New York Knicks basketball sensation Jeremy Lin has attracted worldwide attention because he crosses so many boundaries and defies so many stereotypes.
Lin, an Asian-American (rare in the NBA) who played college hoops at Harvard (even rarer in the NBA), was cut from two teams before landing with the Knicks this year. When injuries to starters gave Lin a chance to play more, he blossomed into a star in just a few games, setting off an episode of "Lin-Sanity" that swept New York and swept up many Asian fans.
At the same time, he confounds us because we can't create a simple storyline around his identity. Is he an underdog or is he privileged? Does he fit in with the NBA or doesn't he? Here are some of the stories we miss in the storylines we do embrace.
The Basketball is Black Story: If the story is one of ethnic prejudice and discrimination, the one that goes, "If he had had a similar high school athletic record and were black, he would have been recruited by a basketball powerhouse instead of Harvard," the questions we ignore are to what extent we implicitly believe that African-Americans have a natural talent for basketball. Or to what extent we believe that Asian-Americans can't play basketball because they are less "American" and basketball is an "American" sport.
The Asian Success Story: If the storyline we embrace is one of Lin's making it as an Asian-American in the NBA, the questions we ignore are: What it would take to make professional sports a "legitimate" career path in Asian-American families? Or how many Asian-American families might steer their children away from basketball because they see it as a "black" thing? Or to what extent Lin's story reinforces the model minority narrative, and whether we may turn against him if or when he fails?
The Privileged Underdog Story: If the storyline is how Lin's relative privilege as a Harvard graduate worked against him, the questions we ignore are about our beliefs about the role of college education for all athletes. The WNBA requires women to wait four years after high school graduation to enter that league. Many more players in the WNBA have college degrees than in the NBA. Do we think a college education is acceptable for WNBA players because women aren't really "jocks"? Do we think NBA players don't need a college education because they are African-American and so less entitled to being "nerds"?
The Religion Triumphs All Story: Finally, Lin himself offered the narrative that religion is both a source of struggle and a source of strength in his professional life. The question we ignore is to what extent Lin's Protestant faith makes him seem less "other" to a non-Asian-American audience than his race, especially in the context of current public discourse about politicians who have Muslim names or Mormon faith?
There are two plausible reasons why these other stories have not been told. First, it is difficult to understand multiple identity stories in combination. It means holding on to complexity and not using simple reasoning around one category or another to guide our thinking. The second is fear. It is difficult to talk about the ambiguity that comes with stories of simultaneous privilege and prejudice or stories about a relative underdog making good, not an absolute one.
Each individual storyline makes us hopeful—breaking boundaries suddenly seems possible. But looking at them in isolation reinforces boundaries, reproduces myths, and perpetuates conventional wisdom—all of which lead to inequality. That African-Americans are talented at sports, that Asian-Americans are successful off the court, that jocks can't be nerds, and that Americans are Protestant are just a few of the many hidden stories that our mania about Lin exposes about ourselves. If we can use his multiple stories to put our own prejudices in focus, we can truly break boundaries.