During the hours before the “chink” references at ESPN, I was convinced that many Asian Americans were willing to overlook Floyd Mayweather, Jason Whitlock, the New York Post’s “Amasian,” and myriad other public indignities in order to experience something so joyous and so spectacularly surprising as Jeremy Lin that even we, the people who are like him, have been conditioned to never have expected it.
Less than a week ago, in trying to explain what Lin means to Asian Americans, I wrote on ESPN.com that his feel-good run in the NBA would be a test of ”an Asian American’s ability to take the bad with the overwhelming good.”
We couldn’t be allowed to have even a fleeting, rapturous moment without the bad-good equation being utterly turned on its head by such a torrent of racially motivated indignation and political-correctness backlash that feels, in some ways, like open season has been declared on Asian Americans. I feel stupid and ashamed, true to my cultural conditioning, I suppose, that I ignored the reality of living in HaterNation, a place where the meek are allowed to rise because the mighty so enjoys shooting them full of holes during the inevitable fall. The past few days have taken us beyond that.
That “Chink in the Armor” happened is so unbelievable to me, it still feels like a bad dream. But it wasn’t the end of Linsanity; it hasn’t even been the worst part. Americans who are not of Asian descent are hijacking the discussion of how Asian Americans would like to be talked about, and that is the real kick in the groin.
Speaking about spoofing Asian American stereotypes, on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” Buzz Bissinger of The Daily Beast said, “That stuff is going to happen and, in a sense, we have to get over it.”
To which host Howard Kurtz replies, “Fun is one thing, offensive stereotyping is something else.”
And I only can suppose that having fun with offensive stereotypes must be the ultimate.
Stephen A. Smith, who is black, forcefully made the point earlier this week on ESPN that Black Americans (mostly) created an environment of heightened sensitivity to racial issues. This in turn enabled other communities to demand similar sensitivity, Smith continued, to the point today of creating an environment of oversensitivity. I know and respect Smith, and he makes some good points about this being an “unforgiving society” and the use of race as a crutch, but the timing of his main point is unfortunate. Saturday Night Live, after all, just did a wickedly spot-on parody of the acceptance of racial insensitivity directed at Asian Americans but not Black Americans.
During Smith’s monologue, I kept hearing in my own head Bissinger saying, “Get over it.” And I keep hearing the chorus, everywhere else, “The blacks had their say; the rest of you need to lighten up.” Asian Americans have been invisible for so long, I’m not sure if media organizations are trotting out blacks and whites to interpret a situation in which we are the major stakeholders because there are so scant few of us positioned to do the same. If we end up not speaking for ourselves (and being heard), because of self-censorship, the din of public disapproval or silent ignorance, I now will feel cheated. Though we were at one point willing to let it all pass, one of the real gifts of Jeremy Lin ends up being the moment for Asian Americans to finally set the record straight about how we’re regarded. It may seem odd to say this, being 2012, the Year of the Dragon, with a person of color in the White House, but this is where we are, at a point where the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) felt compelled to send out a media advisory about covering Lin and Asian Americans.
We’ve been in this country for more than 180 years, and America does not yet know us. I for one would like to introduce myself. Come have sushi with me, but let’s have apple pie for desert. Then stop thinking you can push me around because you’ve judged the culture I’m from as demure. Stop marginalizing me with your platitudes and assumptions. I identify more closely with Rick Reilly or even Bill O’Reilly because they’re American men who write for a living. Ichiro and Yao Ming may look more like me, but they’re from another world and I couldn’t even conduct an unintelligent conversation with them the way I could, say, Buzz Bissinger.
Maybe the American public thinks we don’t mind being called “chinks,” “Japs,” “gooks” or “fish-heads,” or that it’s OK on occasion to tighten eyes and jut out front teeth, all in good, racial fun, because we’ve not offered so much as a karate chop in protest. We’ve made it easy to believe that such abuse is a small price to pay for the right to otherwise be left alone or, at best, be mythologized as “model minorities” and being plied with “positive” stereotypes such as intelligence, exoticism and work ethic. America loves validation of its land-of-opportunity façade, the better to maintain the status quo, and Asian Americans provide it in bundles, not expecting much validation in return.
But those are the burdens our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are far more willing to bear. The immigrants among them are closer to the Asian cultures that valued humility, conformity and endurance above most else. They are the ones whose cells bear the scars of being legally isolated, excluded from citizenship, scorned and beaten as the Chinese Americans were after the Gold Rush, sent to camps the way Japanese Americans were during World War II (Sunday was the 70th anniversary of the signing by FDR of Executive Order 9066), or had businesses burned to the ground as Korean Americans did only a decade ago during the L.A. riots.
Those generations of Asian Americans are entitled to their dread. Surely, one of the clear lessons of Linsanity is that the anti-Asian sentiment that has simmered throughout the course of history in this country doesn’t require much to bubble to the surface. Some have suggested there surely have been parallels with black athletes in a racist America, but I say not — certainly not this openly in the mass media. If there ever was a contemporary, racially charged equivalent, it would have been Hank Aaron’s pursuit of the hallowed home run record held by white icon Babe Ruth. Did newspapers (emphasis on the plural) run cartoons of Aaron bashing watermelons with a bat? Rising to the level of, “Chink in the Armor,” requires the use in a headline of a word like “coon,” if not the word that has come to be regarded as the most charged in our language, “nigger.”
During a recent Internet discussion, resulting from a post by a friend who teaches journalism, a respondent said he thought, “Chink in the Armor,” was a “good play on words.” I wondered if that person could produce good wordplay with “bitch” or “nigger.” If seeing those words in print shocks or upsets you, I’m sorry. Now you know the way “chink” or “Jap” or any other anti-Asian epithet roils in the pit of my stomach as much as the other words do.
Anyone with a Facebook account knows the conflict that churns within many Asian Americans today. Put yourself out there, and you may be ignored. Is that better or worse than the fact that others are free to comment about you — to judge you? Try posting a photo and having someone comment that you’re ugly.
Your hair is black and course, someone might say. Where does this go?
Your face is flat. Your eyes are slanted. Your skin is yellow.
You sound funny. Your food is smelly. You are short and weak, sneaky and suspicious, bookish and nerdy.
Cook my food. Wash my clothes. Cut my lawn.
Chink. Jap. Gook.
Revealing yourself is like being the nail that sticks out, only to be hammered down, as the Japanese proverb promises.
I’ve never been more savagely attacked as a writer than the times when I’ve discussed my cultural background. Out of solidarity with a black NBA player named Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, I once spent most of a basketball season refusing to stand for the National Anthem before games, just as he did not. He argued that the flag was a symbol of oppression and saluting it was inconsistent with his Islamic beliefs. I explained in a column in The Seattle Times that I was exercising my right as a U.S. citizen to protest my own country’s past of interning Japanese Americans and a childhood spent taking in the racial hatred spewed at my mother. I received enough hate mail to fill a large cardboard box, almost all of it focusing on racial grounds. I also received death threats so numerous and some so credible that my newspaper arranged for extra security around press row for a couple games in Seattle.
So, yes, a lot of the glee Asian Americans felt during the Jeremy Lin story was over the fact that we did not have to say, “Look at me.” We were able to say, “Look at him because he is the best of us.” Much of America loved what it saw, but too much of it still looks at Jeremy Lin and thinks, “chink.” And way too many Americans were emboldened to think it out loud. The experience has burst a precious bubble and awakened something altogether different in me. My abundant Asian American pride has been replaced by anger and a determination not to stay silent.
And of course I’ve not yet decided if that’s a good thing.
NOTE: Check out more of Bernard Chang’s extraordinary work here