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How Not To Cover Jeremy Lin

Posted by Francie Latour  February 22, 2012 10:24 PM

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The name of the episode was "Archie Gives Blood," from All in the Family circa 1971. You could probably write the script in your head right now: Archie and Mike stand in line at blood bank. Asian-American male walks by. The grousing bigot shakes his head and says, "Oh, no no no, he ain't gonna give no blood here. He's Oriental -- that's a yellow race." The exasperated son-in-law shakes his head and says, "And of course he has yellow blood. Look, there's an Irishman with green blood."


Last night, in a truly depressing statement on the state of affairs in our increasingly multicultural, multi-ethnic society, the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) was forced to step into the role of Mike, issuing an advisory to the American media with guidelines on how to cover -- and not cover -- New York Knicks point guard and sudden NBA phenom Jeremy Lin. The advisory came out just in time for tipoff at Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks, led by Lin, breezed past the Atlanta Hawks, 99-82.

I'm calling them guidelines because that is what the AAJA -- in a display of otherworldly professionalism and restraint -- has called them. In reality, they are basic standards of awareness that should be as obvious to us in 2012 as the fact that "blood is blood, no matter who it comes from" should have been to Mr. Bunker 40 years ago.

We can all chuckle along with the laugh track at Archie's legendary, those-were-the-days retorts. ("If all blood is the same, lemme ask you this: How come there's no Swedes in the mafia? Because your Italians got a lock on it, that's why!") But for some reason it's much harder for us to see that the modern-day media, in piling stereotype after stereotype on Lin's uplifting, uniquely American success story, seems incapable of grasping some basic realities -- like the fact that Lin is actually an American, who grew up playing American-style ball.

To clear up the confusion, the AAJA's advisory opened its list of guidelines with this statement:

"Jeremy Lin is Asian American, not Asian (more specifically, Taiwanese American). It's an important distinction and one that should be considered before any references to former NBA players such as Yao Ming and Wang Zhizhi, who were Chinese. Lin's experiences were fundamentally different than people who immigrated to play in the NBA. Lin progressed through the ranks of American basketball from high school to college to the NBA, and to characterize him as a foreigner is both inaccurate and insulting."

Unfortunately, that's just the beginning. Here is a sampling of some of the terms the AAJA has asked the media to avoid, under the heading "Danger Zones." ESPN, and everyone else incapable of refraining from racist Lin puns, take note:

* DRIVING: This is part of the sport of basketball, but resist the temptation to refer to an "Asian who knows how to drive."

* "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 a statement to ESPN, which subsequently disciplined its employees.) 

* 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.

* 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.

Like all good journalism, the advisory goes on to correct some factual inaccuracies, including the notion, which has now become gospel, that Lin is the first Asian-American to play in the NBA. That idea -- to borrow a phrase Archie's son-in-law returned to in almost every All in the Family episode -- is plain wrong. Again, from the AAJA:

"Raymond Townsend, who's of Filipino descent, was a first-round choice of the Golden State Warriors in the 1970s. Rex Walters, who is of Japanese descent, was a first-round draft pick by the New Jersey Nets out of the University of Kansas in 1993 and played seven seasons in the NBA; Walters is now the coach at University of San Francisco. Wat Misaka is believed to have been the first Asian American to play professional basketball in the United States. Misaka, who's of Japanese descent, appeared in three games for the New York Knicks in the 1947-48 season."


Former Golden State Warriors point guard Raymond Townsend 

If you're looking at this image of Townsend and thinking, "That guy can't be Asian-American!", you may want to check out the AAJA's handbook to covering Asian America.

Yep, they have one, for obvious reasons.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Francie Latour writes about race, gender, ethnicity, and cultural identity. She’s written about everything from working-mom guilt to black Barbies as a contributor to The Boston Globe, where she worked for 11 years as an investigative reporter and features writer. More »

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