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A Question of Identity

The headline, the tweet, and the unfair significance of Jeremy Lin

Back in my blunted-out days in high school, I played in one of those coed softball leagues for which the sole purpose is to provide an outlet for parking lot drinking, revealing costumes, and the occasional feat of strength. My friends back then were mostly nerdy, shy kids who channeled their social frustration through the relatable yet thoroughly foreign avatars who populated our favorite hip-hop songs. In the softball league, our cultural tourism expressed itself through the names we stenciled on the backs of our jerseys. Our shortstop, a spindly, vaguely sexless kid who would go on to star in the aeronautics field, was U-God. Our first baseman, a thick, stoic dude who now works as a lawyer of some sort, was Chef Raekwon. Our right fielder had the lucky distinction of being Method Man. It was your typically stupid suburban scene — a bunch of white kids and the token Asian celebrating “ghetto” things in the most condescending manner possible. Always the diva, I gave myself several nicknames: the Mental Oriental, the Raging Asian, Chink-opotamus, Chinkletoes, and so on.

In a game against our nerdy doppelgangers in the senior class, I walked up to the plate. When a friend of mine saw that I had drawn the Wu-Tang “W” on the back of my jersey, he said, “If you ever tried to hang with the Wu, they’d murder your stupid Asian ass like the grocery store owner in Menace 2 Society.” There was a hard edge in his voice that I, despite having grown up as an anomalous minority in the South, had never heard before. My white girlfriend and I were once chased out of an ice cream parlor by the owner, who called me “filthy.” But that felt more like some thoroughly fucked version of housekeeping than anything personal. I got punched into the lockers on a daily basis in middle school, but everyone who played Magic cards got punched into the lockers, and I didn’t read too heavily into the fact that some kids got punched a bit more than others. The logic of otherness never quite translates through adolescence, at least not in any clear way. Every ugly incident could be rationalized away, nothing had too much to do with my race. An instinctive yet comforting form of self-preservation locked itself in. After all, if you stepped into a classroom or a cafeteria and knew exactly what everyone was thinking, you’d probably never do much of anything again.

And yet, while you’re never fully aware, you’re never fully not aware, either. Like many of the Asian American kids of my generation stuck somewhere between white and black, I filled the vacant parts of my identity with basketball and hip-hop. It was misdirected and yawningly suburban, sure, but by the time I walked to the plate in that softball game, I had built up a glittering yet utterly fragile structure of black iconography, all of which stood in nicely for my reality as an Asian kid without many friends who spent almost all his time worrying about debate tournaments and all the pretty, unattainable girls on the fast track to sorority row. I suppose that’s why my friend’s comment finally cut through, why it still lingers today. He kicked dirt over two distinct fantasies and made me stare down two very hard truths. The first: My friends had, in fact, noticed that I wasn’t white. The second: I could stalk Rasheed Wallace around Chapel Hill, memorize KRS-One lyrics, rock Timberland boots, and read Eldridge Cleaver and Cornel West without any critical distinction (all things I did in high school), but blackness would always be further away than whiteness and there was a wide gulf of bad history that ensured the distance.

These have been a revealing two weeks, not only for the Asian American community or the Ivy League basketball community or the talent evaluator committee, but also for watchdogs, handwringers, and pulpit-thumpers. Not since Barack Obama’s presidential campaign has there been so much national discussion about the appropriateness of discussing race. The 2008 election set the groundwork for an aggressive sort of colorblindness — as long as you voted for Barack and/or can celebrate, say, Jackie Robinson, you now have the right to flag down anything that might shake us from our post-racial dream. Statements like “I see everybody equally, therefore everyone should just talk about him as a basketball player” and accusations of “playing the race card” have become even more ubiquitous. And although the former signals a nice sentiment, it also provides convenient cover for those of us who benefit most from the status quo, regardless of race. Yes, Jeremy Lin became Linsanity because he has been playing at a level that has recalibrated expectations of any obscure player. And yes, there’s nothing more tiresome than a long-winded meditation on a basketball player, especially if he’s clearly been hijacked to promote some other agenda. But to strip Jeremy Lin of his status as the Great Yellow Hope not only seems dishonest and lazy, it also deprives the community he represents — willfully or not — of the unabashed joy of seeing one of its own succeed in the most improbable arena.

During the first few games of Lin’s run, it was mentioned early and often that he was the “first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA.” Once the story got knocked off its hinges, that tedious mouthful got spat out for a good, generic “underdog.” National media outlets, present company included, have now strung his narrative along a more relatable, predictable path. In Act One, Jeremy faces down the doubters and all their doubts. In Act Two, he perseveres. In Act Three, perseverance pays off in the greatest city in the world. Along the way, he slays the Cyclops of Stereotypes and sails right on past the rock where the three Kardashian sirens sing their celebrity song.

This is not a bad story. But it is not the story of Jeremy Lin.

Of all the news that has come out about Lin’s former life — and there hasn’t been much — none excited me as much as a screenshot from his Xanga. In a series of captioned photos, a 15-year-old Lin wears a headband in the style of different NBA stars. It’s a funny, endearing look into Lin’s childhood and hints at a sense of humor that has mostly been absent from his media obligations. But none of the photos or the captions is as telling as the Xanga account’s name: ChiNkBaLLa88.

If you stare at the word “ChiNkBaLLa88″ for long enough, you begin to see, a bit more clearly, the reason why Linsanity has sparked such an intensity of emotion among Asian Americans. Within that strange, thoroughly American word contraption, a racial slur is fused — using the somewhat infuriating capitalization habits of teenagers in the mid-aughts — with a highly racialized, identifiably black swagger. I don’t mean to be overly academic and certainly don’t mean to imply that Jeremy Lin thought about any of this when he was 15 years old. But I do think something like “ChiNkBaLLa88″ comes from a series of learned reactions. When I was 15, I must have come up with at least 200 different nicknames for myself. Each one involved a racial slur and a hip-hop reference. Within those tight strictures — maybe while listening to Reasonable Doubt — there’s a decent chance I might have come up with ChinkBalla myself.

As my friend pointed out at that softball game, these contraptions only make sense within the narrowest and most personal of contexts — a largely identified kid trying on whatever feels right, a generation of immigrant children trying to orient themselves within a racially polarized landscape. But that’s exactly why Jeremy Lin, while stirring up unknown depths of pride, has also heightened our collective sensitivity. The pride we feel over his accomplishments is deeply personal and cuts across discomforting truths that many of us have never discussed. It’s why a headline that reads “Chink in the Armor,” or Jason Whitlock’s tweeted joke about “two inches of pain,” stings with a new intensity. Try to understand, everything said about Jeremy Lin, whether glowing, dismissive, or bigoted, doubles as a referendum on where we, as a people, stand. This, by definition, is absurd. But when there’s almost no other public representation of your people in the mainstream media, Hollywood, or in politics, you hawk, fervently, over whatever comes your way.

For the growing percentage of Asian Americans who would like to see their minority status as nothing more than a curiosity, “Chink in the Armor” spotlighted what we already knew, but seldom admit: Even the most vigilant parts of our society do not treat all racism the same way. There’s no way for me, as an ESPN employee, to comment on what happened Saturday morning without compromising my integrity as a writer. I have no interest in shilling for ESPN and hope that readers will afford me the grace to not see any of this as an attempt to push an Asian American face out in front of this mess. Certainly, if that were the case, you’d never read another word with my byline on this site or on any other ESPN property.

What I can say is this: “Chink in the Armor” was completely unacceptable and made me seriously reconsider my continued employment with the company. I spent most of Saturday fielding calls, e-mails, and messages about “Chink in the Armor,” and I share in the collective anger and exasperation. The response and the apologies seem largely beside the point — the damage was done at the point when we realized that Jeremy Lin had not single-handedly solved racism in America. But I’ve never seen the Asian American community speak out with such unified force and coherence. Perhaps it’s a bit damning that four words about a basketball player sparked such outrage while a tragedy like the death of Private Danny Chen went largely unnoticed, but the fucked-up truth is that the story of Danny Chen might have received its proper respect had it come post-Linsanity.

In the past, I’ve been as guilty as anyone else of turning a blind eye to racist things people have said to me. For the most part, I have nodded along with the calculus that says that because “our people” have achieved and because we “didn’t have it as bad as others,” we should just shut up and point to the scoreboard of Ivy League admissions. Or whatever. But a career of deflections and rationalizations leaves a residue. Linsanity, and everything ugly that inevitably came with it, has given us cause to clear our throats and expunge what can sometimes feel like a lifetime of silence and compromise.

This much is clear: We still haven’t figured out how to talk about Asian Americans. The term “model minority” has long since expired, for good reason, but the nerdy kid who, through hard work and natural intelligence, pulls himself into good standing still remains the dominant narrative. For the most part, that’s how Jeremy Lin has been processed. He’s described as humble and smart and a great kid who worked hard to overcome long odds. All these things might be true, but they simply mirror the quiet way in which we succeed in this country. In an earlier column, I said that it has become standard practice among high-achieving Asian Americans to dodge any questions about race. This impulse comes, I believe, out of guilt and a pervasive, irrational fear that if we talk too much about prejudice and act too indignant over insensitive comments, the powers that be will reverse the course of history and send us back to building railroads. As such, if Jeremy Lin simply went about his business, got his stats, and helped his teammates, his accomplishments would be celebrated, but they might not resonate as powerfully with his Asian American fans.

Instead, we have a 23-year-old kid who dunks, keeps the ball for himself in pressure situations, preens, chest bumps, and gets caught up in Kim Kardashian rumors. The public record of Jeremy Lin might show a modest kid who praises Jesus, but that’s not how he conducts himself on the court. I’m not particularly proud of it, but over the past two weeks, I’ve exchanged countless e-mails with my Asian American friends about how the only way the Jeremy Lin story could possibly be better is if he talked like Nas and released a dis track on Tru Warier Records. All of us have shared stories, without a hint of modesty or shame, about getting choked up while watching Knicks games. Lin has reignited the possibility of ChiNkBaLLa88 and the Mental Oriental — a pluralistic, autonomous minority who, without apology, represents a life spent stuck between expectations.

Maybe it’s not fair to Jeremy Lin, and it’s certainly too much to heap onto a young man whose saga through the NBA has just reached its 10th game. But regardless of what the polite rules of our post-racial society might say about conflating athletes into symbols or talking too much about race, Jeremy Lin-as-symbol-for-his-people has already arrived.

Filed Under: College Sports, Jeremy Lin, People, The U

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Jay Caspian Kang is a Grantland contributor. His debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, is on sale now.

Archive @ jaycaspiankang