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July 12, 2014, 5:30 am

When ‘Linsanity’ turns insulting

It’s OK to make fun of your own crowd, according to old wisdom, but nobody else’s.

That’s not a bad piece of advice for us in the journalism trades to follow as we cover the sudden stardom of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin.

It’s a great story, a narrative that embodies the best virtues that we Americans like to think about ourselves — and defies multiple stereotypes. Lin an Asian-American Harvard graduate and proudly outspoken Christian, passed over for athletic scholarships and draft picks. But he didn’t give up. He warmed benches at two other NBA teams before he turned a recent moment on the floor with the New York Knicks into an incredible winning streak.

Is the “Linsanity” captivating Asian Americans, too? Tuyet Le, executive director of the Asian American Institute in Chicago, described the mood in her office as “cautiously optimistic.” There was joy over Lin’s mighty blow to the stereotype of Asian Americans as nonathletic over-achievers, she said, but there was also an ominous sense of wondering, “When is the other shoe going to drop?”

After all, the flip side to racial breakthroughs is how old stereotypes are replaced by new ones. “As somebody joked,” Le recalled, “‘Do we all have to go to Harvard now and be athletes, too?’”

Such is the mixed blessing of being widely viewed as a “model minority.” It didn’t take long for the other shoe to drop in the world of sports, where the journalism is colorful, the chatter full of trash-talking and sometimes exuberant writers get carried away.

A little innocent fun with the NBA phenom’s inviting surname is understandable and, I hope, amusing. But it didn’t take long for wordplay to move to Lin’s most visible characteristic, his Asian heritage, and take a swift slide into the inflammatory.

The New York Post, for example, broke the wince-inducing headline: “Amasian!” Comedian Jon Stewart, among others, found that to be “very ‘Lin-sensitive.’ “On CBS’ “The Late Show With David Letterman,” Stewart compared it to a headline writer announcing a perfect game by an ethnic hero of baseball, Sandy Koufax, with “Jewtiful!”

The MSG network, which broadcasts Knicks games, aired an image of Lin’s face over a broken fortune cookie with the words: “The Knicks Good Fortune.” That Chinese food reference unfortunately brought to mind a game against Georgetown during Lin’s Harvard days. As a 2009 Time profile recounts, a spectator yelled “Sweet-and-sour pork!” from the stands.

This time we have boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., who stepped on Lin’s moment of glory by tweeting that Lin was only getting all the “hype” because of his race. Of course, wags uttered similar sour grapes about Tiger Woods and President Obama. In each case, performance speaks for itself.

ESPN moved swiftly to take down an unfortunate headline on their mobile site after a Friday night loss: “Chink in the Armor.” It lasted a half-hour and the editor who wrote it was fired two days later. I was reminded of a campaign I reported back in 1975 by Chinese American groups to have the high school in Pekin, near Peoria, change the name of its school teams, long known as the Pekin Chinks.

Locals say the town was named after Peking, China, now called Beijing. The team mascots were a male and female student dressed in traditional Chinese costumes. Amid national news coverage, students voted to hold onto the name of their beloved Chinks, which finally was changed in 1980 to the Pekin Dragons.

That’s a long time, but still shorter than the Washington Redskins or Cleveland Indians, among other teams that are not even close to giving up their ethnic-related names or mascots. Still, I wonder how comfortable they’d feel about a team called, say, the “Cleveland Negroes.”

I still maintain that people should not be severely punished for mistakes they make out of innocence and ignorance. In a society as diverse and persistently segregated as ours still is, it’s not easy to forecast everything that’s going to offend people. I’ve failed more than a few times myself. But after people have told you that they’re offended, that’s a pretty good clue that they are.

 

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com.