2.13.2012

The Myth of the Model Minority in the Coverage of the Rise of Jeremy Lin

Let me preface this post by saying that I am enjoying the Jeremy Lin show.  I'm not hating on him or on anyone who's covered him or rooted for him.  What I'm going to write is influenced by what I've recently read but it is not a direct reply to any of it; I'm simply using the recent coverage to touch on a few points that I think warrant mentioning, as it relates to how many Americans view successful Asians in their midst.

The notion of Asians being the "model minority" is one that is fraught with hidden meaning and misunderstanding.  What could be wrong with being singled out for such praise?  Without delving too deeply on the topic (I recommend Frank Wu's "Yellow" if you want to read more), the tag is triply problematic.  First, it assumes all Asians are all right, covering over our vast differences and absolving us of dealing with any segments within the Asian community that might require additional exploration and assistance.  Second, it pits Asians squarely against other minorities in a combative and unhelpful way.  Third, the compliments come with a limit: we are allowed to succeed, but we still must be kept in place, for our success is seen as being in technical areas, and we are implicitly told we should be satisfied with those arenas and not think we belong in other tracks (most notably the highest echelons of leadership).

Again, I'm not suggesting that I know the intentions of those who have recently written or raved about Lin.  But it strikes me that some common themes about how his incredible story has been told can be misconstrued in ways that feel very similar to the myth of the model minority. Consider any article you've read about him in the past week or so.  Did it hit on any or all of these themes?  (I'm skipping out-and-out racist stuff, like the picture at the top of this post, which I actually think is kind of funny, but that's just me, because I could never figure out why people thought Asians were bad at driving.)

  1. He's hard-working.
  2. He has great court intelligence.
  3. He came out of nowhere.
  4. He's humble.
  5. In regards to his faith, he's not as mouthy as Tim Tebow.
  6. And for the ten millionth time, he's sleeping on the couch in his brother's Manhattan apartment.
These all sound like great things, and they are.  I mean, geez, what could be wrong with praising Lin for his work ethic, his brains, and his humility?  At the risk of sounding like a hater, a lot.  Subconsciously, are these coded messages (whether what the writer subconsciously wants to say or what the reader subconsciously wants to hear) that reinforce the myth of the model minority?  Are these compliments backhanded ways of insinuating that Asians lack raw athletic ability and can only dare compete at the highest level of athletic competition through hustle and savvy?  That we are automatically supposed to be deferential, avoiding the spotlight and letting our actions speak instead of words?  (Interestingly, there is a Japanese analog to the English aphorism, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease," which is "the nail that stick out gets hammered down.")  Or that the limelight, the big bucks, and the scrutiny that comes with it all is meant for someone else?

You may accuse me of race-baiting.  You may not be wrong, if what you mean is that I am trying to inject race into a conversation that clearly has racial elements to it.  Jeremy Lin's Asianness is not the only angle to his remarkable story, and it may not be the biggest angle.  But it is nonetheless a window into how many Americans view successful Asians in their midst.  And while the coverage, the compliments, and the fawning are certainly wonderful, there is cause to believe there are some misconceptions in the midst that may be innocently held but are no less dangerous to foster.  And so I hope we won't be afraid to bring out those themes, assumptions, and prejudices, have an honest and open discussion of the implications of some of our statements and beliefs, and be better for it as people and as a nation. 




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