This winter, a new form of popular psychosis has replaced Tebowmania in the minds of Americans: "Linsanity." This, of course (who hasn't heard of Linsanity by now?), refers to the way in which the performances of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin have been received in New York, the United States more generally, and even beyond. Lin is a Harvard graduate, who, in his second year in the NBA, was days away from being cut by the Knicks before exploding as the Eastern Conference player of the week.
I draw upon this religious imagery because it is relevant. Tebow and Lin are both devout and outspoken Christians. There is no question that this is part of their appeal in the context of a nation that has seen a renaissance of evangelical Christianity. However, the degree of relevance is asymmetrical in relation to the two athletes in question.
Tebow has become a religious icon whose endorsement has been sought by candidates in the Republican presidential primaries. It is as an icon of this political movement that Tebow has found such widespread popularity. Thus, it is little wonder that his athletic accomplishments have been widely discussed (both in jest and more seriously) as evidence of divine intervention.
The Jeremy Lin phenomenon is somewhat different. Certainly, his religion and underdog status have contributed significantly to his appeal. It would be ludicrous to deny this. There is, however, another aspect to Linsanity that has received barely any play (and trust me, having spent the past week in the United States, that is saying something given the ubiquitous Lin-talk): Jeremy Lin has been embraced because he represents the model minority.
Rita Dhamoon and others have written about how model minorities also need to be understood in the context of their binary opposite: the 'bad immigrant.' The bad immigrant is a racialized, working class subject who is not easily assimilated. So-called bad immigrants are essential to the workings of nations like the United States in that they provide much of the labour required for these countries to function. Nevertheless, they are perceived to be a threat in numbers and culture to the social structure.
The issue of Jeremy Lin as model minority subject has been touched upon by academics writing in the mainstream media and others writing in blog form. Even here, though, the predominant concern is with whether Lin, as basketball player (a non-conventional occupation reserved for more recalcitrant marginalized groups, namely African-Americans), breaks down the model minority stereotype (yes, writes the author, David Mayeda). Although I credit Mayeda for raising the issue, he has it wrong.
Lin has been glorified precisely because, unlike the many African-American basketball players who have preceded him (many of whom have been born into working class communities and nearly all of whom have been assumed to have such a history), he is a model minority subject. His Harvard education, his business savvy (he has filed to trademark the term "Linsanity"), and his deferential manner have all endeared him to the U.S. media.
By repeatedly extolling Lin, media commentators disseminate an image of what all non-white citizens should aspire to. This is not only true of white media members, because hegemonic whiteness is ideological; it is not the necessary product of some mythical racial essence. Thus, writing in the Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts Jr. distils the lesson of Lin for black American readers:
It is always jolting when someone breaks out of the context to which you have subconsciously confined them — like when you run into your teacher, at the mall with her kids. Similarly, when it comes to Asian guys, we expect that they will excel in engineering or chemistry. We emphatically do not expect them to break the defender’s ankles and take the rock to the rack with malice.
There is a word for expecting things from people based on the racial, religious, gender or cultural box you have put them into. The word is “stereotyping,” a form of mental laziness in which people believe they can know who and what you are simply by seeing you.
You should know all about that. After all, the stereotypes about you are manifold. You are supposedly given to innate criminality, promiscuity, rhythm, athleticism and, more to the point of this column, stupidity, i.e., the inability to conquer chemistry, master math or otherwise do well in school.
As troubling as it is to know other people believe such things about you, it is infinitely more troubling to know you too often believe such things about yourself. It is difficult to escape that impression when one hears you using the Ku Klux Klan’s favorite racial epithet. Or defining yourselves as thugs. Or suggesting that speaking English is “acting white.” Indeed, one is reminded of the axiom that if you repeat a lie long enough, people will accept it as truth — even the people being lied about.
It takes a prodigious strength of mind and sense of self to resist that. How many times do you suppose Jeremy Lin had people tell him there was no way a Chinese guy could compete in a game dominated by African Americans? Yet there he is, ballin’ at the highest level.
So, the most admirable thing about him is neither his scoring nor his assists, but, rather, the fact that he refused to allow other people to define him. He knew he was capable of things they’d never expect or believe. And guess what?
So are you.
It is not Jeremy Lin's fault that he has become represented as a model minority subject. His story is unusual, even genuinely exceptional, and he deserves credit for what he has accomplished. However, if Lin aspires to be a true role model in a society rife with racial prejudice and inequality, he needs to bring race to the foreground. In practice, this means that the next time a media outlet makes a racial slur out of a headline, Lin cannot simply brush the issue aside as an accident.
This is a lot to ask of a young man who is simply happy to have the opportunity to do what he loves. It is not his responsibility to solve a structural problem all on his own. It is fair, though, to ask those of us who produce and consume sports media to take a more critical stance. The very language of "Linsanity" betrays the way in which we have abdicated our duty to think carefully about what is happening.
It is precisely this sort of collective madness that contributes to what Antonio Gramsci described as "hegemony": the widespread acceptance as common sense of ideas that legitimize the power of some in society over others. The model minority is such an idea. By completely succumbing to Linsanity, that is, by failing to ask why it is we shower him with a level of adulation barely ever extended to others, particularly African-Americans who defy norms of whiteness, we are tacitly accepting a system of white privilege and racial inequality.