Since Jeremy Lin's arrival in the NBA, we as sports fans have stumbled upon a few points of confusion. Some have decided that it's OK to refer to Lin, an Asian-American, as "Yellow Mamba" or "Yellow Melo." And in fact, the folks at the Knicks' Madison Square Garden felt it acceptable to display Lin's head popping out of a fortune cookie.
The issue of racism is often a complicated one, but with a little critical thinking, we can break it down into components that we (hopefully) can agree do not do right by our fellow human beings. Keep in mind that I don't consider myself an "expert on race" or what have you, but here are my thoughts on all this business:
Why is Jeremy Lin's race such a major component of the public's perception of him?
People stand up and take note whenever someone of a particular race does something the public perceives as unusual for that particular race. There are plenty of examples within the sporting world alone. When a quarterback is African-American, when the No. 1 golfer in the world is of multiple ancestries, when a white guy is a wide receiver and when a point guard is Asian-American, it violates preconceived notions and draws attention accordingly.
Why is that such a big deal to people?
Because human beings are racist, by and large. Racism is a psychological element that comes courtesy of a far-from-perfect evolutionary process. There's a long list of biases we all have that, if left unchecked and unconsidered, will result in false beliefs and poor decisions.
One cognitive bias, just to pick one out of a hat, is the sunk cost fallacy. The example offered by Wikipedia is a pretty good one: suppose you buy a non-refundable movie ticket well in advance. When it comes time to go see the movie, you find that you don't really want to. You go anyway, because you feel like doing otherwise would be "wasting" the ticket. In reality, of course, the money has already been spent no matter what you do. If you decide to spend two hours watching the movie, you aren't preventing the money from being wasted. You're simply throwing good resources after bad.
The above example has nothing to do with racism itself, but it serves as an example of our common tendency to believe and act on principles that can be easily demonstrated as false. Racism is just another example of such a principle.
Kobe Bryant is often called "Black Mamba." Why can't we call Lin "Yellow Mamba?"
The most important distinction between the two is that many African-Americans identify as black. Personally speaking, I have never met an African-American who, as a rule, disliked being referred to as black. The word "yellow," on the other hand, invokes all sorts of racial history.
It's important to respect a person's self-determined identity. To instead turn around and cast your own identity onto someone -- for example, to call an Asian-American man a "Chinaman," a word with an enormous amount of contextual baggage -- is to disrespect that person.
Additionally, I have no right to judge the words with which other people identify themselves. So if Jeremy Lin were to come out and say, "I like the nickname 'Yellow Mamba,' let's roll with it," I don't have to call him that, but I won't pass judgment, either.
Why is the "fortune cookie" thing a big deal?
It's an example of a stereotype that reduces a person to a shallow, one-dimensional caricature of that person that fits into a neat little box. Human beings are unique, individual beings with independent souls, thought processes, opinions, tastes, emotions, desires, et cetera, et cetera.
Here's a decidedly less important example that nonetheless demonstrates a similar principle: suppose you're a sports fan. A common caricature of a sports fan is the loud, obnoxious, foam-fingered guy who wears a jersey and face paint, and whose entire existence revolves around sports. I don't know about you, but when people learn I'm a sports fan, I'm subject to that perception pretty often.
That, to a very mild degree, feels a little insulting, because it feels like I'm being lazily assessed as a person with a shallow identity. Blow that factor up to an exponential degree, attach all sorts of historical weight to it and institutionalize it, and you'd probably get the picture.
Isn't this over-reacting? It's not like I hate Asians or anything. I just thought it was funny.
The primary objective of this conversation isn't to go around calling people racist and trying to make them feel like shit. It's to encourage people to critically assess their words and demonstrations. Racism can manifest itself in a thousand different ways. "I hate _____ people" is only one of them.
Everyone knows it's a joke.
I would suggest that you're overestimating humanity. Whether we're children or adults, our reasoning processes are shaped in part by what we see around us, and by what is established as acceptable by other human beings. The n-word, as used by white people, was just as pejorative 100 years ago as it is today. But if I had lived 100 years ago, if those around me were using the word, and if if I weren't challenged by anyone or anything to think critically of my use of the word, what reason do I have to believe that I wouldn't have said it?
Are you some kind of expert or something?
No. I am a white American male who has personally experienced relatively little in the way of bias, but who has seen friends and strangers alike subject to undue words, insinuations, actions and circumstances thanks to nothing but their race. It's a real bummer, and it sucks to see resistance to it filed under "snobbiness" or "political correctness" or whatever, when all it really is, is a desire to respect and do right by other people and not be a shithead.
You can't just ban people from saying stuff.
Yes I can. I am the emperor of Earth.
lolz yeah i know it's pretty nutso right