An open letter to African-American young people:
So, have you caught "Lin-sanity" yet?
Meaning, of course, Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks point guard who has, in just a couple weeks, done what big name stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire could not: make the Knicks matter. Indeed, by carving up defenses like Thanksgiving turkey, scoring with ridiculous ease and handing out assists in bunches, he's made them one of the hottest teams in basketball.
Suddenly, he is world famous. Suddenly, people who, until recently, thought driving the lane was something you do on the freeway are following his feats with fascination. Part of the interest is due to the fact that he went from no-name to superstar almost literally overnight. Part of it is because he is conspicuously humble in a league where the players are more often conspicuously conspicuous. But the greater part — let’s be honest here — seems to stem from the simple fact that he is a Chinese American.
Or, as black boxer Floyd Mayweather groused on Twitter, Lin is a great player, but black players do what he’s doing all the time. In other words, if he were black, he’d be just another Tom, Dick or Kobe. But of course, the point is precisely that he isn’t black and therefore, he isn’t what we expect.
It is always jolting when someone breaks out of the context to which you have subconsciously confined them — like when you run into your teacher, at the mall with her kids. Similarly, when it comes to Asian guys, we expect that they will excel in engineering or chemistry. We emphatically do not expect them to break the defender’s ankles and take the rock to the rack with malice.
There is a word for expecting things from people based on the racial, religious, gender or cultural box you have put them into. The word is “stereotyping,” a form of mental laziness in which people believe they can know who and what you are simply by seeing you.
You should know all about that. After all, the stereotypes about you are manifold. You are supposedly given to innate criminality, promiscuity, rhythm, athleticism and, more to the point of this column, stupidity, i.e., the inability to conquer chemistry, master math or otherwise do well in school.
As troubling as it is to know other people believe such things about you, it is infinitely more troubling to know you too often believe such things about yourself. It is difficult to escape that impression when one hears you using the Ku Klux Klan’s favorite racial epithet. Or defining yourselves as thugs. Or suggesting that speaking English is “acting white.” Indeed, one is reminded of the axiom that if you repeat a lie long enough, people will accept it as truth — even the people being lied about.
It takes a prodigious strength of mind and sense of self to resist that. How many times do you suppose Jeremy Lin had people tell him there was no way a Chinese guy could compete in a game dominated by African Americans? Yet there he is, ballin’ at the highest level.
So, the most admirable thing about him is neither his scoring nor his assists, but, rather, the fact that he refused to allow other people to define him. He knew he was capable of things they’d never expect or believe. And guess what?
So are you.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.