Tips on how to avoid basic racist flubs shouldn’t need to be spelled out so plainly. But if the last few weeks of Linsanity swirling around the Knicks’ breakout star are any indication, everyone, and journalists in particular, could use a basic brush up on how to talk about that rarest of species: heterosexual Asian-American male star athletes.
Enter the Asian American Journalists Association, which has supplied a basic 101 guide (via Yahoo) for what to know, what to avoid, and what not to get all obsessed with when covering the cultural phenomena that is Jeremy Lin. The basic gist of the guide? Language matters. And reporters may think they’re deploying harmless one-liners that poke fun at, or even celebrate, Jeremy Lin’s Asian heritage, but they should be cautious of what the AAJA calls “danger zones.”
From the AAJA guide:
“CHINK”: Pejorative; do not use in a context involving an Asian person on someone who is Asian American. Extreme care is needed if using the well-trod phrase “chink in the armor”; be mindful that the context does not involve Asia, Asians or Asian Americans. (The appearance of this phrase with regard to Lin led AAJA MediaWatch to issue statement to ESPN, which subsequently disciplined its employees.)
DRIVING: This is part of the sport of basketball, but resist the temptation to refer to an “Asian who knows how to drive.”
EYE SHAPE: This is irrelevant. Do not make such references if discussing Lin’s vision.
FOOD: Is there a compelling reason to draw a connection between Lin and fortune cookies, takeout boxes or similar imagery? In the majority of news coverage, the answer will be no.
MARTIAL ARTS: You’re writing about a basketball player. Don’t conflate his skills with judo, karate, tae kwon do, etc. Do not refer to Lin as “Grasshopper” or similar names associated with martial-arts stereotypes.
“ME LOVE YOU LIN TIME”: Avoid. This is a lazy pun on the athlete’s name and alludes to the broken English of a Hollywood caricature from the 1980s.
“YELLOW MAMBA”: This nickname that some have used for Lin plays off the “Black Mamba” nickname used by NBA star Kobe Bryant. It should be avoided. Asian immigrants in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries were subjected to discriminatory treatment resulting from a fear of a “Yellow Peril” that was touted in the media, which led to legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act.
To see the racial stereotypes of the Asian-American community spelled out in such basic language, with explicit tips to avoid exploiting them is only mildly ridiculous. But hey, sometimes you have to start from scratch. Even SNL went out of its way to point out this weekend: not every Jeremy Lin joke is a good one.
Or, as Jon Bois, an editor at SBNation.com, recently wrote a thoughtful q&a, to those who think that everyone knows your racialized joke is innocent humor: “I would suggest that you’re overestimating humanity.”
So, sports writers. Do yourselves a favor and read the AAJA guide before your next Jeremy Lin assignment.