For those needing a refresher on Asian American Studies 101, let me set the groundwork. The idea that Asians are the “model minority” is a myth. For reasons too numerous to count, this stereotype has contributed to the false and racist belief that Asian Americans, collectively, have overcome past discrimination and ‘made it’ (Tuan 2004). While some want to celebrate the over-generalized stereotype of Asian American success, popular media also portrays a sense of impending doom due to the “Asian Invasion” of the United States. Historically, this “yellow peril” portrayed Asians as a threat to the U.S. educational, economic, and labor systems (Frank, 1999, Nakanishi and Lai 2003). Politicians, media, and pundits utilize yellow peril to perpetuate a culture of fear (Glassner 1999) in order to create the perception that the imminent threat will necessarily lead to detrimental outcomes for the public. These contradicting narratives simultaneously racialize Asians as both foreign threat and proof that adherence to meritocracy makes the effects of discrimination temporary. The catch is that even though the ideal of meritocracy is central to US construction of success, that when non-whites –and in this case Asians, achieve success they are still viewed as threats to the power paradigm that promotes white exceptionalism.
This past week, sports enthusiasts were introduced to Asian American basketball phenomena, Jeremy Lin. The hoopster from Harvard was thrown into the national spotlight when the 4th string point guard reinvigorated a beleaguered New York Knicks team that was falling apart due to injuries and a series of off court tragedies and problems. “Linsantity” brings to the forefront both the economic potential of the Asian American market (See Espn’s Report on Lin’s Impact) but also, the not so subtle racism and prejudice Asian American athletes face in collegiate and professional sports. While his accomplishments on the court this past week have been nothing short of spectacular, one must ask –why all the hype? If Jeremy were white or black, would the accomplishments be treated with such extreme fanfare? In fact, just yesterday, Floyd Mayweather provided his own opinion on this –arguing that African Americans do this everyday and that Lin’s viewed as special because he’s Asian American. My answer is a bit more nuanced. I think Mayweather has a legitimate point when saying that a lot of the hype is because Lin is Asian American. I think we’re lying if we don’t admit this fact. But the sad but harsh truth is that Jeremy Lin’s rise to stardom this week points to the ongoing racism Asian American’s face. Underlying all the hype is the fundamental prejudice, held by the public, which says Asian Americans can’t play. When trying to rationalize why Lin’s performing so well –the sports commentators calling games repeatedly talk about what a ‘smart’ player Lin is –referencing both court decisions and his economics degree from Harvard. It’s not to say that he isn’t smart –but that this narrative is the only one proposed for this week’s success. Equally disturbing are the “debates” asking if “J-Lin is Legit?” The debate, in and of itself, would be unproblematic if it was simply about his skills –because it’s essentially a wait and see situation. Give Lin the opportunity to play and see how he performs. The problem stems from the unspoken implied question. If J-Lin is in fact ‘legit’ how does this change our understandings of the racial politics of sports in the United States that encodes meanings on racialized bodies? What does it mean if race is the reason that, Jeremy Lin, as Kenny Smith from ESPN said, was overlooked because it was a “severe misjudgment of talent?” If media coverage of ‘Linsanity’ is correct, then you will see an Asian invasion of the NBA because of the ‘marketability’ of Lin to the Asian international and domestic markets. What I find interesting is the fact that the NBA values this ‘infusion’ of Asian interest as part of market growth, while sports media struggles to comprehend the possibility of Asian American success in sports. Not surprisingly, however, is that the wedge politics of race that often comes along with challenges to the status quo. The new yellow peril, in the form of Jeremy Lin, focuses on the possibility that now that we might be willing to acknowledge the racism Asian American sports stars face, is that it necessarily means potential threats to blackness and whiteness in sports. As exemplified by the Mayweather critique, is that the focus on Lin inevitably means racism against African Americans. Or, if we pay attention to the undercurrent of sports commentators –if we have more ‘smart’ players entering the leagues, what does it mean to the white power structure?
Juxtapose the media hype surrounding Jeremy Lin with the recent ad run by Pete Hoekstra, a candidate running to represent Michigan in the Senate during the Superbowl. For those of you who have not seen the controversial ad , it depicts an Asian woman with a supposed Chinese accent in ‘traditional’ attire riding through a rice paddy. The audience is warned of the specter of socialism, and the impending economic takeover of the US economy by China if we didn’t focus on government spending. This advertisement plays into claims of Obama and his supporters’ promotion of ‘socialism’ and the rise of China as a global force. These racist depictions recycle yellow peril fear mongering present in World War II advertising (Hamamoto, 1994). Both the construction of race and ethnicity, and the racist depiction of Chinese culture evokes the a culture of fear based on economic nationalism. Not unlike what Dana Frank, discusses in Buy American (2000) audiences are expected to fear the loss of American exceptionalism due to the potential increased success of China in economic markets. These fears are made palatable through generally uninformed analysis that fails to look at the history of foreign economic policies related to Free Trade, lack of diplomacy, and the ways in which the financial industry remained largely unregulated by both Republican and Democratic legislatures and administrations. Instead of looking internally, the media –and in this case Hoekstra scapegoats the foreign other –making China the enemy and by association his Democratic opponent that he contends, is to blame for the current state of the economy. The sad fact is that Hoekstra’s campaign is racist, unimaginative, and nothing new. This case of yellow peril is just part of a larger campaign promoting hate and economic nationalism.
Yellow Peril Version 2.0 (or maybe it’s version 3.0 or 4.0 I’ve lost count) works to reinscribe the idea that anything Asian is the other –whether it’s related to sports or the economy. Acquainting ourselves with the historical discourse on Asian American experiences in the United States allows us to understand that the racial politics embedded in the coverage of Jeremy Lin, or in overtly racist ads likes Hoekstra serve to reinforce powerful and demeaning stereotypes of Asian Americans. Don’t get me wrong –these cases are vastly different, but the potential for expanding and promoting stereotypes is very present and extremely dangerous. The real question is whether or not we’re willing to see past the hype, and begin to educate ourselves about Asian American history. Because as Walt Kelly once noted, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Some self-reflexivity and perspective is needed in order to truly understand that we don’t need to create a new yellow peril –instead we need to study and examine the racist beliefs and socialization that constructed a reality where the athletic success of Jeremy Lin is not considered within the realm of possibility.
That said, when asked by friends if I’ve subscribed to the “Linsanity” –my answer’s simple. ABSOLUTELY. Because guess what –Asian Men CAN jump.
Frank, D. (2000.) Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism. Beacon Press
Glassner, B. (2010) The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, & So Much More. 2nd Edition. Basic Books Press.
Hamamoto, D. (1994.) Monitored Peril: Asian Americans and the Politics of TV Representation. University of Minnesota Press.
Okihiro, G. (1994.) Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture. University of Washington Press
Tuan, M. (1999.) Forever Foreigners or onorary Whites: The Asian Ethnic Experience Today. Rutgers University Press