, we have been seen as sort of white ethnics. We’re either the harder-working, smarter whites or the uglier, desexualized whites. We’re not seen as real people. We are caricatures meant to teach a lesson to other whites and other people of color.

What Jeremy Lin has done in a way that no one has since perhaps Bruce Lee is to put a real breathing and yes, complicated Asian American man firmly in the minds of people everywhere, as opposed to a ‘type’. When he broke through, it was the first time many people had to consider what it might mean to actually live as an Asian American, had to put their feet in our shoes.

SB: The NBA, the Knicks and Lin’s sponsors look to be making the most of Linsanity, using it to push the sports marketing machine in East Asia. What are some of the problems and opportunities arising from the use of Lin to globalize American sports?

First off, Jeremy is a born-and-bred American boy. He’s not Yao Ming. He’s not an ambassador from China or Taiwan, if anything he will be an ambassador for the sport to the people of China and Taiwan. I am sure he will represent well. But you can tell by his accent, how he dresses, the car he drives, his humor—his sensibility is thoroughly Northern Californian, thoroughly Taiwanese American, thoroughly Asian American. The kids in China or Taiwan read him that way. Period.

I don’t know about his politics. I don’t know if he hopes to become a Jackie Robinson type of figure. His college career doesn’t bespeak a hidden Ali or John Carlos streak. I hope that he will make his opinion known on issues other than his identity. I also hope he doesn’t shy away from identity questions as he grows into his role in the NBA universe, that his candor about his upbringing and his background doesn’t disappear as it has for people like, say, Michael Jordan.

SB: There’s been a racist backlash to Lin and his stardom. How have Asian-Americans responded to it?

JC: We have responded the way we always have–by calling bullshit on it.

SB: Finally, just how good is this guy?

JC: I’m a fan. He clearly has lots of things to work on–his defense, his ball-handling, his court vision. So I’m in the wait-and-see camp as far as him as a player. If he thinks about longevity, transformation, and leadership, he’ll be fine.

 

Published in Canadian Dimension 46 (3) May/June 2012: 55

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