February 21st, 2012
10:00 AM ET

Opinion: With Jeremy Lin and Asian Americans, what is offensive?

Editors note: Ren Hsieh is the Executive Director of The Dynasty Project dedicated to promoting athletics in APIA communities and empowering APIA athletes. He is also Content Director of Fastbreak NYC and a staff blogger for our OurChinatown.org.

By Ren Hsieh, Special to CNN

(CNN) –As Jeremy Lin might be able to attest, being an Asian American athlete has never been easy.

You tend to get taunted, overlooked and worst of all, dismissed no matter what you seem to accomplish.

What has been interesting to me as an Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) athlete during Jeremy Lin’s unbelievable run is that our role as APIA athletes, known previously only to us, is being played out now on a national scale.

The recent and now infamous “Chink in the Armor” headline from ESPN pretty much sums it up. I do not believe those responsible for the headline are racists. Somehow, they just didn’t understand how it could be offensive to Asian Americans.

This begs the question for mainstream America. What is offensive?

Ex-ESPN writer says slur was 'honest mistake'

Ethnic humor has permeated the national media since Jeremy Lin’s sudden rise to prominence, and the casual derision of Asians and Asian culture is nothing new.

I was the first East Asian ever to make the varsity basketball team when I was a high school sophomore, and the only one in the district until my junior year, and recall the taunts then.

That’s why I started the Dynasty Project, a non-profit organization in New York City dedicated to promoting athletics in Asian American communities and empowering Asian American athletes.

Not only do we hope to teach fundamentals to young athletes and give them the tools to attain a high level of play, but also to prepare them to make the transition from an Asian American community to play with all Americans. It requires a great deal of preparation, focus and perseverance.

Jeremy Lin emerges as emblem of burgeoning Asian-American Christianity

Asian Americans and Asian American athletes are used to having to defend themselves, but the Lin phenomenon has grown so much that it makes at least some people consider what is offensive and what is not, what is Asian and what is not.

Jeremy Lin has inadvertently started a conversation that is bigger than just basketball. Sports is never just sports especially in America: it is culture.

When someone like Lin is getting more attention than any Asian American since Bruce Lee, race becomes relevant.

Racial slur against Jeremy Lin by media must be stopped

This does not surprise me. Whether we are in school, in practice or on the field, we receive plenty of casual racism.

Despite Lin’s exploits and many supporters from all walks of life, Lin still is the butt of jokes and plenty of dismissal. With every compliment, there seems to be an accompanying putdown.

Even fans who seem to want to celebrate Lin feel the need to do it in some off-color, even condescending, way.

What does surprise me is that people who would never otherwise talk about it, suddenly are.

Sports media personality Bomani Jones tweeted after the Knicks took on the Lakers about how shocked he was that people in America are so casually racist toward Asians.

The insults fly in public as they would for no other ethnic group in this country, displaying a kind of nonchalance that seems to have little repercussions.

And, for the most part, there are none.

Jones' tweet was primarily referencing sports columnist Jason Whitlock’s notorious “two inches” tweet. I’ll let you Google it.

On television, on the web, and even Twitter, this conversation is now playing itself out as a mainstream discussion.

Jeremy Lin is so big right now that suddenly the idea of being Asian in America is more present in the mainstream consciousness than ever before.

We have been invisible Americans for a long time. There will be some growing pains as the rest of the country tries to figure out where and how we fit in.

Now represents a chance to redefine long out-dated stereotypes and social roles: I see an opportunity to turn traditional Asian American iconography on its head.

Will Jeremy Lin's success end stereotypes?

Even if Lin prefers not to only be defined as an “Asian American” athlete, it should not matter.  Whether he likes it or not, he represents us all right now and we are good with that.

Proud, in fact.

That is what Jeremy Lin has done most for APIA athletes: help us be proud to be Asian American and an athlete.

And, it could mean a whole lot more.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ren Hsieh.

soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Kevin Joubert

    The newspaper headline was deeply inappropriate. Racist, angry and intolerant comments are often pointers to a resistance to change. Most people fear change. This story had me reflect on my own resistance to change and the life lesson I've learned because of it.
    If you are interested to read about the lesson learned, please read at http://www.breathing-kairos.blogspot.com.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:11 am | Report abuse |

    I think people, whether they be black, white, Asian, Latino, use the "racist" button too much...I can see someone listing remarks as bigoted, prejudice, ignorant, etc. Racism, is very harsh, and people want to use the term "racism" for every little thing, to the point where it is starting to lose it's meaning.

    Also, J Lin, isn't that big of a deal...Nobody mentions Michael Chang, who was blazing up the tennis courts, and probaly has more records in his respective sport than Lin ever will...and most importantly whose Reebok Pumps looked better than Shaq's! I had a pair!

    I do believe the "couple inches" tweek was a low blow...but unfortunately, to be expected...someone is always going to be there to present it...like black people and violence, white men and child molestation...

    February 23, 2012 at 4:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Ḥashshāshīn

      i completely agree.

      March 5, 2012 at 7:45 am | Report abuse |
  3. HardWood

    He is a basketball player that moved thru the ranks, had a breakout game, and found his way to stardom. I don't care what race he is. He is a winner. And in the human race, that is huge.

    February 22, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Report abuse |
  4. A Reasoner

    With Lin I'm not sure what's offensive, but 2-1-2 always worked well for us.

    February 22, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Michael

    Only blacks can make fun of blacks, and only Hispanics can make fun of Hispanics... Jews make fun of Judaism, etc. etc. But, like you said, t's open season on Asians. Always has been. Annoying to say the least, and here's an example that I just grabbed off of tv a couple hours ago: http://youtu.be/86yuMdtdnCc

    February 22, 2012 at 5:37 am | Report abuse |
  6. Ken Rothey

    I am a Scots-German American!
    Who in the hell ever heard of such an animal. No one!
    Then why, I ask myself as I am at the end of seven years of living in China as a "waiguo ren", do we call Balcks "African American" or Chinese "Chinese Americans"? In so doing do we not make a tacit confession that they are Americans, but with a qualification!
    With all of my friends from China, I always ask them; Why do you refer to yourself as some particular kind of American instead of just being AMERICAN?
    And there is the rub. Jeremy Lin is American and just as much so as any native indian. Get over it, and you will begin a giant step toward the elimination of this stereotype. Also, quit referring to yourself as
    APIA. I know, all of the 'forms' have a space to check your ethnicity. So what. Just check "black", the opposite of white, or simply "white". Who is going to force you to do otherwise?

    February 22, 2012 at 2:26 am | Report abuse |
  7. Goodwithit

    Good article. Note: As big a splash as Bruce Lee made in the international scene, he still was enraged he had 2nd class
    treatment to another actor in his (unfinished) last Hollywood movie. There is a new generation that is unaware that
    American minorities ALL contributed to better conditions, not to mention some White boys that either got buried or beat to
    a pulp in the early days of Civil Rights. There is something lacking in our entire educational process.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:25 am | Report abuse |
  8. PresterJohn

    I had some spelling mistakes in my last post. I apologize.

    February 21, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  9. PresterJohn

    Why haven't you fired Jason Whitlock? If he were white you would have fired him. Why the double standard? He went WELL beyound the "Chink in the Armor" comment from ESPN- and a producer was fired and the other yahoo suspended for a time. At least the ESPN guys could have put it to simple ignorance, or just not thinking. Whitlock made a concious chioce to make a BLATANTLY racist remark. He knew it for what it was yet tweeted it anyway. Then he has the audacity to play it off as a lame joke, citing his own sense of toilet humor?

    I ask again, FOX Sports; Why haven't you fired Jason Whitlock?

    February 21, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |