You would think that in a country of more than 300 million people – from every ethnic background in the world - racial stereotypes would’ve vanished by now. But not in America. Apparently, everyone is amazed by the fact that a Chinese athlete is among the nation’s best in basketball.
It’s true that we don’t see many Asians on American basketball courts, but I suspect the reason has less to do with their ability than with their image.
For one thing, coaches tend to pick the ethnic and physical types they usually associate with a sport. And for another, we all tend to live up – or down – to the expectations others have of us. If throughout our lives we are told that we – and people like us – can’t run or jump or dance or play the guitar, we tend to avoid those pursuits, expecting to fail if we try. And even if we try, we’re beaten before we begin, unable to overcome the ingrained expectation of failure.
But along comes Jeremy Lin (photo above) and – surprise! – he’s an overnight sensation.
A Chinese player with such talent? Who would’ve thought it. “They” are good at math, of course. But basketball? Why, some Chinese guy might turn up behind the wheel at NASCAR yet!
But Lin does not surprise me. At Munro College - the boarding school I attended in Jamaica – some of the best athletes were Chinese. Other stars were black or white or East Indian or Lebanese or Syrian or Jewish or Haitian or Hispanic…
The Jamaican population is diverse, and Munro attracted students from all over. One of my friends was from Rhodesia, and I recall many fellow-students from South America. That made for an ethnically diverse student body, and there was no way to predict who would do well at what.
I concede that some ethnic groups tend to excel at particular sports. Most of the best basketball players are undeniably black. The best marathon runners seem to come from Kenya or some other African country. Jamaicans of West African descent seem to show up on championship track teams around the world.
But this does not always hold true.
My cousin Pat Swaby, who is mostly German (I think), won the 100-yard dash at Sabina Park in record time. And I can recall many more Jamaican high school champions of non-African descent.
Ethnicity is not the only misleading criterion.
They say you can’t tell a book by its cover, and you certainly can’t tell an athlete by his – or her - appearance.
Baseball legend Babe Ruth was fat. Kirby Puckett also looked quite rotund but performed dazzling plays on the baseball diamond. Billy Mayfair is no Tiger Woods as far as physique is concerned but he is the only player to beat Tiger in a playoff on the PGA Tour (1998 Nissan Open). And I wouldn’t bet against “the Walrus” in a head-to-head match against any of today’s athletic looking young stars.
You would think that a long-jumper needs long, powerful legs. But I consistently won the long jump at Munro and no one sees my legs and lives. My brother Bill has equally unimpressive legs. He had polio as a toddler – twice. Yet he was a championship boxer, winning the British Army Junior Welterweight Championship of the Rhine.
I could go on and on, but this drum really shouldn’t need beating. Obviously, stereotyping – racial and otherwise – is absurd. And cruel.
It is a major cause of unjust arrests, convictions and even death senstences in America.
Consider this excerpt from a Salon.com article today:
Asian Americans are currently the No. 1 most bullied demographic in America. The same invisibility that kept Jeremy Lin outside the “frame of reference” of coaches also kept the two different units who hounded Cpl. Harry Lew and Pvt. Danny Chen to suicide last year with constant racist taunts and physical abuse from realizing they were well outside the limits of respectful internal military discipline.
Who knew? Sure, we teased each other a lot back in Jamaica, and our ethic origin was certainly not out of bounds. But bullying to the point of suicide?
And I thought America was an enlightened country.