(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.

31 responses to “A few thoughts on #Linsanity and racism”

  1. Mieke Zamora-Mackay Avatar

    Bravo, Kristan! This is an awesome post. Thank you for your enlightened stance.

  2. Sonje Avatar

    In my opinion, if you are equating the word “chink” with “the n-word” (and I think it is important in this context to point out that you and I would not even spell out that word because it is such a charged word even though we are not using it as anything but a word to compare another word to), then how can you think it is not a HUGE mistake for “chink” to be used in a headline describing an Asian-American player? If those two words are ANYTHING alike, then yes, it is a fire-able offense. The “oh, I didn’t mean anything by it, it didn’t occur to me” excuse doesn’t fly. If we choose to believe what the editor is saying, he’s defending himself by hiding behind his ignorance, and ignorance is no excuse.

    Also, you letting “headline headline headline” go to print didn’t hurt/offend anyone. If you’d let “n-word student wins tennis match” go to print, I think you’d have found yourself off of the newspaper, don’t you think?

  3. Kristan Avatar

    The difference is that there is no other context for the n-word. No one can use it in an innocent phrase. But “chink in the armor” is a very standard expression that people use regularly. If it weren’t juxtaposed with the picture of an Asian guy, it wouldn’t be an issue. So in my mind, that was the unfortunate coincidence.

  4. T. S. Bazelli Avatar

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Being in Canada, and not much of a sports watcher, I didn’t know what this Jeremy Lin press was all about. It was a surprise to me (maybe it shouldn’t have been?) the first time I saw his photo and found out that he was Asian. Important things to think about and remember though. I’ve also experienced racism,stereotyping,being called out as ‘exotic’. I wish there was less far to go…

  5. Juliann Wetz Avatar

    Lots of thoughts to ponder in this blog post, Kristan. My husband and I talk about things like this a lot. He’s in Racial Equity groups and often takes things more seriously than I do. One of our biggest arguments concerned a school system whose mascot was an Indian chief. Depicted as a savage (some say), the Native American community called for the school to change their mascot, saying that it was a racial slur. I argued that this mascot could represent a team that is fierce, brave, and strong; a tribe of sorts. But that just fueled my husband’s argument that Indians should not be equated with being fierce and that even if I thought it was a compliment and intended it as a compliment, if the Native Americans, who are the ones being depicted, find it offensive, then it needs to be changed.

  6. Becky Wallace Avatar

    Unfortunately, there’s no way to know what the writer’s/editor’s intent was. And I think THAT’s what makes the difference.

  7. Anthony Lee Collins Avatar

    Really good post. I think your “headlineheadlineheadline” story isn’t a really good analogy, though, because we apply different standards to professionals than we apply to high school students. That being said, I don’t think anybody should have got fired, particularly the sportscaster. As you point out, the word has more than one meaning, and when you’re broadcasting a fast-paced game in real time, you can’t examine every word you say for possible other interpretations.

    But I really liked the point about racially-based “compliments.” All stereotypes are harmful, even the ones that seem positive. Here’s one example: there is a perception that Asian people are good at tech jobs. I’ve heard people say this as a compliment (“they’re so good at that sort of thing”). But I’ve also seen surveys showing that, while Asians are well represented in tech support jobs, they very seldom get promoted out of them, into management positions. So, this supposedly positive perception ends up locking people into jobs forever.

  8. Vaughn Roycroft Avatar

    A really good, balanced viewpoint, Kristan. I cringed when I heard ad mogel/talking head Donnie Deutsch saying Lin could be as big as Michael Jordan in the ad world because he’s someone all the geeks and nerds out there can identify with. Okay, Lin went to Harvard. But so did Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Buffalo Bills. I don’t recall anyone making that kind of comment about him. They just said he was a smart guy. You’re right, we have a long way to go. Your level-headed commentary is a step in the right direction.

  9. Trisha Avatar

    The other side of the coin…
    Being the proud mother of a blue-eyed, blonde haired boy, he too has experienced inequities. He hasn’t been chosen for some things because they needed to depict a more ‘ethnically diverse’ look to be politically correct. As well as experiencing the ‘white man can’t jump’ from peers/friends in high school. I recall when he was born my father in law saying ‘blond hair, blue-eyed male, that’s two strikes against him.’
    Ignorance comes in many colors, shapes and forms. Is it okay that a more qualified candidate isn’t chosen because of affirmative action laws? Or because a company is trying to be ‘politically correct’ or fearful of being sued?
    I feel sorry for ALL people who experience racism, injustices or insults. But do not for a moment think just because you are in a designated minority you alone suffer. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who settled this country then flung open the doors to all, are quickly becoming the new minority. (And yes, I know we horribly mistreated the Native Americans, but I’ll save that for a whole other rant.)

  10. Kristan Avatar

    I’d be very curious about race relations in Canada. Not that you need to blog about them, or anything, but I imagine there might be a different dynamic there.

    Yes, as your discussion with your husband shows, there are two sides to every coin, two ways (if not more) to look at everything. There are no easy answers in discussions like these.

    Perhaps no way to know for 100% sure, but I’d like to think we’re not going to assume everyone’s a racist until proven otherwise. (Especially since many racists are more than happy to be obvious about it.)

    Yeah, it’s not the best analogy, in terms of level of offense, but my point was that I let it get printed in thousands of hard copies. This guy clicked a button.

    And YES, your example is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about there.

    Funny enough, I’m a big Bills fan, so I know exactly what you’re talking about.

    Yup, this discussion (racism) has all sorts of angles. I’m in no way saying that “the whites have it easy” — I know that’s not always the case, belonging to both sides myself. And it’s not always whites who are doing the discriminating. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians… everyone has their own perspectives and prejudices.

    My point in this post is really that instead of seeing racism where there isn’t any, we should ALL be working to understand and accept each other, so that skin color becomes as irrelevant (but still noticed and sometimes appreciated) as eye color.

  11. Mari Passananti Avatar

    Interesting post, Kristan.
    I am also mom to a blond haired, blue eyed boy. And I must respectfully disagree with Trisha’s comment above. why? Because he’s not categorized from the get go. Everyone assumes the world is his oyster. He’s not pigeon holed like the Asian American violinist slash scholar or the African American sports sensation. Whatever he chooses to be in life, no one will express surprise at his talentsor interests because of how he looks.
    To pretend white maleness isn’t an enormous advantage is an amazing act of denial. yes, that’s changing, rightly so… and that’s also why bigotry rears its ugly head so often. Any one else notice the appalling misguided nostalgia by white men of a certain age for America before the sexual revolution and civil rights act??

  12. Trisha Avatar

    “We should ALL be working to understand and accept each other, so that skin color becomes as irrelevant (but still noticed and sometimes appreciated) as eye color.”
    Interesting…I would say that eye color is most definitely used as a tool to identify heritage and possibly discrimination. :-)

  13. Trisha Avatar

    Still love your writing though. Thanks for sharing. I encouraged it and still do.

  14. Marci Avatar

    I 100% agree with you (but you probably knew that), and my mixed heritage has led to a lot of insults, misconceptions, and compliments as well :)

    I think intent was a huge part of this, but I like to err on the side of no ill intent in cases like this. I’d rather see education of the editor and discussion rather than firing. Firing, to me, is just a quick way to get these stories out of the news. Which doesn’t help our discussions of race in this country.

  15. Q Avatar

    “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.”

    I think a lot of racially-based jokes are offensive, whether they were intended to be or not. I don’t know if there is a “fine line” between the two. I think by using a racially based joke, you take the risk of offending someone. I don’t think it’s censorship for frowning upon those who offend people. In fact, it’s anything but censorship. People can say what they want, but society may frown upon them. They still have the right to say it and that is their choice.

    Now, regarding Trisha’s comment: “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who settled this country then flung open the doors to all, are quickly becoming the new minority. (And yes, I know we horribly mistreated the Native Americans, but I’ll save that for a whole other rant.)”

    Is this a joke? I really don’t know. Either way it’s ignorant, not because it’s racist (although there are undertones of WASP superiority), but because it’s wrong. First the doors of this country were never flung open for minorities, First it was the Natives (but she already addressed that point). Second, this country wouldn’t be this country were it not for slavery for over a hundred years. We needed a civil war to end that. Then there was government enforced discrimination. Talk about affirmative action. Many WASP were the only people that could apply to certain schools because of the fact they were WASP. Just ask Jews about the Ivies at the beginning of last century. But, that was all cleared up with Civil Rights movement in the 60s right? We’re all better now. Disregarding the fact that it was only 50 years ago (yes 50 years of “equality” makes up for 200+ years of affirmative action for WASP), schools today discriminate against Asians in favor of Whites, Natives, Latinos, and Blacks. I agree with Trisha that “[i]gnorance comes in many colors, shapes and forms,” but people should educate themesleve before they claim to denounce ignorance. (Or else they are simply perpetuating ignorance). Before you think that “affirmative action laws” (do those even still exist?) discriminate in favor of more qualified canidates, think to yourself is that what you really want? And what makes one more qualified? If it is GPA and test scores then the top 10 schools in this country in almust every field should be overwhelmingly Asian. Trust me the “soft factors” (legacy, extracurriculars, etc.) aren’t just there for promoting racial diversity for Lations, Natives, and Blacks.

    Final point.

    The reason why the Jeremey Lin comment was especially bad is because the NBA already discriminated against Lin. There is no player in recent history that is that good (“a more qualified candidate” as one could say) and went completely unnoticed for that long. Lin is easily a top 15 point guard. He didn’t get PT because he was Asian. Plain and simple. Stop racial Profi-LIN!

  16. Kristan Avatar

    I agree, being a white male in our current society generally puts one at an advantage. To Trisha’s point, there is no guarantee that those white males will get to keep that advantage. Depends on a lot of factors. (Where you live, what you want to do, etc.)

    There’s no real end to this discussion, I think. We can just keep going back and forth. Bottom line: Life isn’t fair. Different people will experience that to different degrees.*

    Thanks, I know. :)

    “Firing, to me, is just a quick way to get these stories out of the news. Which doesn’t help our discussions of race in this country.”

    Exactly. That’s what drives me crazy about it. All the people who called or emailed ESPN, don’t they realize how little they’ve accomplished by simply getting the guy fired? Sigh.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that I think firing someone is more than just “frowning.” You’re right that it’s not true censorship (as Marshall from HIMYM would say: “Laywered!”) but because in this particular case it wasn’t even malicious, I feel the punishment was undeserved and encourages a culture of fear around race that pushes us in the wrong direction.

    Re: your final point-
    I agree, and it makes me wonder who else out there is being ignored or overlooked.

  17. Kristan Avatar

    *Additional thought from above: I suppose the goal of “eliminating racism” would be to make the unfairness an individual experiences independent from their race.

  18. Trisha Avatar

    Q. Thanks for your opinion. I am merely pointing out ‘reverse’ discrimination is alive and well. And yes, I work in an HR field. Affirmative Action is in place, reported on and incented through tax breaks to companies.

  19. Q Avatar

    If that were the only thing you said, then I wouldn’t have responded. Also, last time I checked incentives weren’t mandates. If companies are engaging in affirmative action it’s there choice. Also, last time I checked, most Fortune 500 companies are not run by racial minorities or women. In fact, even the Congress and President who adopted those incentives were mostly White men. . . .

  20. Trisha Avatar

    Q. I actually think you’ve gone a long way to proving my point. :)

  21. Marci Avatar

    Trisha, I’m not white so I dont know what that’s like, but if you think the inqualities suffered by blacks and Hispanics throughout the history of this country even come close to your son’s “white man can’t jump” problem, I would urge you to learn more about the history of minorities in America. I hope that isn’t your point, because that would be pretty insulting (and ignorant).

  22. Marci Avatar

    and Asians*. Again, not something I know too much about personally, but I know enough to add them to my first sentence.

  23. Q Avatar

    No, Trisha, as I said in the last post. I don’t disagree with the point that all people face discrimination, I disagree with the other stuff you said.

    I think you missed my point that WASP did not “fl[i]ng open the doors to all.” WASP have intentionally discriminated against other groups including their own women for most of this country’s history. I also think you realize since you are in the HR field that WASP continue to discriminate in favor of WASP.

    Finally, where is your proof of this WASPs are quickly becoming the new minority? Still majority in this country, and over represented in every field.

  24. Trisha Avatar


    It isn’t. I am not piling up the inequities of the centuries. Just making a comment on the current condition.

    I once had a conversation with my dad about his being in a biracial relationship with a Taiwanese woman. Not because I truly cared, but because I was a teenager pushing my parent’s buttons. He had absolutely no understanding as to what I was talking about. It did not fit within his paradigm.

    And as to how I’ve riled up the converation here, I will have to leave it to Kristan to attest I am not a small minded, racist, back woods hillbilly. Unless of course they a protected class?

  25. Sonje Avatar

    Anthony wrote: “That being said, I don’t think anybody should have got fired, particularly the sportscaster. As you point out, the word has more than one meaning, and when you’re broadcasting a fast-paced game in real time, you can’t examine every word you say for possible other interpretations.”

    There were two instances of “chink in the armor” being used. One by a sportscaster and one by a writer for ESPN’s website. The only person who got FIRED was the EDITOR of ESPN’s website. To say it the other way, *neither* the sportscaster nor the writer was fired. ONLY the editor. And I maintain that it is the editor’s job to catch mistakes like the one made by the writer. That’s the reason you have an editor–you have a check point between writing the article and the publishing it. The EDITOR’s job was to stop such a thing from going to print, and he *failed to perform the responsibilities of his job.* An *editor* is not writing from the seat of his pants. And *editor* is supposed to evaluate what is written and determine if it is appropriate for printing (online or otherwise), and if it is not, s/he is supposed to kick it back to the writer and say, “Fix X Y and Z.” Again, he did NOT do this. And that’s why he lost his job. Justifiably in my opinion.

  26. Kristan Avatar

    Sonje is correct that the sportscaster who said the phrase on air was not fired, merely suspended. However, I disagree with her take on the “editor” situation. The man fired was not an “editor of ESPN’s website.” He was part of the team handling ESPN’s *mobile* site, which is separate, though they pull content from the main site. And in fact, that’s how this came about. As the article I linked to explains, this guy was pushing an article on the Knicks from the main ESPN site over to the mobile site, but because mobile devices have less “real estate”/width, he decided to rewrite the headline to fit better. Unfortunately his choice of words had a connotation he wasn’t aware or thinking of, and because of other various factors mentioned in the article, there was no oversight. He published the story and moved on to the next task of his evening.

    Sidebar: There are all sorts of “editors.” Acquisitions editors, copy editors, development editors, etc. They are not all responsible for the same things and thus might not all have the same sensitivities to the nuances of that phrase.

    AGAIN, I am not saying the headline was okay to put next to a picture of Lin. All I’m saying is that I don’t think he meant it in a hateful or derogatory spirit, and thus I don’t think he deserved to be fired. Unfortunately we as a society have such knee-jerk reactions that the resulting uproar pretty much left ESPN no choice. He was fired, the masses were appeased, and no real progress against racism was made.

  27. Amanda Kendle Avatar

    Great post, Kristan. I only vaguely heard about this story via Twitter but we have plenty of the same problems down here. When you say “let’s really battle real racism” you’re EXACTLY right. What proportion of Americans are of Asian descent? I think it’s about 10% in Australia (maybe more these days?) but there is still so much racist rubbish that goes on here, I’m often so embarrassed by it. Anyway, good on you for weighing in, it’s interesting to hear your perspective.

  28. Mari Passananti Avatar

    Hi Kristan, Fascinating discussion so far. I’d like to recommend that anyone interested in WHY the playing field isn’t (and probably won’t be, in our lifetimes or out children’s) level, read THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS.

    I don’t read a ton of non fiction, and it’s a bit of a tome, with some redundancies (perhaps a result of the editor’s planning to use it as a reference book?), BUT it was so eye opening. At least in my school system, US history between 1900-1970 or so was really glossed over.

    Frankly, I’d rather see the elite schools do away with all legacy preferences and keep affirmative action, which I’m afraid the reactionary majority of the USSC will gut by the end of term.

    There are still plenty of under- or marginally qualified WASPs at the Ivies because of multigenerational links to the schools. See for example, Bush, George Walker.

  29. Trisha Avatar

    @Mari – I absolutely agree about the legacy stuff at Ivy League schools. Inexcusable.

  30. Marci Avatar

    I agree with you guys on the legacy thing, Mari and Trisha. And thanks for the book recco!

  31. Les Avatar

    I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. Um.. shit happens? I don’t think it was intentional either… it was too stupid to be intentional if that makes any sense.
    Anyway, good for the kid, and good luck to him!