Lin-sanity – Racial Politics in a Lin-sane World

[Man, adult life sure is busy sometimes–even when you hardly have any extracurricks! Anyhoo, let’s all just pretend this blog went up a week ago when I wanted it to, and that its content is still totally timely.]

So hey, here’s a way to get me to care for ten minutes about basketball.

Over the last week or so, my Facebook feed and indeed the internet at large have been all a-flutter with talk of “Lin-sanity;” that is, the state of being driven (clinically) insane by the adept performance of a man named Jeremy Lin, in the sport of basketball.

Ordinarily, Facebook posts about basketball would be like Mario Kart-style speed boost strips under my mouse’s scroll wheel, but this case has proven to be an exception due to the surrounding political drama, and plus I’m on a Trackpad over here.

When the Lin-sane scrawlings first began to trickle into my news feed, I thought little of it, taking just a brief moment to note the rarity of a Chinese athlete garnering this much attention in America. “Man,” I said, “it’s kind of like when that other Chinese basketball player got really famous. In that they’re both Chinese basketball players.” That really kind of sums it up, if you ask me–remarkable in that you can probably count the number of famous Chinese NBA players on one hand, but then not that remarkable because this has already happened. Besides, Jeremy Lin is American. More remarkable in my mind is the fact that he went to high school right in my own backyard of Palo Alto, along with the fact that he was born in 1988, which I’m pretty sure makes him the only person younger than me ever to succeed at something, though somebody should probably look that up.

I also noted that several of my Chinese Facebook friends suddenly gave a shit about basketball. I can understand that, even if it does come off as a little bit Linsane.

So but anyway, a couple Saturdays ago, Lin-sanity reached its peak with ESPN’s publishing of the headline, “Chink in the Armor: Jeremy Lin’s 9 Turnovers Cost Knicks in Streak-stopping Loss to Hornets”.

Yes, “chink.” But more specifically, “chink in the armor.” It’s an expression! It’s akin to the expression “missing link,” in that they both refer to a vital weakness or lacking. The Knicks finally lost a game, breaking their streak. Hence, “chink in the armor.” Though it does seem like any goober with a basic awareness of public relations would see the peril in using this wording, I can’t help but wonder if the headline writer’s immediate termination was completely justified. Was he done in by his own racism, or by a simple, unassuming homonym and the collective black heart of mankind? Obviously, his employer was either confident enough in his guilt or terrified enough of the public to fire him without deliberation, despite the writer’s claim that it was an “honest mistake” and that his own wife is Asian.

It’s difficult to judge just how plausible or implausible it is that someone might use the expression “chink in the armor” in reference to someone of Chinese descent without noticing the racial undertone. Clearly, the greater public opinion is that it is implausible–hence the widespread outrage and this man’s termination. This would also indicate that people find it more plausible that a racist man would flagrantly publicize his racism for all to see with wild abandon, surely knowing it would cost him his job, than that a non-racist man whose job is turn idioms into catchy little headlines might not notice that this one particular idiom contains a word that is a homonym for a word used by racist assholes.

I’m not sure I agree with this opinion, and it seems clear from Lin’s near-immediate dismissal of the incident that he probably doesn’t either: “[You] have to learn to forgive and I don’t even think that was intentional.”

But whether the opinion is valid or not, it points to a larger issue in America, which is that, as racially sensitive and progressive as we all think we are, nobody seems to be able to shut the fuck up about race. If America were what the vast majority of Americans wish it were, the notion that the writer meant that headline as a back-handed racial slight against Lin wouldn’t have even occurred to us. Even if there were those who noticed that the word chink was a homonym for some archaic slur, they would give the writer the benefit of the doubt and carry on.

But as America stands, race is still on the tip of every tongue, and anyone who’s got a race is poised to defend it at any time, just in case someone uses a word that can be interpreted as offensive when you sit and think about it too much. Remember the whole “niggardly” fiasco? I swear, sometimes we’re like caricatures of ourselves. In 2012, our nation is in a place where each of us must be mindful of our words lest one of them contain the same syllables as a racial slur. And this is the most progressive attitude America has ever held towards race. We’re not lynching people of a certain race anymore, but we might lynch you if you use the phrase “spick ‘n span”.

Let’s all stare at this until it stops looking racist.

I can’t live like this, and I refuse to. For years, I held the suspicion that race was an arbitrary and subjective classifier for human beings, but I was still plagued, tethered to this sort of nervousness that I might accidentally be racist or perceived as such because I was a member of the racist race. I had to be careful not to offend anyone, especially black people, who were just lying in wait, watching for white people to slip up and be racist.

This type of thinking is fostered by an overemphasis on sensitivity. We learned it in school and on television. We learned to be apologetic for bad deeds we didn’t even commit–“our” race committed them. As white children we inherited the guilt of white people we didn’t even know, and may not have had any relationship to whatsoever, save for the racial classification forced arbitrarily upon us. My ancestors were not slave owners; they were Eastern Europeans, Greeks, and Irish. They may well have been racist, by the token that most people in the world are, but that was no more my business than what clothes they wore.

So true it’s hard to laugh. 

With these “inheritances,” however, we also inherited a distinct feeling of separation from people of other ethnicities, a separation which I never understood but nevertheless felt pulled by as a child. My two best friends were two of the only non-whites in town, and though I didn’t know to articulate it this way at the time, I felt a rather strong cultural disparity with my white classmates all throughout grade school, possibly because I was Jewish, possibly just ‘cuz. Like I said, race is an arbitrary distinction.

It was through my experiences in Japan that the point finally burrowed its way soundly into my cerebral cortex and freed me from those nervous shackles of race-consciousness. Somewhere around month eight or nine of my time in Japan, I got used to people using expressions like “the Japanese soul.” They would say things like, “Japanese people do this. Foreigners do that.” 

Never did I hear anyone say “White people do this” or “Black people do that.” I also never saw a Japanese person take offense at a slight directed at a Chinese person. Matter of fact, it was far more often that a Japanese person was the one making the slight. What of that so-called Asian or AzN Pride I’d heard so much about in eighth grade? Wasn’t that a thing?

Not in AzA, apparently.

In Japan, there were only varying degrees of Japaneseness, and any time a non-Japanese person performed an act deemed somehow “Japanese,” such as saying “Hello” in Japanese or being polite, people would drop everything and marvel at how that person was, despite all odds, “like a Japanese person.”

This continues to happen to me at work, here in California:

Japanese Coworker: “I heard this place has amazing [insert name of horrid sea creature that I guess is supposed to be somehow edible].”
Me: “Ooh, I would certainly pass on that. Not my thing.”
Japanese Coworker: “Greg, you won’t have fully become a Japanese person until you develop a palette for foul brine urchin [or whatever-the-hell].”

Who said anything about becoming Japanese? I may spend all my time talking about Japanese people, but becoming one was never on my agenda.

Then the other day, there was this:

Other Japanese Coworker: ::in Japanese:: “Good morning~”
Me: ::in Japanese:: “Good morning.”
Other Japanese Coworker: “Tee-hee-hee!!”
Me: “Wh. . . what?”
Other Japanese Coworker: “You sound like a Japanese person!”

What she meant was that I’d subverted her expectation that, as a foreigner, any attempt I made to speak Japanese would be clumsy and unnatural, even though I do technically get paid professionally to speak Japanese.

Whatever. The point is, this is how things are classified on that particular chain of islands. What was interesting about it was, many of the expatriates living there also began to adhere to that classification, despite it going against everything they’d ever known in their homelands. In expat message boards, you’d see people complain, “What’s up with these gaijin who don’t acknowledge you when they pass you on the street? We’re all in this together, bro, so get over yourself!”

Were we all suddenly one group just because Japanese Society said so? Did it not matter that one of us was from Little Rock and another from Nigeria? Perhaps it was a reality I simply didn’t want to face; but somewhere in the midst of all those assumptions about my character, all the unwarranted praise from those who could only see what they presumed to be there rather than what was really there, and all those brotherly relationships born out of the arbitrary classifications forced upon us by others, I started to feel very much like the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a book which I’d read some six years prior, not knowing it had affected me in the slightest. That was when I saw race for what it really was, and with it–my own true identity. It was probably worthy of being called an epiphany, except that I can’t pinpoint an exact moment. Nevertheless, I had drunk from the proverbial skull.

Now I find myself with little patience for America’s hyper-sensitive take on race. When I say I like my coffee black and my guffawing coworker jokes, “That’s racist!” I kind of want to punch him in the face, even knowing it’s just a joke. Please, just listen to Morgan and stop talking about it.

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7 thoughts on “Lin-sanity – Racial Politics in a Lin-sane World

  1. Whoooa Greg! I totally disagree with you but I have no time to write it out now. More later XD -Pauline ps. Long time no see!

  2. Also gonna have to (respectfully) disagree with you, Mr. Moore.

    My two cents is that it’s all about respect. There are different races, different religions, and different cultures. People don’t need to become experts in all of them, but they do need to not be afraid to admit their ignorance, be comfortable with their discomfort (so to speak), and above all else, be respectful of one another.

    After all, the solution to racism (and bias of any kind) isn’t to stop talking about it. It’s just the opposite.

    Not sure if you’ve ever heard of Ill Doctrine, but the man speaks truth in a far more eloquent and poignant way than I ever could: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpK0Ad8hD0I

    In other words, “For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend…The first thing you do is to forget that I’m Black. Second, you must never forget that I’m Black”.

    Yes, it’s possible to be overly sensitive about race as you mention. No question things are better now than they were in, say, the 60s, but we can’t stop there. And we still have quite a ways to go until we live in a country and a world where it’s not always such a contentious subject.

    Anyhow, I could go on and on, but I’d welcome a conversation on the topic. I do find it interesting. 🙂

    /shana

    1. You’re right–that WAS eloquent.

      Points well taken, Shana. I certainly don’t mean that being racially tolerant entitles a person to overstep the common boundaries of decency by, say, making distasteful jokes and headlines and stuff. I guess what I’m really getting at is that race gets brought into the conversation more than makes any sense, where people are making it an issue when it doesn’t need to be one.

      The “That’s racist!” joke when someone mentions the word “black” in a non-racial context (e.g., “He drives a black car”) is particularly obnoxious to me because, joke or not, it’s just yanking that whole issue back in your face for absolutely no reason whatsoever. It’s the fact that the word “black” would even possess a person to blurt out that joke that annoys me profoundly.

      To clarify, I don’t literally mean that people should never speak of race ever again. Race isn’t *nothing*–I’m just sick of people cram-a-lamming my face in it when I’m just trying to watch basketball or whatever-the-hell. Now THAT’s eloquent.

      When I was looking around at internet reactions to the headline, I saw people talking about, “Maybe it’s about time we retired the expression ‘chink in the armor.'” Why?? To make way for the racial slur? We should be retiring the racial slur! I think that’s sort of a micro-instance of what I’m getting at as a whole. We need to stop “clearing the way” for racism. I wonder if in another couple decades people look upon this sort of incident the way people now see the madness of the Red Scare.

      Anyway yeah, it’s easy to get carried away talking about this. Maybe we can rock this topic over some DMC2 or something =D

  3. I don’t think Greg – an appreciater* of cultures if I ever saw one (*totally a word!) – meant to imply that we shouldn’t respect the differences inherent among us all, but rather that we should stop imposing differences – and similarities – where there in fact are none, simply because of the color of one’s skin. Race, which is nothing more than a way of classifying people based on how they appear on the outside, is arbitrary. Culture, on the other hand, is not. And there unfortunately exists this notion that the two are inextricably linked, but this isn’t true. (I’m also making a distinction between race and ethnicity, which I was always taught were different things.)

    I’m white. Like many whites in this country, I’m a European mutt. But saying I’m white doesn’t tell anyone anything about me. My culture comes from a variety of influences – my family, the most prominent of my European heritages, and most importantly, the fact that I’m American. I work with another white girl at my job. She’s Russian. English is her third language, after Russian and Ukrainian. She celebrated Christmas in January according to the Orthodox calendar. And yet, we would both check the same box on those forms, “White, Non-Hispanic.” How is it necessary, or relevant, or meaningful, to classify us in this way, which requires us to be regarded as essentially the same, when culturally we have very little in common at all? Furthermore, why is it necessary to classify us at all? Why should I regard my co-worker as white, or Russian, or anything else, rather than a young woman with an interesting background and culture unique from my own? This doesn’t mean I don’t respect our differences, that I wouldn’t learn a great deal from sitting down with her and discussing these differences with her. It just means that, by taking away the labels, the classifications, the “race” modifier, I’m less likely to pigeonhole her and more likely to be open to her.

    But this is what racial labels do – pigeonhole, I mean. I feel like classifying people by race actually does a disservice to their cultural heritage. And that classifying people at all trivializes their individuality.

    Anyway…just my take on it!

    1. Yes, that’s the stuff!

      It’s like, when I came back from Japan, race was so far out of my mind, it was almost like I had reverted to early childhood except with my current physical and emotional maturity, which is at least that of a fourteen-year-old boy. But then people kept pulling me back into it.

      “DON’T FORGET TO NOT BE RACIST, SAYING UNRACIST THINGS THAT CAN BE CONSTRUED AS RACIST BY PEOPLE WHO ARE CONSTANTLY THINKING ABOUT RACE!!” people would scream. Y’know, figuratively scream. That’s all I’m really annoyed about.

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