I wrote about Jeremy Lin in July of 2010, my general feeling at the time was that he had already achieved so much that he could already be considered something of a positive role-model for Asian boys. It is, therefore, nice to see that he has developed even more as a basketball player and is successfully competing against some of the best players in the game. I've long believed that it is the successful Asian sportsmen (and not movie and television characters) who will ultimately be the key players in the struggle to overcome stereotypes and negative attitudes.
What has been the most fascinating aspect of Lin's sudden ascent to celebrity is the reactions of American society. Varying in range from fanatical support to spiteful racial mockery, the response of America has reflected the ambivalent (and perhaps schizophrenic) nature of mainstream attitudes towards Asian people. Even some of those who support Lin might have difficulty speaking about him without some kind of derogatory reference. This Saturday Night Live skit presents a humerous example of this in action - despite being fans of Lin, the commentators make casual use of racial stereotypes and caricature.
I think that one root cause of this ambivalence towards Asians in 21st century is an almost semantic issue. In his fantastic novel, "Nineteen Eighty-Four", George Orwell describes a dystopian future in which every aspect of human society is watched and controlled by totalitarian government. One way that these governments control the minds and thoughts of their subjects is through a method called "Newspeak". In short, Newspeak is a process by which language is simplified by reducing vocabulary and grammar. By this process, key concepts in human thought that have the potential to cause people to have dissenting opinions are simply removed from the vocabulary of the language so that it becomes impossible to even conceptualize notions of freedom and human dignity that differ from the politically accepted ones.
This is somewhat chilling if you really think about it. In the context of mainstream reactions to Jeremy Lin's celebrity, what we seem to be observing is this very process in action. The vocabulary that is generally used to depict or describe Asian men is limited to that which is derogatory or demeaning. Asian men are typically jeered at or summarily dismissed and it is almost impossible to find much reference to Asian men in terms of strength or bravery. In fact, it is almost impossible to find much association of Asian men with humanity, with dehumanizing caricature being the favoured mode of description. Effectively, the concepts of Asians that condition the minds of mainstream America and form the filter through which attitudes towards Asian men are conceived and expressed are limited by the language and images put forward about them.
There is no language put forward in American culture that enables (or permits) Asian men to be conceptualized as masculine or even human by the mainstream. It should come as no surprise that some people are using the only language and concepts of Asian men that they know to describe Lin. That in no way should be taken as putting forward an excuse for blatantly racist attitudes expressed by some, neither is it an excuse for any caricaturing of Asian people. It is simply stating what I perceive to be fact - American society and culture is so geared towards conceiving of Asians in derogatory ways that the language itself is limited to achieving this end. Even in cases where there is so much support and backing for an individual - as is the case with Lin who is, after all, at the center of a dramatic turnaround in the Knicks' fortunes - the language often used in connection with him is inflected with caricature.
This is one of the reasons that I think the use of language to put forward eloquent and compelling argument is an essential tool in the fight against anti-Asian racism. Asian men - intellectuals, artists, players, sportsmen, or even delivery men - have to create the vocabulary that they want to be used to define themselves. I think that is one of the things that Jeremy Lin is doing - he is defining himself in a way tha is free of racial caricature. That to me is a very encouraging thing, and is an endeavour that all Asia-American boys should strive to emulate.
On a final note, one aspect of the Jeremy Lin phenomenon that I find extremely encouraging, is the ongoing punning of Lin's name. To me, this is effectively a way of creating a vocabulary to describe an Asian man and his exploits that is almost entirely free of racial caricature. That gives me some hope.