Lessons on Humor and Racism from Jeremy Lin’s Media Coverage

27 Feb

At first, I wasn’t going to join the discussion surrounding the Asian jokes about Jeremy Lin. I’m not into sports, and I felt that anything I said would miss important information about the context of sports culture.

It began with last name related puns– “Lin-sanity” holding the popular title– but eventually devolved into race-related jokes. See: The New York Post “Amasian” headline or the uncomfortable phrase, “Me Love You Lin Time.”

Then there was ESPN’s “Chink in the Armor” headline, a major gaffe which cost journalist Anthony Federico his job and led to the suspension of Max Bretos.

There have been several stories in the news that associate Jeremy Lin’s heritage and Chinese food– one graphic posted by the MSG network, and one Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor.

However, days after the mess reporters made of Jeremy Lin’s amazing (so I hear) basketball related accomplishments, Facebook statuses defending the many racially charged slogans keep popping up on my newsfeed like a bad internet meme that just won’t die.

I'm referring to this meme specifically

The posts range from defending the ESPN headline writer (citing the number of times he’s used the same headline in reference to non-Asian athletes, the dictionary.com definition of “chink,” or the law on intentionality) to libeling liberals for their PC war on humor– and for those of you not familiar with the rhetoric of the right, this does not refer to people who liberally love computers.

However, what’s really interesting to me is the number of posts that defend the headlines (if you can call it defending) by agreeing that the headlines are racist, but not that racist. These posts usually include some kind of comparison to a remark that would be sufficiently racist to garner the explosion of media attention that has accompanied the ESPN remarks, the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor, et cetera.

I’ve seem similar arguments made by news and humor opinion sites. About six minutes into his video, Philip DeFranco argues that the ESPN headline is okay because (among other reasons) chink isn’t as bad as the n-word.

He bases this comparison on which word is more difficult for him to say out loud.

Other than his notably subjective analysis methodology, DeFranco makes another mistake. He assumes that the n-word was always inappropriate, forgetting that it took widespread recognition of the decades of humiliation and prejudice associated with the term in order for it to be officially and universally retired from public discourse.

Huan Hsu makes a similar point in his case for retiring the phrase chink in the armor in his Slate article, “No More Chinks in the Armor,” arguing that the word chink has quietly gone the way of dyke, niggardly, and fagot– all words that used to have non-derogatory meanings, but whose deprecatory connotations have since outweighed their other uses.

I tend to agree with Hsu; however, I am interested to know where others draw the line between too racist and an acceptable amount of racist.

At first, I thought maybe it had something to do with intentionality. Clearly, the writer of the “Chink in the Armor” headline didn’t mean to be racist. He had used the exact same headline a bunch of other times, plus the phrase is a hackneyed trope of the sports industry and pretty much all sports writers use it.*

But the writer was still fired– not because he is a racist, but because of the affect his words had his readers and the readers of ESPN. So if The Line is intent to be racist, those overreacting, PC liberals are to blame for jumping up and yelling “Racism!” at poor, unsuspecting headline writers!

But that can’t be it. If we hurt or offend someone’s feelings with our words, does it matter if we intended to be hurtful or not? Our intent isn’t going to save ESPN’s reputation or recover any lost fans.

On top of that, people of color may have had certain experiences with words that would make those words especially offensive. For example, Jeremy Lin has spoken publicly about how the word chink was used to taunt him during his secondary school years. If a white writer doesn’t have those experiences, does that make it fair for him (or her) to disregard word related concerns?

Maybe the line lies with humor. My Facebook friends seem fairly convinced that jokes are sacred and should not be messed with. But what makes something like a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor with fortune cookies in it funny and a newspaper headline with an exaggerated Asian accent not? I personally don’t think that ice cream with fortune cookies in it equals tongue-in-cheek humor.

Saturday Night Live definitely touts the right to race related humor in their parody of sports commentary. I’m not going to lie– there are some moments where the jokes make me pretty uncomfortable. I’m referring specifically to that video of Jeremy Lin dubbed over by someone speaking broken English.

But the SNL jokes are making fun of racism. They’re saying it’s ridiculous that a newspaper would even consider printing “Amasian” as a headline. In fact, they think that’s so funny they don’t even bother making a parody newspaper– they just use the exact New York Post paper and expect their audience to laugh. That’s because they’re making fun of people who think the headline is okay.

In fact, the SNL parody is making fun of people who think they know where the line is. Jay Pharoah, Kenan Thompson, and Bill Hader are contrasted with Taran Killam. Taran doesn’t know where the line is, and it becomes clear that– much like DeFranco– Jay, Kenan, and Bill think the line is located right where the jokes move from being about Asian stereotypes to being about Black stereotypes.** The audience is supposed to realize that these three are wrong– they don’t know where the line is.

So, where is the line?

For me, the line lies with humor. If you’re noting the absurdity of race related stereotypes, you’re in the clear. But I know that Jay Smooth would disagree and call me an ironic, Vice Magazine hipster! So that leaves us back where we started– where is the line?!

Notes:

*Sidenote: Can we get some new headline writers? The people at Slate, The Huffington Post, and apparently ESPN are killing me! No more question titles, no more false binaries that the author doesn’t make, and no more inaccurate representations of the authors’ positions!

**It’s possible that SNL is also mocking our culture for reinforcing the Black/White binary by refusing to acknowledge racism related to other races– and I think that culturally conditioned binary is definitely related to the public’s lack of consensus in conversations about Jeremy Lin.

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One Response to “Lessons on Humor and Racism from Jeremy Lin’s Media Coverage”

  1. Herbie March 1, 2012 at 11:00 pm #

    Good post. Methinks the public is more forgiving of an on-air unscripted gaffe as opposed to a writen word where a sports writer – scratch that, any print journalist – has time to think or change it, and then goes through a layered editorial process before publishing.

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