When I lived near Houston, Yao Ming was having a hall of fame career on the Houston Rockets, and I was arguing with my elementary school gym teacher about Yao’s height (7 feet, 6 inches tall, for the curious). After I moved to New Jersey, Jeremy Lin led the New York Knicks on a seven–game winning streak that was one of the most electrifying sports moments I have ever experienced. I owe the entirety of my sports obsession to the time I spent watching those two Asian men lighting up the NBA.
Fast forward a decade: Jeremy Lin is no longer the icon he used to be. His career has been plagued with injuries; he followed his brief tenure in New York with stints on other teams before he finally won his first NBA championship in 2019 as a bench player with the Toronto Raptors. His contract with the Raptors ended after a few months of disappointingly poor performance and afterwards, he was out of the NBA entirely. He then signed with the Beijing Ducks for the 2019–2020 season. However, there now is a possibility of a return to the United States basketball scene—on Jan. 9, it was announced that Lin would play for the Golden State Warriors’ minor league affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors, where he first started his career.
Lin’s Asianness has indisputably influenced the lens through which his performance and career is viewed. He left Harvard University undrafted and was frequently labeled as unathletic, but as former general manager of the Rockets and current Philadelphia 76ers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey once said, “He’s incredibly athletic. But the reality is that every fucking person, including me, thought he was unathletic. And I can’t think of any reason for it other than he was Asian.”
After Lin signed with Toronto, the large Asian population and more specifically, Chinese communities in the surrounding areas were cited as a large part of the excitement. A Reddit user said, “I'm just here to warn r/nba that our fanbase is about to get a lot more annoying, with plenty of casual fans who know nothing about basketball other than Lin's stats.” Near the height of Linsanity, ESPN fired an employee who wrote an overtly racist headline about Lin and the Knicks, entitled “Chink in the Armor.”
The anti–Asian racism in the NBA has its own complexities outside of the media. The idea of Lin as a cerebral player with a high basketball IQ is viewed as offensive stereotyping while simultaneously being leaned into; Lin’s Harvard–ness has been the center of both a SportsCenter advertisement and a video featuring Ryan Higa. Add on the fact that the league’s athletes are primarily Black (though, notably, that is not the case in front office and executive positions), and the way people discuss Lin’s Asianness reveals the flaws in our conversations surrounding anti–Asian racism.
In the storytelling surrounding Lin’s struggles, comments, or controversies, there is always a nemesis, and that nemesis is almost always Black. Propagators of Linsanity claim that Carmelo Anthony was intensely jealous of Lin’s sudden ascension to the spotlight, a fact supported by his then–teammate Amar’e Stoudemire. After Lin criticized Trump and anti–Asian sentiment following the spread of COVID–19, an internet response viewed by many trotted out the line commonly employed by Asian Americans and non–Black marginalized groups: “Well, if the racism was directed against Black people, more people would care.”
The anti–Asian racism experienced by Lin throughout his career is legitimate and easily condemned, as it should be, but the responses ought to be examined more critically. Often, it feels like the discourse we tread when it comes to discussing anti–Asian and anti–Black racism in relation to each other has always been done before. Before Awkwafina’s minstrel–esque blaccent performance in Crazy Rich Asians, Lin had his own moment of cultural appropriation when he wore dreadlocks. Kenyon Martin criticized the decision; Lin subsequently pointed out that Martin had tattoos with Chinese characters. A Washington Post article written by a white man spun the situation just as you might expect, using a stereotype of Asian American dignity to put down supposed Black aggression with a bizarre sort of glee: Lin “[takes] the highest of roads,” Bonesteel wrote, capped with a headline of “Jeremy Lin kills [Martin] with kindness,” and a subheading of “Jeremy Lin’s hair is now A Thing We Have to Talk About, apparently.” (The appropriation of Black hairstyles has been “A Thing That We Have Talked About” for a while now.)
I don’t have a concrete answer to this situation other than the fact that the over–heightened portrayal of Asian dignity is not flattering, and that this discourse never feels productive. It also feels equally unproductive to dismiss concerns about how culture is commodified and aestheticized.
What I do know from my experience of chronically being on the internet is that Asian people often (and uncomfortably) jump on opportunities to criticize Black people of anti–Asian racism or cultural appropriation. At the same time, we also view activism as a zero–sum game, where discussing anti–Blackness is at least part of the reason that anti–Asian racism might go unaddressed.
What is perhaps most important in looking at these responses to racism is what is forgotten: the white bystander. In discussing issues of race, there is always a sense of expected reciprocation—the sense that if I am speaking out for you, you should or must do so for me. Activism becomes transactional. It is telling that Black NBA players, who speak out against police murders and anti–Black violence, are expected to make comments on all other social justice issues—often criticized when they do not. Meanwhile, white athletes in the NHL are not pushed to speak up on any issues whatsoever.
For people of color, speaking up is often a matter of survival; for white people, activism for the marginalized is an ego boost. White people exist in a position where privilege—never needing to defend themselves against discrimination—begets privilege—therefore never being expected to speak up to defend others against discrimination. In the world of transactional activism, white people are not expected to advocate for anybody.
On the other hand, there’s an expectation for people of color and marginalized groups—particularly Black people, whose issues are often hypervisible—to speak out about everything. While there is an auto–cannibalization of the marginalized through fights over who needs to speak for who, white people are free from needing to speak up at all.
Ultimately, the root causes of Lin’s struggles against anti–Asian racism don’t stem from other NBA athletes, but from the top: the overwhelmingly white coaches and general managers who make the decisions for athletes who are largely non–white. Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin were not the reasons why Lin went undrafted out of Harvard, why he was perceived as unathletic, or why he was incapable of finding a team years later. It’s not that the discussions of anti–Asian racism in the Black community or anti–Black racism in the Asian community should cease, it’s that the conversations might become more productive if they are not constantly weaponized against one another.
Who are we expecting to speak up, who are we not expecting, and why?