racial authenticity and the Linsanity

I’m writing a longer piece about Jeremy Lin’s media sensation and its implications, but wanted to post a few of my notes on what I call the Linsanity:

As a Taiwanese American, a basketball fan since the glory days of the Portland Trailblazers, and a Harvard graduate, I would be remise not to have heard of Jeremy Lin. Through friends and occasional reports, I followed his career off and on before it became the media sensation that became the Linsanity this past February.

Like many others, I am excited at his recent NBA success. Having spent my share of time in gyms and playground pick-up games trying to play point guard, I have also been amused by the superficial similarities—including the deficiencies—of his play and my attempts at the same. It remains to be seen if he can maintain his high level of play through this season and beyond, but Lin has already demonstrated that he is more than capable and belongs on the court.

At the same time, I was also disturbed by aspects of the Linsanity, including Asian American commentary, and what it expressed about race and its contours within public discourse. Sports is an enormous and significant segment of our popular culture, but in relating its history, race apparently still requires a particular note of authenticity.

An easy separation of races informed public portraits of Lin as the first Asian American to play in the NBA. Several commentators have sought to distinguish Lin’s status as an Asian American from professional athletes such as Yao Ming, formerly of the Houston Rockets—and Ichiro Suzuki from Major League Baseball’s Seattle Mariners—who were born and raised in Asia. Other observers with a longer historical perspective quickly noted that Wataru “Wat” Misaka, who played for the University of Utah Ute’s NIT and NCAA champion teams, was the first player the New York Knicks ever drafted, in the first NBA draft, in 1947 and played several games in the 1947-48 season before being cut.

As accurate as these clarifications were, they also presented race and racial categories—in this case, of Asian American—as unambiguous notions. Left out of the NBA lineage from Misaka to Yao to Lin were other players of Asian descent. Raymond Townsend played two years for the Golden State Warriors and another with the Indiana Pacers. Corey Gaines, a member of Loyola Marymount’s “run and gun” glory years in the late 1980s, had a five-year NBA career with New Jersey Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets, and the Knicks. After leading the Kansas Jayhawks to the Final Four in the 1993 NCAA tournament. Rex Walters enjoyed a nine-year career that included stints with the Nets, 76ers and the Miami Heat. As their names might suggest, Townsend’s, Gaines’, and Walters’s ancestries are not only Asian but mixed—European and African. Omitting them from the Lin-sparked celebration of Asians in basketball history, moreover and more certainly, suggests that that mixture, ironically more than Yao’s national status, was too complicated for its narrative contours. Its recounting required an unproblematic sense of race, acknowledging and authenticating, but not questioning the category.

The issue is all the more striking in comparison with African American athletes generally, where partial African lineage is sufficient to determine racial status. While the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Hines Ward’s African heritage is presumed from his appearance, his Asian ancestry and upbringing—by his Korean mother—often requires explicit mention to be acknowledged. Tiger Woods’ complicated ancestry is more Asian than anything if one uses an additive or fractional calculus—his mother is part-Chinese and part-Thai with “some European ancestors thrown in” while his father’s family had African, European, and—but he is more often seen as African American than Asian or his own self-designated Cablinasian. Reports declaring Linsanity as the most significant media coverage ever of an Asian American in sports seemed unaware of, to have overlooked, or unwilling to acknowledge that Woods—whose ups and downs have been the largest sports story of the last several years—is Asian. Incidentally, but interestingly, the surname Lin, which is common in southeastern China and Asia and can also be spelled Lim; Liem; or Lam, can be translated as Woods.