4 Things The Jeremy Lin Story Reveals About Modern Racism
The whole Jeremy Lin story seems to be bringing out a new kind of racism that we're not used to -- a kinder, gentler racism made up of bad puns and well-meaning patronizing compliments.
Stay classy, Madison Square Garden Network.
Racism and hate often get paired together in people's minds like Siam- like conjoined twins. We always picture racists as angry and hostile, sneering racial slurs at minorities and making fear-based appeals about how some race is out to rape their women or take their jobs or dominate Hollywood.
One of the most common defenses against accusations of racism is "I don't have anything against X race," implying that it isn't racism if you don't have an actual grudge of some kind against a certain race.
Some people are insistent that racism should be defined that way, which is fine. If that's you, every time you see the word "racism" in this article, substitute the phrase "racial perception problems" and we should be on the same page.
Anyway, here's some types of ... racial perception problems that don't necessarily involve hate or bad intentions, but are still annoying as fuck. (Note: I'm going to be mostly giving examples of anti-Asian racism because I don't want to speak for people of other races and put words in their mouths about how they feel, but these concepts are probably annoying to anybody they're used on.)
Even "A Little Bit" of Fear Isn't Harmless
A lot of racism is fueled by fear, and this is by far the worst for the people being targeted by it. People who are afraid of the "natural violent tendencies" they imagine black people to have, or the insidious plan Hispanics supposedly have to secretly take over our country by outbreeding whites, can be driven to do terrible, drastic things to people of the feared race, far worse than just some tired MSG jokes.
Fear of Asians has had its day, some examples being the Yellow Peril era, where America's beloved author Jack London suggested the only way to be safe from the Chinese was to exterminate every last one, or World War II, when they locked Japanese-Americans away in case their genetic loyalty to Japan kicked in, creating a bizarre world where American icons George Takei and Pat Morita spent their childhoods behind barbed wire.
Seriously, we put Sulu and Mr. Miyagi in an internment camp.
Even back in the '80s, along with Michael Jackson and leg warmers, one big trend was the "blame Japan" thing, where Japan's antlike hive-mind efficiency was allegedly stealing away jobs from red-blooded American autoworkers. Harmless political pandering, blaming abstract foreigners that were conveniently across an ocean and safe from any backlash.
In 1982, two laid-off autoworkers took the message to heart and decided to make Japan pay for its crimes by beating to death a Chinese-American guy named Vincent Chin (because we all look alike). Sure, maybe it was an isolated incident, and you can't blame society as a whole for what two violent, stupid individuals do, but then you have the sympathetic state judge that gave them no jail time, and everyone who helped them get cleared of all federal charges, so maybe that attitude was a little more widespread than just two guys.
Thankfully we're all more enlightened these days, and nobody is stirring up any dangerous kind of fear regarding Asians. OK, maybe a few politicians here and there are taking advantage of people's fear of China stealing away their jobs and money, and maybe some of them are using Asian-American actors to personify the China threat.
She says, "Your economy get very weak" in the same tone of voice Jennifer Aniston would say it or something. It's really really weird.
Any place that has hosted this video has gotten a ton of protests that there's nothing wrong with it and that anyone upset about it is an oversensitive nitpicker hung up on political correctness and trying to distract from the main issue. There's no hate, they're just stating some facts about China in a colorful way, and they put in an Asian-American actress to give the ad a little story line and grab viewers. So what if she's Asian-American and they're making her act like she's a greedy representative of communist China and putting broken English sentences in her mouth? It's theater! Elijah Wood wasn't really a hobbit! Duh!
Some typical comments.
Sure, taken by itself, maybe an ad like that is just laughably insensitive and harmless. But for anyone who remembers Vincent Chin (which is apparently just Asians), it's the first step on a road we've been down before. Getting votes by stirring up some minor anti-Asian sentiment isn't a big deal for someone who can't remember things that happened 30 years ago, but for anyone else, it's not really cool.
No Fear, But No Respect
Fortunately for now, most of America just sees Asian-Americans as cute little socially awkward entertainers or one possible exotic choice in sex partners. (The wise, inscrutable stereotype usually only goes to foreign-born Asians. It's hard to sound wise with a California accent.)
I say "fortunately" because I guess I'd rather be patronized than worry about getting beaten, in the same sense that I'd rather have my wallet stolen than get my kidneys stolen. But the existence of kidney thieves doesn't make pickpocketing OK, and it doesn't mean people being pickpocketed should shut up and stop whining and be grateful they still have all their organs.
As Jay Kang of Grantland points out, a lot of Asian teens, including Jeremy Lin at 15, try to adopt aspects of black culture, because even with as many negative stereotypes as black people are saddled with, at least one stereotype is that black culture is cool, hip-hop in particular -- and cool is one label Asian-Americans can never get to stick.
Looking 10 years younger than your given age doesn't really help with that.
White people can be cool in the form of partying frat boys, suave businessmen, badass soldiers or wisecracking slackers, among other things. Black people can be pigeonholed into a lot of roles that are often stereotypical and negative, but still come across as cool -- rapper, basketball player, gangster. The only time Asians can look cool is if they're doing martial arts or are very wise in some kind of Eastern philosophy, which pretty much requires them to be from Asia or very immersed in Asian culture.
If you start talking like you're from California or Wisconsin, then forget it. There is no cool about you. You're not the life of the party. You're not the class clown. You'll never be a rock star. If you rap, it's expected to be ironic. Whenever you try to be cool, it's cute, and you get a pat on the head for making people smile.
"Jin thinks he's a rapper! How adorable!"
Nobody ever flung hateful slurs at me in high school, but a (white) classmate tried to convince me to say "original gangster" after he said "O.G.," because it's funny when a studious Asian girl tries to say something cool and urban like that! She doesn't even know what rap is! Ha ha! She thinks she's Ice-T, motherfuckers! More like Ice-Oolong-T!
That's why we are crazy about having a flashy basketball star in Jeremy Lin. When your guy dunks on people, nobody can say he's not cool. Nobody can pat him on the head. That's a move that gets chest bumps and manly shouts and nods of respect.
Like Kang says, we feel like we're not allowed to make a big deal of how annoying it is to be patronized because other races are suffering discrimination in even more damaging ways. For sure, more resources and attention should go to the more serious race problems, but if making life a little less aggravating for Asian-Americans is as simple as not saying a couple of stupid things, why not do that, too?
Clumsy, Inaccurate Race Jokes
Making watermelon and fried chicken jokes about black people is pretty offensive, but making pirogi jokes about black people would just be bizarre. I'm sure black people aren't as mindlessly and uniformly addicted to fried chicken as the stereotypes say, but their pirogi consumption has got to be next to nil.
Pirogi. Perogi? Perogy? Why do so many countries make this thing? Can't we settle on one?
If you started joking with a black friend about how he probably eats pirogi all the time, and how his family all wears sombreros and shoots pistols in the air, and rides bicycles around the Eiffel Tower, he would probably wonder if you knew what race he was.
I'm going to leave off there, because I can't speak for other people too much, but if someone called me a "gook," for example, my immediate gut reaction, before even thinking "racism," would be "THAT'S NOT EVEN THE RIGHT RACE." I know that critiquing the accuracy of a racist joke seems sort of like criticizing the construction quality of a cross being burned on someone's lawn, but in a weird way, someone not even being informed enough about you to use the right slur is a sting in its own right.
You want to annoy a Chinese-American? Make some sushi jokes, or kimchi jokes, or maybe even some sweet and sour pork jokes. Apparently not a lot of people know this, but there's a number of dishes that Chinese people really don't eat a lot of, and they're mainly for appeasing the mostly white clientele of many Chinese restaurants. Sweet and sour pork is one of them.
If you want to do a "This is what Chinese people be like" joke, you probably want to talk about how they can't get enough of the tapioca tea or something. That'll hit a little closer to home.
Maybe racist. But I can't honestly say they're inaccurate.
You can really see the creaky, rusty wheels turning as people struggle to make Jeremy Lin puns and race-related jokes. You can see the panic in people's eyes, going "Oh shit, I forgot these people even existed. I am really going to have to scramble to remember what stereotypes we are supposed to have about them."
It's the same look in people's eyes when you introduce yourself and you realize they don't remember you, but know they are supposed to, so they bravely fake it. "Oh yeah! I remember you ... from the ... yeah! Of course! How is the ... wif- girlfriend? How, uh ... yeah!" All the time their eyes are flicking around desperately, pleading for help that will never come.
"Of course I remember you! From the ... thing ... with the thing!"
The fact that they are trying so hard makes it even worse, because it just emphasizes how buried and unimportant their memory of you was. At least if they hated you and told you to fuck off, you could feel mad and righteously indignant. But as they knit their eyebrows at you, you just feel like a sad nobody who doesn't make an impression.
It's like people in the media are embarrassed to be caught flat-footed, admitting they haven't thought about Asian-Americans in years, if at all, and are trying to pass themselves off as men of the world who of course have a saucy, irreverent quip or anecdote ready for discussing any citizen of our diverse country.
Sometimes they panic, and this happens.
All they end up showing is that Americans have about 10 Asian jokes that they play over and over again on repeat like songs on a Clear Channel radio station: small penis, yellow puns, pidgin accent (love you long time), slanty eyes, eating dogs/cats, weird food, good at math, martial arts, bad drivers and owning laundries, which is particularly sad because apparently Americans haven't gathered enough new jokes since the 1800s to bump the laundry joke off the list.
Can't anyone come up with some new jokes? DVD piracy jokes, maybe? Gold-farming jokes? For heaven's sake, at least keep it fresh.
Studying People Like Lab Specimens
In this article, the author wonders if Jeremy Lin being Chinese has anything to do with his point guard skills, pointing to some studies contrasting how Chinese subjects and American subjects responded to certain images.
There's a lot of complaints about why he'd even do that analysis, which other people have covered plenty, so let's just look at this weird paragraph:
"There's at least one problem with my conjecture. These experiments were done with Asians, not Asian-Americans, and presumably immersing people of Asian heritage in Western culture makes them more and more like Westerners. Indeed, other researchers showed Rorschach cards to China-born Chinese and American-born Chinese and found that the China-born subjects were more likely to view the patterns as a whole, whereas the American-born focused more on details."
Presumably, he says, if a hypothetical Asian was born in America, perhaps this theoretical person might be very Westernized. There's nothing wrong with that theory, except it sounds like it was written by someone who has never met an Asian-American. Maybe the author has, but it's just worded very strangely, referring to studies and guesses of people who walk the same streets as you every day.
Maybe if you're lucky they'll even sleep on you!
I mean, I understand that anecdotal evidence is inferior to statistical evidence in general, but this wasn't a scholarly paper by any means -- it was some guy free-form brainstorming about Chinese people having basketball-wired brains, for heaven's sake. And the westernization part wasn't even some far-fetched theory that needs support. I mean, stating that people who are raised in one place are somewhat influenced by it is a pretty safe statement. You don't need the careful "We don't know anything about these people, we can only guess" language, unless of course you see these people as such unknown quantities that you can't guarantee that an obvious truth would apply.
You know there is something off when a racial group of 15 million Americans is talked about in theoretical terms like the elves of Middle Earth or some exotic tribe, using language that implies it's highly improbable you'll ever meet one.
So yeah, I'm pretty sure most people don't mean any harm by any of this. All I'm saying is, when you want to make some Asian joke in the future, maybe check yo self before you wreck yo self.
No, that was NOT adorable. Shut up.
For more from Christina, check out The 6 Worst Parts of Being Chinese (Not In The Stereotypes) and The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages.