(This post isn’t THAT long, but if it’s looking “tl;dr” for you, here’s the bottom line: I don’t think every racial joke is a slur, and I think treating them as such may do more harm than good. Seeing racism where there is none means it will never go away.)
(Also, I have other thoughts on #Linsanity that I hope to write about later. This particular angle was just at the forefront yesterday.)
As someone of Asian descent, someone who has always grappled with my identity in regards to race, I’m fairly sensitive to Asian American issues. So yes, my ears perked up when I started hearing about Jeremy Lin, this underdog Taiwanese American basketball player who went to Harvard, who might never have gotten a chance in the NBA, and who is now taking the sports world by storm.
I’m fully on board for #Linsanity. I’m so glad that Asian Americans can see someone like them succeeding in such an unexpected and prominent arena. (Yao was a start, but he always sort of felt “on loan” from China.) I think back on the guys who used to sweat through their shirts playing basketball during lunch at Chinese school, who watched NBA games when they should have been studying for calculus or biology, and I smile.
But it’s not all rainbows and bunnies. It’s not all celebration and progress. Behind the silly puns (Linsanity, Lincredible, etc.) the dark cloud of racism looms overhead. Or at least the dark cloud of racial insensitivity.
• Saturday Night Live’s spoof of a sports talk show demonstrates an unfortunate double standard: Chicken fried rice? Okay. Fried chicken? No way!
• The LA Times explains why the borderline racism in Lin jokes is so important: it shows us how far we still have go to. (“We” being both non-Asian America, and Asians in America.)
Part of what spurred both of those commentaries was a headline that appeared on ESPN’s mobile website (at 2:30 a.m. for a mere 35 minutes): “Chink in the Armor.” When I heard about that headline, I felt… unsettled. “Chink” is a derogatory term, but like the n-word, many Asians have reclaimed “chink” and use it when talking to each other, under the theory that a word is just a word and it’s our intentions that make them “good” or “bad.” Personally I didn’t find the headline cute or clever, but I wasn’t pissed off about it either. It just seemed tasteless.
Now, after hearing more about why and how it got there, I believe it was an honest, unfortunate coincidence. As I said to a friend on Twitter, I’ve made bigger mistakes than that under much better conditions. (Like the time in high school, as editor-in-chief of our paper, I let the placeholder copy “Headline headline headline” go all the way to print.) Sportscasters toss around lame, canned phrases like that all the time. Does that make this incident okay? Of course not. But did the guy deserve to lose his job and possibly his career over it? In my opinion, no.
(Reprimanded? Made to apologize? Educated? Yes yes yes.)
What if I blogged that an Indian author was trying to “curry favor” with a reviewer by sending them gifts? Would that make me a racist? Or maybe just a moron?
What if someone pointed out the potential offense in what I wrote, and I immediately took it down? What if I apologized for my mistake? Would you stop reading my blog? Stop being my friend?
What about the other night, when I DID tweet “Jeremy Lin + MSG = recipe for success”? Was that joke out of line? Did I make a racial slur? Or was I just having a bit of fun?
I believe that truly hateful and/or derogatory remarks MUST be acted upon. No question. But there’s a fine line between joke and slur, between enforcing political correct-ness and promoting censorship. We HAVE to consider that line. We can’t paint everyone with same brush. (“If you say anything less-than-flattering about his being Asian, then you’re racist.”) Because if we do that, then we’re just as bad as them.
I have been on the receiving end of ugly racist remarks. I’ve also been on the receiving end of racially based “compliments.” I’ve grown up surrounded by intelligent, hard-working men and women who were looked down upon, not taken seriously, discriminated against, just because of their accents, their grammar, their eyes, their height, their clothes. I know racism, and I hate it with a passion.
But I also grew up in an extremely diverse community, with friends from ALL cultures and ALL walks of life. (People used to tell me that my group of friends could have been a United Color of Benetton ad.) I know that race doesn’t have to be divisive. I know that there can be humor in our differences.
And I know that people make mistakes. They say things without thinking, or they say things they don’t mean. I don’t believe it does any good to persecute these people. I think that only reinforces the notion that race is a scary, dangerous thing, when the reality is that culture and ethnicity are wonderful, rich parts of history and humanity that should be understood, explored, and celebrated.
I’ll say it again: this country — this whole world — has a long way to go in battling racism. So let’s do that, let’s really battle real racism. Instead of kicking a man to the curb, let’s hold out our hand and help him cross to the side of cultural sensitivity. Instead of bowing to the pressure of outraged voices, let’s meet their call to action. In this case that might mean hosting sports camps for Asian youths, or creating scholarships for Asian American athletes. Whatever we do, we need to be curing the disease, not putting bandaids on the cuts and bruises. Because covering up an illness only gives it the opportunity to grow stronger while you’re not looking.