Jeremy Lin Coverage Mirrors Media Misunderstanding of Asian Americans

This media analysis originally appeared on WIMN’s Voices on February 28, 2012.

Some sports fans may have been surprised by the recent racially “Lin-sensistive” media coverage of suddenly-famous NBA point guard Jeremy Lin. Me? Not so much.

Last year, I joined the throng of Asian students who earn spots in America’s top universities—a trend simultaneously heralded as a triumph for “model minorities” (PDF) and a justification for discriminatory admissions practices.

The first week of my graduate classes at Columbia University, I was stunned when one of my professors—a veteran journalist—used the word “coolie” to describe pedicab drivers in Central Park.

Walking the 35 blocks back to my apartment from campus that afternoon, men, gathered in groups or standing alone, called out:

“Hey China Doll!”


And of course: “Ching Chang Chong,” and other variations.

To those of us who have to deal with anti-Asian racism in our day-to-day lives and through the media, racist media coverage of New York Knicks’ Jeremy Lin may be hurtful, but it isn’t surprising.

The 23-year-old’s rise to NBA stardom has been astounding to watch, and many people of all backgrounds seem to have developed a sincere respect for him. But the way some media outlets and bloggers have joked about or discussed Lin’s race reflects long-standing stereotypes, negative portrayals, and lack of representation of Asians in the media.

Since I have grown up seeing kids on the playground pull up the corners of their eyes to mimic my Asian eyes, I wasn’t surprised when Greg Kelly ofWNYW Fox 5 News in New York made an on-air joke about Lin’s eyes. His fellow anchors awkwardly laughed along:

The ESPN “chink in the armor” incidents have gotten the most attention out of the array of questionable remarks made in the media about New York’s newest sports star, and the reaction to those incidents were quite telling.

On February 16, ESPN anchor Max Bretos used the phrase “chink in the armor” on air. Two days later, ESPN editor Anthony Federico published “Chink in the Armor” as a headline for a web column.

Bretos received a 30-day suspension and Federico was fired, but rather than praising ESPN for their swift response, hundreds of journalists and bloggers,including Glenn Beck, have criticized the sports network for over-reacting. Many have cited the fact that Bretos has an Asian wife as a reason why he couldn’t possibly be racist.

Even if both Bretos and Federico are given the benefit of the doubt (or a get-away-with-racism-free pass based on the ethnic background of Bretos’ wife), their decisions on air and online still reflect a considerable cluelessness on the part of journalists reporting on Asian Americans. Members of the media need to understand that “chink” as a pejorative about Asian Americans is similarly hateful to the “n-word” when used against African Americans. In that light, a journalist talking about the only Asian-American NBA player as being a “chink in the armor” is inappropriate and foolhardy at best.

Yet this coverage also provides a teachable moment for reporters and commentators. Media outlets shouldn’t decide not to discuss race in sports because they fear similar backlash to the public outcry over offensive treatment of Lin. Instead, for members of the media who want to cover Asian Americans accurately while avoiding racist tropes, the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) has released some handy guidelines. For example:

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.

Racism in media coverage of Lin can be more subtle than headlines with hateful slurs or race-coded imagery. For example, even though Lin, at 6’3” and 200 lbs, is pretty big for a point guard, sports columnists have frequently downplayed his athletic ability and physical presence and focused instead on his smarts and analytical abilities, in keeping with classic stereotypes.

Lin has responded to this media attention with humility and composure, but he hasn’t completely avoided calling out the ignorance that has marked much of his coverage. In a news conference this weekend, he said:

“Obviously, when you look at me, I’m going to have to prove myself more so again and again and again, and some people may not believe it…I know a lot of people say I’m deceptively athletic and deceptively quick, and I’m not sure what’s deceptive. But it could be the fact that I’m Asian-American.”

Discriminatory media coverage of Jeremy Lin holds up a mirror to our society’s persistent ignorance about racism against Asian Americans, a theme examined by the L.A. Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Many commentators have also pointed out that the kind of remarks made about Lin’s race in the media likely would not have been seen as acceptable if they had been directed at other minority groups. In a “Saturday Night Live” spoof, the anchors of “New York Sports Now” rattled off a litany of Lin puns, Chinese food references and “me love you long time” jokes, smugly assuring one another that those quips had nothing to do with race. The jovial mood abruptly changed, however, when one of the anchors made a fried chicken joke about Kobe Bryant. SNL underscored the ludicrousness of Lin coverage with archival footage of Jackie Robinson, who “endured name calling and racial taunts, but he persevered. And that’s why today the sports world is TOLERANT.” The segue back to the sketch sports desk? One of the anchors striking a big brass gong:

In contrast to common media stereotypes of black people as uneducated, violent and angry at white people, news and entertainment media often portray Asians as “model minorities” who aren’t prone to kick up a fuss about discriminatory treatment. When we are confronted with racist remarks or incidents, Asians, with our supposedly introverted tendencies, are expected to “take it.”

“It might be true that Asian-Americans, who have historically suffered from explicit discriminatory policies, may have learned to ‘take it,’ but ‘taking it’ is a cultural reaction for survival in a place where we were (and still are!) welcome to work but not to live or identify with,” Isaac Louie, a diversity committee board member at Simon Fraser University, told WIMN’s Voices.

Interestingly, many of the criticisms of racist Jeremy Lin coverage have not come from Asian-Americans but from others in the media (from the sports press and fan blogs to satirical takes on “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” and “The Soup“). While allies’ opposition to bigotry is always important and welcome, the media storm around Jeremy Lin also presents an opportunity for more Asian Americans to speak out, take up space and tell our stories in a media landscape that has always underrepresented our voices.

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