Just when the sports world and the fans got swept up in the Lin-sanity where Jeremy Lin, the first Asian American player in the NBA generated so much excitement for the basketball game and became the “overnight sensation”, the excitement also stirred up the shadow side of our society.
Right after Jeremy Lin’s team New York Knicks lost to the New Orleans Hornets and interrupted its seven game winning streaks; ESPN headline included a racial slur, “chink in the armor”. Earlier, MSG Network had the cartoon of Lin jumping out of a fortune cookie. Boxer Floyd Mayweather said Lin is receiving attention on the scale that he has because he is Asian. Mayweather, a black man, ought to remember when Chuck Cooper, the first African American player who got into the NBA in 1950. Did he think Cooper’s achievement was all about his race? And then, Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock posted a Tweet that perpetuated a stereotype about Asian men full of sexual overtone. Although ESPN quickly erased the language, fired the employee who created the headline and suspended the news commentator for using and repeating the offensive language, this is not the first time the Network or other major media committed such racial offenses. And the deeper problem remains unresolved.
Often when an offensive remark is made either about gender or about race, people around the offender or the offender himself/herself would say that it was just a joke and there was no ill intent behind the remark. Some might even say, “Lighten up. Don’t be so sensitive.” The question remains, “Why is it ok to continue to make jokes at the expense of others?” Who gave these people the license to freely express themselves without any regard for others?
If we look back at the days when they lynched black men on a regular basis, we can say that the U.S. has certainly come a long way. But you would have thought that blacks like Whitlock would have more sensitivity not to commit the same offense against another group of racial minority. But we still have so far to go to arrive at a truly diverse and civilized society where using “Chinks” or “Gooks” is as equally offensive as using the “N” word.
The real issue lies beyond policing our language or manner in this society. The real work is to eliminate the deep rooted racial bigotry that still exists in this country and this world.
In 1992, when Christie Yamaguchi, representing the U.S. won the Olympic gold medal for figure skating, a talk show host in Los Angeles openly questioned, “When are we going to have a real American skater in the game?” Yamaguchi, a U.S. born and raised Japanese American who brought home the glory for our country, not only had to endure many similar remarks but never gained as many commercial endorsements like some of the white women figure skaters.
As a group, we Asian Americans continue to suffer from invisibility. But when we are visible, we often are confronted by the old but persistent indignation of our society.
They say that if we don’t learn from history, we are bound to repeat it. During World War II, one of the fiercest fighting groups of American soldiers was the 442nd Regimental Combat Team with the 100th Infantry. They were awarded seven Presidential Unit Citations. This is the highest award that a unit can earn. The “442nd” was a group of Japanese Americans, born and raised in the U.S. While they were fighting for this country on the front line, many of their families were rounded up back in the States and sent to the internment camp. By the time the war was over, most of them had lost their properties and their community. Most of these men and their families carried their suffering in silence. It was not their culture to complain.
The term “Chink”‘ started to appear when the first wave of Chinese immigrants came over to the States in the1800’s to work in the gold mines and on the railroad.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Chinese immigration was perceived as a threat to the living standards of whites in North America and other similar nations. The Chinese were seen as invasive, and this mounting xenophobia culminated in Yellow Peril hysteria. In the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, banning Chinese immigration, within a few years after the first recorded use of chink. The dehumanizing use of the word is argued by one author to be a racist justifier for the passage of the Exclusion Act. (Wikipedia)
These are parts of our country’s ugly history. If we don’t remember them, then we will not understand why a little racial slur can hurt so much.
We Asian Americans have another layer of suffering where our culture encourages us to endure and adapt to our environment so we don’t make waves or lodge loud protests like the African American community when racial slurs or racial profiling are used on them. Sometimes, when blacks protest too loudly, they get blamed for using the “race” card. This is one more reason that we Asian Americans have learned to look the other way when something offensive happens to us. We often swallow the injustice or throw our hands up and said, “That is just the way it is.” Our silence shared by many non-Asians often helped keep the same racial oppression alive, generations after generations.
Some of us Asians avoid and run away from ourselves. Our reasons could be as wide and as deep as the sky. If we have been treated unfairly many times, it might be easier just to pretend it does not bother us, or pretend that we are not Asians. Many Asian Americans who grew up in this country like to tell you that they think of themselves as Americans, not Asians. My Hispanic and African American friends often cannot understand this sentiment. In a diversity workshop I facilitated, a white man said to a black man, “Why can’t we get beyond the race talk? I just want to get to know you.” The black man said, “Being black is part of me. What is it about my being black you don’t want to know?” What is the benefit of denying our Asian identity? So perhaps we can hide or blend into the background and not get into the spotlight. However, we can try all we want; we will not turn into whites. And people do not see us as just individuals, as long as we have an Asian face. So why not own “ourselves” completely?
UC Berkeley professor Ron Takaki, in his book “Strangers from a Different Shore” told a story. A man walked up to him in a store and asked him “Where are you from?” Takaki said he was from Sacramento. The man said, “No no, where are you really from?” Takaki then spent the next few minutes recounting how his grandfather built an orchard in Oregon and how his parents were born there and he in Sacramento. Before leaving Takaki, the man said, “Boy, you speak very good English.”
How many generations do we have to have been here in order to be seen as real Americans?
When a person of color fails, he or she often carries the burden of the whole group. I have never heard any racial remarks about a white player or celebrity when they failed. When the Knicks lost to the Hornets, I would not have minded if people had criticized Jeremy Lin’s turnovers and the mistakes of the team. But this is beyond the passion for the game. This is like putting a person of color in his place and reminding him of who is still in charge. Evidently, Jeremy Lin has suffered as a result of racial insults ever since he decided to play basketball.
The first Chinese American governor, Gary Locke, for the State of Washington, (1997-2005), had a promising political future and was viewed as a vice president candidate for the Democratic Party. Right after his rebuttal to President George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, he announced that he would not seek re-election. Many people speculated that his decision was mainly due to the threats he received. These racial slurs, insults and death threats were aimed at not only him but his family.
In this society, if we don’t agree with what someone said or did, we are free to register our objections. But if the target of our objections happens to be a person of color, a woman, a gay/lesbian, or a Muslim, all of a sudden, there seems to be an arsenal of bigotry that is easily unleashed against not only the individuals but also their groups.
At one of my workshops, “Doing business with Asians” for a local realtor association in the 1980’s, I actually had realtors picketing outside. Although I was invited to help them learn to enter the Asian market and develop more business, their signs were full of racial slurs.
Someday, no wonder some of us just want to pull the cover over our heads.
Jeremy Lin said ESPN has apologized so he has moved on. Perhaps he has more important things to focus on, such as winning the next game or he has trained himself not to let this experience bother him. Or he truly has forgiven the offender as he claimed. Whatever the reason is, as an individual he is entitled to make his personal decision to cope with the bad experience. However, as a group, shall we Asian Americans just keep quiet? And as a society, shall we continue to let things slide? If we think because we did not experience or did not see the racial oppression and we do not need to get involved, we just helped keep the ugliness in place.
The more powerful way to help this society to open its arms so that all citizens can claim their rightful place is for men to get really upset when a sexual remark is made about a woman and for whites to get offended when a racial remark is used on any group of racial minorities. Otherwise, the power inequality will continue. Women and people of color will continue to be forced to swallow or left to fight the injustice on their own.
Many of us believe in the Golden rule of “Do onto others like we want done onto us.” This might be quite a good rule to follow but it is not enough. If we only apply the Golden rule, it means that what works for us must work for others. So if the jokes don’t bother us, then they should not bother others either. What we need is the Platinum rule that says, “Do onto others like they want done onto themselves.” It means, in order to treat people right, we first have to find out how they want to be treated.
The only way to change our society is to take a stand and do something to stop the insensitivity and the injustice.
What is it that you can do within your personal range of influence? How much courage do you have to be that change agent? What are you willing to do to stand up for justice?
Celia Young champions for social justice in every part of the work she does as a diversity consultant.