3 things journalists can learn from ‘Linsanity’

Like most sports fans (and many non-sports fans, for that matter), I’ve been caught up in Linsanity.

That’s the term fans use to describe Jeremy Lin’s stunning breakout performance as point guard for the New York Knicks.

For those who haven’t been following their social media streams, Lin emerged from the Knicks’ bench to dominate several games, including a 38-point, 7-assist performance against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Under Lin’s leadership, the Knicks are on a five-game winning streak headed into Tuesday night’s game.

What’s unusual about Lin’s story is that he is a Harvard graduate and an American of Taiwanese descent. There haven’t been that many Harvard graduates in the NBA. And, as best as I can tell, there have been only three or four Asian Americans in the league before Lin.

Add in Lin’s apparent good-guy humility and devout Christian faith, and his story resonates with a lot of folks, regardless of their appreciation for his fluid jump shots and acrobatic drives to the basket. (For an explanation of this watershed moment, read Jeff Yang’s exuberant piece for The Wall Street Journal.)

Lin’s story certainly resonates with me. As the son of Chinese immigrants — and an NBA fanatic — I can’t help but feel a sense of pride when I watch Lin play. He excels in an arena where I haven’t seen many people who look like me (except for my Asian brothers and sisters cheering in the stands).

So I’m going to enjoy Linsanity for as long as it lasts. In the meantime, with my journalist’s hat on, I’d like to sketch out three things we can learn from covering this phenomenon.

Even as Lin breaks stereotypes, let’s watch out for subtle stereotyping in our coverage.

I’ve seen Lin described as a quiet and thoughtful young man, as a hard worker. All of this may be true, and who wouldn’t want to be described that way? These are positive traits, and they speak to Lin’s good character.

The problem, though, is that many of these traits are typically ascribed to Asian Americans in a stereotypical way. We in the media often don’t go beyond these surface descriptions to try to understand who the individual is.

The fact of the matter is that Lin appears to be a natural leader – not just a quiet, hard worker. It would be interesting to explore how he has established that leadership on a team of NBA stars in such a short time.

I’ve also seen Lin described as a “shifty” shotmaker. I’m sure the writer’s intent was good; he was trying to describe how Lin uses various feints to get open shots against his defenders. But the writer also needs to be aware of the history of describing Asians as shifty — using deceit to gain an advantage.

The other problem is that when things don’t go well for Lin (and if Lin has a lengthy NBA career, there will be plenty of ups and downs), this shorthand may shift into the negative. I can imagine these statements: “He’s so quiet, he has trouble communicating with his coach and his teammates.” “He’s so thoughtful, he’s overthinking the game and turning over the ball too much.” “He’s a hard worker, but he’s got limited skills, and eventually they’ll figure out how to guard him.”

The great Yao Ming, for example, was knocked for not having enough of a mean streak for cultural reasons. When things don’t go well for Lin, let’s not fall into such simplistic thinking.

Let’s not pigeonhole Lin into restrictive categories.

Ivy League graduate. Asian American man. Devout Christian.

These are all categories that fit Lin, and I’m sure they are all important components to who he is as a human being. But they aren’t the only things that define him. We need to be cautious about stereotypes that linger underneath these labels.

When you think of “Ivy League grad,” what stereotypes come to mind? Brainy, elitist, arrogant? “Asian American man”– inscrutable, passive, reserved? “Devout Christian” — judgmental, moralistic, holier than thou?

I doubt that Lin has any of these traits, though he may have a bit of several of them. People are multidimensional, and it’s our job as journalists to capture some of their complexity. For a nuanced look at Lin as an Asian American Christian, read Michael Luo’s thoughtful essay for The New York Times.

In upcoming profiles, let’s avoid limiting Lin to these boxes. For example, someone likened Lin to the “Taiwanese Tim Tebow,” and I’m not even sure what that means. It seems reductive in the worst manner.

Instead, let’s find out what challenges and obstacles Lin has truly faced in his young life, and how he overcame them. Then we can begin to understand who Lin truly is and why his story may very well transcend the sports story.

This is a feel-good story, so humor should be a part of it. But let’s be careful about using humor that crosses the line.

Perhaps one reason journalists are ga-ga over Jeremy Lin is that his last name inspires a seemingly endless litany of play-on-words headlines: “Linning Time,” “Linning Streak,” “Lingenious,” “Lin the Knick of Time” and, yes, “Linsanity.”

And the signs that fans hold up at basketball games have been pretty creative, too: “Who says Asians can’t drive?”, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Point Guard,” and “Me love you Lin time.”

All of this is in good fun, but at some point, the headlines will grow tiresome, and the signs will cross the line into racism. Already, there’s controversy over one fan’s sign at the Knicks-Lakers game: “The Yellow Mamba,” a play off Kobe’s nickname, “The Black Mamba.”

Let’s not kill the joy. But let’s also be aware that what’s funny to some can be offensive to others, especially when it comes to racially-tinged humor.

Jason Whitlock, a FoxSports.com columnist, found that out when, after Lin’s dominance against the Lakers on Friday, he tweeted: “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.”

The Asian American Journalists Association swiftly called for an apology, arguing that the tweet didn’t “hold up to the conduct of responsible journalists, those in sports or otherwise, who adhere to standards of fairness, civility and good taste.” (I serve on the national advisory board of AAJA, but I was not involved in the Whitlock matter, and my views in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the organization.)

On Sunday, Whitlock apologized, saying that he had given in to one “part of my personality – my immature, sophomoric, comedic nature…” As AAJA pointed out, “I debased a feel-good sports moment. For that, I’m truly sorry.”

Jeremy Lin’s fast rise to fame is fascinating, because it emerges from the intersection of so many important issues: race, religion, education, sports, marketing, pop culture, social media. His is a fantastic sports story, but it’s so much more than that, too. And it will be interesting to see how this story plays out.

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  • Anonymous

    “Let’s not pigeonhole Lin into restrictive categories.
    Ivy League graduate. Asian American man. Devout Christian”

    The same thing goes for the diverse white Americans insultingly referred to as “Caucasians” in the otherwise well written guidance memo by AAJA.  That memo was remarkably well-rounded until it came to the point where it stripped the diverse white Americans of their diversity and their nationality with a term that no self-respecting diverse white American uses….”Caucasian.”  We have requested an apology from AAJA on that point.

    But at ResistingDefamation.org we endorse all the parts of the memo spelling out important elements of sensitivity about Asian American athletes.

  • Anonymous

    Stephen, I find your politically incorrect candor refreshing. 

    I, too, believe Mr. Huang’s intentions are good, but he crosses the line of objectivity when he writes sentences like this one (in response to stereotypes about Ivy League grads, Asian American men and devout Christians): “I doubt that Lin has any of these traits, though he may have a bit of several of them.” 

    Say WHAT, Mr. Huang?? You DOUBT that Lin has ANY of these traits? You think it’s impossible that Lin could be brainy, or reserved, or even arrogant?  

    Based on what, pray tell? The fact that in your mind, he has ceased to become a regular guy and suddenly assumed superhuman status? 

    This is hero worship, pure and simple — and worse yet, hero worship based on a perceived ethnic kinship. 

    And conscientious journalists should avoid it as surely as they avoid goofy Asian stereotypes. 


  • Anonymous

    So its only okay if you are of a certain race that feels you have been offended by what someone of another race said about someone of YOUR race? So we should all scream and demand that  the Asian reporter be fired or dismissed over this article? He seems to be OKAY with fans of Lin holding up signs such as “WHOS SAYS ASIANS CANT DRIVE” and LOVE YOU LIN TIME.” (Double Standard alive and well?)Should all Asians be outraged because he dumbed it down to a “play on words?”  Strangely enough he balks at “YELLOW MAMBA” but seems to be okay with using  “BLACK MAMBA” for black player Kobe Bryant. Should Blacks not come to this page and cry outrage and want Mr Huang fired? It was used as a form of flattery compairing him to what some consider a great player.(Atleast I would hope it was but my mentality isnt set to just jump up and scream RACIST.) I would like to ask was the sign held by a non-Asian fan?
    This is the point. When Whitlock made his comment you could really put any male from any race into it (yes I know what race is USUALLY pegged with this stereotype.) But any male can be offended by the comment. Now when ESPN’s article used the Ch— remark that was a blatant racial slur, and we all know it. Can we as adults not see the differance?!?! Seriously?!?! I know either is still  a hard pill to swallow, and neither should have been printed EVER, but there IS a differance. What people do not realize is while we can try to ignore it we shouldnt point it out at every turn either. Asian American, African-American, Mexican-American (strange there is no Angelo….) We constantly want to single ourselves out, but scream when we are singled out in a way we think is negative. Dont get me wrong, embracing ones culture is  wonderful and should never be forgotten, but America is the home of Americans no matter where you are from. But having things like the NAACP, AAJA, everything else for non minority Americans (?) singles us out blazzingly. I know why these organizations are needed, but you cant cry seperate but on-my-terms-when-I-say, I believe that what got us int his mind set in the first place. You cant cry proud to be yellow, but scream at a fan holding up a sign saying Yellow Mamba. I understand Lin is going through an “Obama-esque phase being one of a very few tall Asians AND making a name for himself in a non Asian dominated sport. “(Fact: Actually Obama is not the first Black President, he is the first Bi/Multi-Racial President) Can we not just praise Lin for  just being a great B-Baller with out using his race in every sentence, So in fact the Asian community is also focusing on his race and not just his talent. I know its because of an over whelming sense of pride, and I too can appreciate and celebrate it, but the ignorant do not see this. The thing about racism is its never alone, It oft times goes hand in hand with hypocrit at some point. (Not saying your article was, just an observation I have noticed when it comes to racial upsets. I did also neglect to mention this was a great article, I apologize for the slight.)

  • Anonymous

    “It is clear, however, that you misrepresent Huang’s claims when you say he’s suggesting that all of us white folks should stop writing and talking about minority racialized sports athletes.”
    I didn’t SAY he was suggesting  that. It wasn’t rhetorical. I expect – possibly erroneously – that Mr. Huang, like I so often do when my readers ask pointed questions or make criticisms, will explain himself. Haven’t seen any evidence that he reads comments at all, so far. Maybe Mr. Huang is one of those old-school journalists who feel that they should state their case and then ascend to that lofty perch, like all my former editors demanded I do. That’s the very reason I stopped writing for newspapers: I think people who are interested enough to read you deserve respect. If Mr. Huang doesn’t answer questions, so be it. But it seemed very much like the only acceptable alternative to toeing the line he’s drawn about what is and isn’t appropriate is simply to ignore the delightful phenomenon that is Jeremy Lin. Yes, I am passionate about this and have been for many years. None of us are obligated to follow anything Mr. Huang says, of course, but this wholesale bartering off of freedom of speech is nothing less than the erosion of the way of life and expression that’s been the very life’s blood of journalism for 200 years. I believe that the general public is smart enough to read racist tripe by blase writers and recognize those guys as imbeciles. I don’t think we NEED cautionary admonitions, however well-intended. The dynamic of the journalistic culture has always been ENRICHED by the frisson of wise men versus jerks and if we lose that, yes, we’ll all be able to slap ourselves on the back and congratulate each other about stamping out a little annoyance and offensive language but some vitality is erased, too. Morons exist to show the rest of us what not to say, do, and think. Without them, just bust out a cookie cuter with which to splice DNA and put bar-codes on our fannies. 

  • Anthony Cassidy

    Hmmmn…I think Huang overanalysed the Lin response a bit too much for the casual observer. (me) But for it’s intended market (journalists) it seems like pretty good advice. The comments about note letting  humour descend in to racism are probably justified by the fact that the “immature sophomoric” humoured reporter saw the error of his ways, and apologised. 

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  • http://www.sherwinarnott.org/ Sherwin Arnott

    This article is good. This sort of thoughtful analysis gives me hope for the future of journalism.

  • http://www.sherwinarnott.org/ Sherwin Arnott

    You know, I think we agree on a couple of important things. We agree that racism is commonplace. We agree that we can work together for a future without racism. And we agree that it’s good to try our best to talk openly about stereotypes.

    But you seem to be saying that Huang’s article makes things worse, not better. And I disagree with that. But we don’t need to have a big long argument about it.

    It is clear, however, that you misrepresent Huang’s claims when you say he’s suggesting that all of us white folks should stop writing and talking about minority racialized sports athletes.

    But I like that you’re obviously so passionate about this issue! And partly because of that, I’m going to reread Huang’s article with all of your points in mind.

  • Anonymous

    No one is “ignoring racism”. Racism is a quotidian, ugly fact of life. But turning up the thermostat on it, making all of us who aren’t prone to such nonsensical opinions undergo PC correction of our expression and viewpoint, simply exacerbates the situation. What’s the REAL story here, that Jeremy Lin is Asian or that he’s an emerging NBA star? I’m saying that dragging Lin’s ethnicity to the forefront is counter-productive to attaining the very thing ALL social progress aims for: a time when such considerations simply DO NO MATTER. 

    “I’ve seen Lin described as a quiet and thoughtful young man, as a hard worker.”

    We’re supposed to stay away from THAT observation? What if he IS a quite and thoughtful young man and hard worker? Do we strip him of those virtues just because SOME people associate them with Asians? I’ve read that EXACT same description attributed to Jimmer  Fredette, Matt Hasselbeck, Edgar Martinez, John Henry Gates, Tarvaris Jackson, and at least 100 other public figures. No one complained or warned anyone off of those.

    “When you think of “Ivy League grad,” what stereotypes come to mind? Brainy, elitist, arrogant? “Asian American man”– inscrutable, passive, reserved? “Devout Christian” — judgmental, moralistic, holier than thou?”

    This comment reveals far more of Huang’s character than those he seeks to instruct. The “stereotypes” that spring to MY mind when reading “Ivy League Grad” are “hard-working”, “high-achiever”, “ambitious”, and “forward-thinking”. Oh, sorry! Who did I just racially stereotype there? Apparently, Mr. Huang doesn’t think much of the Ivy League but, just for the record, I’ve heard every one of those same pejoratives he’s cooked up for Harvard applied to my own Alma Mater, the University of Virginia, and to North Carolina, Duke, Stanford, MIT, and Vanderbilt…and I’m sure I’ve left out a dozen or so. He also seems not to think much of Christians. It’s okay, Mr, Huang: we forgive you. To the vast majority of us, it’s our responsibility and privilege to do just that. Tossing all of us into your moralistic grab-bag, making no differentiation between Christians who actually bother to follow Christ’s teachings, seems suspiciously like…hmm…stereotyping?

    As for Jason Whitlock making stupid comments, well, history suggests that’s his forte. Should all non-Asian sportswriters just stop writing anything about Jeremy Lin, lest some encroach upon the Huang Line?
    And as for tillzen’s asinine comments, how the heck does tillzen know what ethnicity I am? His own assumption of my white-maleness is something I would have reason to find offensive, if I listened to such things at all. No, none of us would care to be deliberately hurtful but we’re not talking about that. What we’re talking about here is the over-reaching of people like Mr. Huang in roping off random characterizations and saying “Don’t Go There”, even if the observations don’t happen to be objectively derogatory. I betcha Jeremy Lin would appreciate being called thoughtful and a hard worker. I bet he labors to be just that. I bet, in fact, that Jeremy Lin would think this whole article is silly.

    Thoughtful analysis, my fanny. This is the sort of “hands off what you cannot comprehend” nonsense that wafts off any story involving any member of an ethnic group like smoke off a fire. The fly in that ointment is that absolutely NO ONE is obligated to follow anything Mr. Huang suggests and in relating all this here, in his own blog, with its core of like-minded thinkers, it’s nothing but preaching to the choir.

  • Anonymous

    Stephen would you agree that dogs hear infrasonic sounds that human can not? The sounds exist even if we can’t hear them. Imagine that white male culture is everything you are able to hear. For outsiders, there are sounds that you might miss which we outsiders hear clearly.
     I get that it is of no interest to many. I get that “walking on eggshells” is how many feel around outsiders but when we speak of offensive language and code-words we do it not to tell you what to think but instead to tell you what we hear. For beneath your culture is a world you can not hear. There is no reason for you to listen or care. But imagine your words hurt someone you loved. You might avoid using those words because that is the type of person you want to be. We all aspire to this. We hate being wrong or embarrassed almost as much as we hate walking on eggshells. We all ache to fit in. We all hate being outed as uncool, uneducated or without class.  Outsiders feel this too but it is multiplied. They enter a room and they are outed. White males rarely feel this. And they never hear it. It is simply beneath the limits of their hearing. That is all Mr. Huang suggests. 

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  • Anonymous

    Mr. Huang, Thank you for your placement of the Jeremy Lin story within a larger cultural landscape.  Friday night a group of my fellow instructors from UTEP and I were at a sports bar to watch the Knicks. As the game progressed I was offended by signs held by fans in the Garden. As I expressed amazement at the language used to honor him, I was even more dismayed by my fellow teachers who thought I was being too sensitive and politically correct. As an outsider I hear how subaltern peoples are relegated by language to a virtual ghetto within our “open” society. 
    Your commentary today on “Outside the Lines” was refreshingly wonderful. I write and speak here as an outsider to our Borderplex about just these issues and I look forward to referencing your gifted perspective often.

     paz y luz.


  • http://www.sherwinarnott.org Sherwin Arnott

    I, for one, very much enjoy this thoughtful analysis by Tom Huang. Just because we want racism and ethnic stereotyping to be a non-issue, doesn’t make it happen. Racism is an issue. So it’s nice to read a piece that helps all of us that are confronted by the subtle and subconscious ways that we racialize people to be more aware of it. Lots of interesting current research suggests that it’s not *whether* people have racist ideas or behaviours, but by what degree our ideas and behaviours are racist. 

    Put another way, ignoring racism doesn’t make it go away. We challenge status quo notions or race by being trying to be as explicit as possible about the racialization that occurs in so many contexts. 

    Kudos to Poynter and Tom Huang

  • Anonymous

    A thoughtfully written article, how rare nowadays.

  • Anonymous

    Know what I get from this:

    1. You’re really happy about Jeremy Lin, for reasons that are only peripherally about basketball.
    2. You want to tell everybody what o think, say, and feel about his success.

    You own this guy, do ya? Success by Asian people is somehow different from success by people of any other ethnicity? What happens the first time he hits a slump, plays poorly for a couple of game? Are we supposed to lay off him, not climb in his short, like we would any other athlete who underperforms?

    I get it that your reasons for writing this are coming from a place of pride and you mean well. But this little essay REEKS of the very thing that makes you feel compelled to write it and that many, many of us would love to become a non-issue: racism, ethnic stereotyping. WHY is not enough that Jeremy Lin is playing his a__ off every night and single-handedly resurrecting the moribund Knicks? Why LET his heritage become a place where the rest oif us have to walk on eggshells? And, really, what did you accomplish, here? People who are inclined to stereotype are going to do it anyway and you’kl do a lot of teeth-gnashing, I suppose, and they’ll still do it. I don’t give a rat’s hiney what Jeremy Lin’s ethnicity is. That’s not part of the social contract between him and me. He plays great ball, I watch and applaud. Done. If you want to complicate it, it’s a free country but don’t expect us to observe your rules.

  • Anonymous

    Why not add some other, perhaps more meaningful identifiers: Californian. Veteran of Bay Area basketball. Student of Michael Jordan.