“Asian athlete” – uh, would you say this is an oxymoron? In America’s popular culture lexicon, Asians and Asian Americans are not typically heralded for their athletic prowess, particularly not at the professional level in America’s four major sports (football, baseball, basketball, and hockey). With China’s Yao Ming bowing out of the National Basketball Association (NBA) due to nagging foot injuries, a new player has taken center stage, making Asian Americans stand tall and proud. In this post, David Mayeda breaks down the model minority myth, examining rising New York Knicks’ star, Jeremy Lin and the phenomenon of “Linsanity.”
When I started graduate school way back in 1996, I wanted to study the increasing number of Asian Americans in sport. Being half Japanese and a former collegiate athlete, I had a personal connection to the topic. However, my pathway in academia took a different turn. Still, when I see an Asian American athlete making headlines, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little excited.
Imagine my excitement when I saw the New York Knicks’ point guard, Jeremy Lin, tearing it up recently in the NBA? Okay, it’s only been a few games. Still, this cross over and dunk isn’t anything to sneeze at.
If you don’t know who Jeremy Lin is, he is a Harvard graduate, originally from Northern California who was not drafted by any NBA team in 2010. Lin is Taiwanese, but having been born in the United States, he is Asian American. The Golden State Warriors and later Houston Rockets signed him as a free agent, but Lin saw minimal playing time.
This season the New York Knicks have given Lin chance. Due to team injuries, Lin has seen increased playing time and taken advantage of it, becoming “the first player in more than 30 years to record at least 28 points and 8 assists in his first N.B.A. start.” But truth be told, a handful of strong games from a young player in the NBA is not terribly unusual.
So why all the fuss?The answer can be found in the historical and sociological representations of Asian Americans, specifically as they compared to other ethnic minority groups. On the heels of the American Civil Rights Movement, African Americans were cast by mainstream society in highly negative ways – as defiant, dangerous, menacing, lazy, big, violent, and so on. Of course African Americans had to grapple with highly deleterious stereotypes before the CRM as well, but the stereotypes changed a bit as African Americans began to secure equality, at least by law.
One thing to remember about stereotypes is that they are relational – you cannot have a yin without a yang. So if African Americans were cast as defiant, menacing, etc., it makes sense that another racialized group would be cast in opposite terms. Enter the model minority myth, which gained steam throughout the 1980s and 90s, stating that Asian Americans in contrast were “model minorities” – hard working, intelligent, but lacking in leadership skills, physically small, quiet, and passive. Unlike African Americans, Asian Americans were stereotyped and praised by mainstream society for deferring to authority as they moved up the educational and occupational ladders, even if they too had their civil rights violated.
The problems with the model minority myth are plentiful, but two key concerns are that (1) not all Asian Americans are the same – think of the numerous ethnic groups that comprise “Asian Americans”; and (2) the model minority myth implies that Asian Americans have no social problems and are willing to be exploited by majority groups. But again, the model minority myth was promoted as a truth in order to show African Americans and other so-called resistant minority groups “how they were supposed to behave” – to quietly accept discrimination. Asian Americans were said to be the “model” for African Americans to follow. As can be seen, racial stereotypes do not simply come out of nowhere. Rather stereotypes are strategically created to fulfill broader political agendas, and they are hardly accurate (for a thorough discussion on the comparative nature of the model minority myth, see Takagi, 1992).
Now how does a athlete like Lin fit into this mix? Well, if African Americans have historically been stereotyped as big, defiant, dangerous, and intimidating from a physical standpoint, while Asian Americans have been conversely labeled as small, passive, safe, and physically meek, then a star athlete who takes a leadership role in a major American sport is breaking these racial stereotypes. Furthermore, given the relatively few Asian Americans in the NBA (and other popular American sports), although Lin may not be actively working to dispel such stereotypes, by playing so effectively along side and against so many African American NBA players, Lin is certainly doing so. In essence, Lin undoubtedly breaks the mold of the so-called “typical Asian American” that is said to be hard working and intelligent, but demure and weak.
As opposing teams begin to focus more on Lin, his productivity might decrease. Then again, Lin did just throw down 38 points on the Lakers – the most points by any Knicks player this season, and four more points than Kobe had – leading his team to a 92-85 win. For as long as it lasts, let’s enjoy the “Linsanity.”
Now Dig Deeper:
- How do certain racial stereotypes thrust upon African American athletes coincide with stereotypes outside of sports?
- Think of an ethnic group that carries certain racial stereotypes. Identify those stereotypes and describe how they fit into a broader political context. For instance, how do certain racial stereotypes revolving around Latinos fit into an anti-immigration political context?
- Think more broadly about Jeremy Lin and his presentation in mainstream media. He is a Harvard graduate who never publicly complained with great intensity about not being drafted into the NBA, but is currently succeeding in it. In some ways, how might Lin also reaffirm the model minority myth?
- Sometimes students mistake the model minority myth as a good thing. How do the stereotypes of Asian Americans limit them and/or put undue pressure on them? How does the model minority myth hurt other racial ethnic groups?
Reference: Takagi, D. Y. (1992). The Retreat from Race: Asian-Americans Admissions and Racial Politics. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.