Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Repressed Never Really Went Away

I really hadn't meant to write more about Jeremy Lin, but some of the noise has been hard for even me to ignore.

The two incidents involving racial stereotyping, for example. First there was this image of Lin's head emerging from a broken fortune cookie, aired on MSG Network. (And what's up with his tongue hanging out like that? I've seen what I'd call a disproportionate number of news photos of Lin that show him yelling, face distended, as if he was a coach. But I admit, the ways of fans and sports media are not my ways.) Second, somebody on ESPN decided to put a headline (via) on their site about a "Chink in the Armor" after Lin's gameplay faltered. The headline was quickly taken down, an apology was issued, the writer responsible was fired, and the anchor who read it was suspended. (Some reasonably intelligent discussion of "chink in the armor" can be found here.)

Maybe I should add Floyd Mayweather's deprecation of Lin's success, claiming that he only got attention because he was Asian. Rush Limbaugh couldn't have said it better. Mayweather responded to criticism like a white person, claiming that "Other countries get to support/cheer their athletes and everything is fine. As soon as I support Black American athletes, I get criticized ... Wow what a country." He later added, "I'm speaking my mind on behalf of other NBA players. They are programmed to be politically correct and will be penalized if they speak up." Right out of the Limbaugh playbook! I guess it's a sign of African-American progress that their pundits now borrow from the most characteristic right-wing talking points on race.

Saturday Night Live did a funny sketch about all this:

(Just a thought: Could it be an unconscious, tacit admission of the fundamental triviality and boringness of sports that sportswriters need to put so much energy into drivel like "Linsanity"?)

Then Gawker put up a story headed "What if Kim and Lin Started Dating?" Yes, Kim Kardashian.
According to one of Kim Kardashian's friends, Kim's publicist has arranged for her to go on a date with Knicks demigod, Jeremy Lin. And while it's probable that there's no truth in this, it's kind of fun to imagine. Think of the Kimsane headlines.
My ever-vigilant Tabloid Friend on Facebook linked to it, gabbling "Wow I bet she would totally fuck that dude's head up if she managed to get that close to him. lol" and "I'd be retarded putty in that woman's presence for a while...unless she managed to offend me sufficiently enough, which then kinda gets the blood flowing to the proper head, so to speak. lol" Racist ("she only like men with big dicks") and misogynist ("she's only after the money, afterall knicks offered lin billions") comment ensued, to say nothing of the comments at Gawker itself. I commented that TF was scraping the bottom of the barrel for material to link to. I did not add, though maybe I should have, that none of us even know that Lin is heterosexual. (He's an evangelical Protestant who wants to become a pastor -- two of the early warning signs of the closet.)

This stuff really makes me feel weary, because I hate being reminded how racist this country still is. Like most Americans, the people I referred to above would indignantly deny that they're racist. But if they're right, why does racism keep leaking out around the edges when they talk? And these are just the leaks; sometimes it's blatant, as shown in this story (via) from Lin's college days:
Some people still can't look past his ethnicity. Everywhere he plays, Lin is the target of cruel taunts. "It's everything you can imagine," he says. "Racial slurs, racial jokes, all having to do with being Asian." Even at the Ivy League gyms? "I've heard it at most of the Ivies if not all of them," he says. Lin is reluctant to mention the specific nature of such insults, but according to Harvard teammate Oliver McNally, another Ivy League player called him a C word that rhymes with ink during a game last season. On Dec. 23, during Harvard's 86-70 loss to Georgetown in Washington, McNally says, one spectator yelled "Sweet-and-sour pork!" from the stands.
Just to play devil's advocate for a moment, I recognize that some "racial jokes" are not meant as slurs. I eventually came to realize that when some of my blue-collar Hoosier co-workers greeted foreigners of any background with clumsy stereotyping jokes, they were just being awkward, and meant well. They were being friendly, as best they knew how, as taught by their culture; it's just that their best was pretty poor stuff. (And of course their culture, like most, is racist. We're in Klan country down here.)

But what Jeremy Lin has had to deal with can't be excused that way. It was another Ivy League player who called him a chink during a game, and it seems fairly certain that he was passed over for the NBA draft because he is Asian, not because of any lack in his game. Of course racism is as Ivy League as Harvard and Yale, and I'm not at all surprised to find racism and overt stupidity in the upper classes. (An older professor once confessed to sports sociologist Michael A. Messner as they watched a women's baseball game, "You know, it amazes me to see a woman throw like that. I always thought that there was something about the female arm that made it impossible to throw like a man."* This wasn't a personal blip but a commonplace medical myth of the good old pre-Title IX days.) It looks to me like elite sports is one of the areas where even the pretense of eliminating bigotry doesn't apply, once you get below the surface protestations. But that, I think, is because it's so representative of American life. (For once I'm not going to say "white American," because as Floyd Mayweather demonstrates, the bigotry is not limited to whites.)

In her review of The Bell Curve back in the 90s, Ellen Willis wrote:
The idea that black brains are genetically inferior to white brains did not fade from public view simply because white people were convinced by Stephen Jay Gould's eloquent arguments. Rather, the gap between Americans' conscious moral consensus for racial equality and the tenacious social and psychic structures of racism was papered over with guilt and taboo. Many opponents of racism thought they were doing their political duty by shouting down the Jensens and Herrnsteins driving them underground. But this literal enforcement of taboo was only a crude reflection of a much more widespread process of self-censorship.

I don't mean that the moral consensus of the post-civil rights era wasn't genuine. I mean that morality isn't enough, that it can't forever keep the lid on contrary feelings rooted in real social relationships that have not been understood, confronted, or transformed. Commenting on The Bell Curve in The New Republic, John B. Judis indignantly points out that the taboo Murray and Herrnstein are so proud of violating was a reaction to Nazism: "It's not a taboo against unflinching scientific inquiry, but against pseudo-scientific racism. Of all the world's taboos, it is the most deserving of retention." The problem, though, is that taboos can never truly vanquish the powerful desires that provoke them. For some decades after the Holocaust, there was a moratorium on open anti-Semitism in Europe and America; it didn't last. So long as hierarchy is a ruling principle of our culture, the idea of black inferiority cannot be transcended, only repressed. And in an era when an ascendant global capitalism is creating a new, worldwide class structure -- when the language of social Darwinism is increasingly regarded as a simple description of reality -- genetic determination of social status is an idea whose time has come back.
While I agree with her main argument here about the limitations of taboo, I disagree with Willis on several points. The main one is that racism (and other bad -isms) never really went away. Racism didn't so much go underground as become more genteel, and mainstream American racism had always been genteel: Saying the N-word is tacky, nice people don't do it, but really, Those People would really be happier sticking to their Own Kind. White people created good jobs for ourselves, and while we'll be happy to let Those People have whatever jobs or positions at Harvard are left over when we've taken our share, they should be modest and polite and not become importunate. That Martin Luther King is just a Communist troublemaker, stirring up unrest; the Colored would be perfectly content if he and all the other outside agitators would mind their own business. The adaptation of this approach to other disenfranchised groups can be left as an exercise for the reader.

Aside from this, the problem I see is that most white Americans weren't interested in, or even aware of "the eloquent arguments of Stephen Jay Gould." And as Willis suggests, they were beside the point anyway. Racism was never based on believing that "black brains are genetically inferior to white brains"; the scientific arguments, worthless as they were, always floated atop the gut conviction of difference and inferiority. Willis even recognizes this: elsewhere in the same review she wrote that "If I bought the authors' thesis, I would still be allergic to their politics. I don't advocate equality because I think everyone is the same; I believe that difference, real or imagined, is no excuse for subordinating some people to others. Equality is a principle of human relations, not Procrustes' bed" (40).

Many people believe (or act as though they believe) that simply reciting a list of fine principles -- equality, justice, can't we all just get along? -- should be enough to absolve them of racism, sexism, etc., when they get caught saying something vicious and stupid. There's a great Feiffer cartoon from the late sixties depicting a male and female hippie facing off. The woman listens blankly as the man declares for several panels that they're in the same struggle, the same fight; her face only closes down when he asks, "So why is it that every day after slaving away on the barricades, I come home to a dirty commune?"

But back to the way racism leaks out of the celebration of Jeremy Lin. I can't understand why his success is so threatening to white sports commentators; for that matter, it says a lot about the culture of elite sport in the early 21st century that he was passed over for the NBA draft and then spent so much time on the bench. The people in charge -- presumably white males, again -- couldn't see past his Chineseness to the talent he had. It took a couple of accidents to give him a chance to play; otherwise, who knows how long he'd have languished without a chance to prove himself? As Andrew Ti wrote at deadspin,
NBA fans have almost no vocabulary with which to talk about him. As with any Asian person in popular culture, people's first resort is a torrent of pan-Asian racist gibberish: If it has anything to do with any country, food, product, concept, or stereotype involving Asia, the rule is basically, "Make any association or equivalence you want, whatever." ... There isn't much to say other than that this is racist as fuck.
He's right, but really? In 2012, white (and also, judging from the examples Ti gives, black) Americans still have almost no vocabulary with which to talk about a talented basketball player who happens to be Asian? And lacking such vocabulary, they aren't smart enough to shut up totally about it and just talk about his playing? And they are so obsessed with his Asianness that if they try to shut up about it, it keeps leaking out? And somebody at ESPN thought he could sneak it in with "Chink in his armor"? And probably thought he was terrifically clever?

Which is one more reason why I stopped worrying about being normal decades ago. I looked at the conduct of the people who were normal, and realized I wasn't missing a thing.

*"Ah, Ya Throw Like a Girl!" by Mike Messner, in New Men, New Minds, Breaking Male Tradition, edited by Franklin Abbott (The Crossing Press, 1987), p. 40.
** In Don't Think, Smile!: Notes on a Decade of Denial (Beacon, 1999), p. 40-41.