Racial Linjustice (sorry)

Apparently intentional, ESPN’s since-deleted headline about Jeremy Lin was distressing

I woke up on Saturday to find Facebook and Twitter alight with cries for blood over the mobile ESPN article headline that was posted in the middle of the night for 35 minutes before being taken down. It had used the unfortunate idiom “chink in the armor” to describe the end to the Knick’s surprising run of wins fueled by an Asian-American, Jeremy Lin, who came out of nowhere to inspire his team and the sports-watching public. It was also found that a news anchor used the same idiom to pose a question about vulnerabilities in the basketball sensation’s game.

Was the use of the racial slur intentional? I don’t think any spectator can really be certain, and ESPN is mum on that point. There are those that are completely convinced that both cases were pre-meditated acts of bigotry. Maybe, but then again, maybe not. Or maybe one was and the other wasn’t. It may have been a Freudian slip. After all, if the writer/anchor subconsciously associated those of Asian descent with the racial slur, that does not necessarily mean that they are racist. It could simply mean that they encounter the word in reference to that people group, and for better or worse, associate the word with an ethnic heritage.

In fact, apparently the wife of the suspended anchor is Asian. That in and of itself does not mean that his use of the idiom was not careless or perhaps even bigoted, but surely this should give one pause before waving the racism flag in his face. It could mean that subconsciously, he is aware of properly associates the racial slur with the people group it targets — perhaps even because he has witnessed his own wife suffer racial abuse.

Or, maybe one or both of the ESPN staff simply utilized a frequently used idiom in sports, and the context of its use was extremely unfortunate. We don’t know.

Here’s where this gets sticky. I am now seeing people coming out in forums and Q&A websites asking why this headline is offensive. Honest to God, they don’t know. However implausible this seems to me (and I’m sure to you as well), there are actually people out there didn’t know that was a racial slur. More importantly, there are people out there that are young and/or sheltered enough for it to simply not be part of their vocabulary. Believe you me, it is now. This controversy has “enlightened” them, and the really sad thing about it is that this word is now percolating in their subconscious, even if they would never intentionally use it for ill.

I’m not advocating intentional ignorance so as not to introduce subconscious word associations. I’m merely saying that this mob mentality is counterproductive. If we dwell on racism, we are more apt to look for it, even when it isn’t there. Every time we call for blood when we perceive something as racially inappropriate, we run the risk of embittering the perpetrator and those that can empathize with his/her mistake. Therefore it is vitally important for the outrage to match the offense. This in turn will hopefully make the punishment fit the crime. If we were to give the death penalty to anyone that used a racial slur, do you think racism would end? Most definitely not. You would further the divide, and the majority race would all the more hostile toward the minority.

I am going to be brutally honest with you, and I ask that you be equally honest with yourself. Do a free word association exercise. What word(s) pop into your mind when I say the word “African American,” or “black” [as an ethnicity]? If none of the words you came up with are racially offensive, you’re almost definitely lying to yourself, or you’re so sheltered or ignorant that those racially offensive words are not part of your vocabulary. I have no ill will toward those of African descent. Yet because of what I know of history and the racially charged society in which we live, I worry myself sick about what I say and how I say it when I encounter someone of African descent. I don’t want to offend anyone. I wish that I could simply be at ease with a human being of any ethnicity, but there it is. I am so concerned with not offending someone racially that it makes me uncomfortable. To my knowledge, neither I nor any of my ancestors in the last 10 or so generations that I have any knowledge of had African slaves (or any slaves of any other ethnic group). But my knowledge of history and the contemporary outrage of individuals over racism has made me feel guilty and uncomfortable in the presence of someone of a particular ethnic group.

This, I feel, is mostly to do with lack of familiarity.  I grew up overseas in China and was constantly surrounded by people who are not of my ethnicity. Needless to say, I’m fairly comfortable around Asians. A few of my best friends in elementary school were black (from Papua New Guinea, actually). I also met and interacted with a few straight-from-Africa university students while drumming for church. My wife’s college roommate was black. The paltry list goes on, but the bottom line is that my familiarity and dealings with those of African descent is not extensive. In fact, I probably interacted with those of that ethnic group far less having grown up in China than I otherwise would have in the United States. My feelings toward African Americans in particular are largely guilt for what some other white folks not related to me did to their ancestors and an eye roll for the latest racist gaffe some public figure got skewered for in the news. While unfortunate, I do not believe it appropriate to place blame on an individual for lack of familiarity with a given people group (racial or not).

… Which brings us back to the ESPN Jeremy Lin snafu. To everyone that was offended by this incident, I am sorry. But your collective outrage just cost someone a job, and got another person whose wife is Asian suspended for being racist toward Asians. You don’t know if it was intentional, but that doesn’t seem to matter. If it wasn’t intentional, it was careless. I agree, it shouldn’t have happened either way. But now nobody wins. The guy/gal that just got fired is probably pretty pissed off at Asians as an ethnic group right about now, especially if it really was just an honest mistake. The anchor especially has reason to be pretty annoyed by this outcome. More appropriate, I think, would have been an apology for a poor choice of words by the anchor (which he offered in addition to his suspension), and perhaps a reprimand / suspension for the person that wrote/published the headline. That should have been enough to show remorse for what happened regardless of whether it was intentional or careless. It would also have not been so severe as to further polarize those involved in the matter. But ESPN had to react in equal measure to the level of outrage expressed. Those two individuals will now forever be labeled racist, which could have implications for their future career prospects. Whether they deserve it or not I don’t think we’ll ever know, but I for one like to give people the benefit of the doubt.

When I cautioned against the rampant mob mentality on the matter, I was met with hostility. Apparently, my opinion doesn’t matter because I’m not of Asian descent. (Conversely, the opinions of Caucasians that shared in the outrage were accepted and lauded for standing by the Asian community.) I am not qualified to comment on what should or should not be done in response to something offensive to another people group, or so the theory goes. The voice of reason is so easily brushed aside. Some believe I can’t possibly have anything constructive to offer on the matter because I am white. To some, I simply can’t identify with the plight of the Asian American. But that doesn’t mean I have not and will not be discriminated against. Almost everyone has been or will be. Race and sexual orientation are the hot button issues of our day. I have been the object of ridicule for both my beliefs and my physical appearance, and it certainly is not pleasant to be degraded in any way, shape, or form. Words hurt. But I question whether an unfortunate pun, whether intentional or unintentional, should have such drastic repercussions where an apology and perhaps reprimand would suffice. I would like a world where people realize they have hurt my feelings, and apologize with understanding — not a world where the perpetrator is punished so severely that he/she is embittered and holds it against those that fit the profile of the offended, and certainly not in a world where such an unfortunate slip has potentially life-long consequences to the career(s) of those involved.

I’m glad that the witch hunt over at ESPN is over, but the outcome saddens me. As someone who does not always have his wits about him while working in the middle of the night, I feel for whoever just lost his/her job if this was just a careless reference to an oft-used idiom in sports. The anchor that just got suspended — whose wife is Asian — just felt the ire of the FB / Twitter generation for using the same common sports idiom without fully weighing its racially-charged double meaning. My hope is that my Asian and Asian-American friends are not rejoicing over this misfortune, and have some grace and humility over the fact that people make mistakes. What matters most is intent. If the intent was racial bigotry, certainly a reprimand/suspension is in order. A pink slip, on the other hand, will only build the person’s resentment toward the people group that just got him fired, especially if it was just an honest mistake. The fact that the one was fired and the other suspended does not prove guilt. It only means ESPN judged it to be the most expedient means to put the controversy behind them, and unfortunately, they are probably right. The cries for blood should now finally subside.

Our technology has given the average person in the West an unprecedented ability to rally behind causes with little to no effort. Gone are the days where you had to spend some serious time and effort to protest an injustice. The net result is that even the slightest potential bigotry is met with outrage. I wish people would just chill. The more we look for racism, the more we will find it, even when it isn’t there. No doubt anyone that has read this post who knows someone close to them that has been discriminated against on the basis of race or has experienced it first hand will now tell me that I just don’t get it, or that it’s easy for me to say what I’m saying because I wasn’t the target of the offense. Maybe. Or, maybe the outrage should be tempered by reason and grace, and maybe our world would be a little better off if we stopped perpetuating the racial divide.

Amen, brother.

UPDATE #1: Jeremy Lin commented on the controversy in a CNN article “‘I don’t think it was on purpose,’ Lin said. ‘At the same time, they’ve apologized. I don’t care anymore.'” Kudos, Mr. Lin. Way to diffuse the situation with grace and give people the benefit of the doubt.

UPDATE #2: The man that got fired over the Jeremy Lin / ESPN debacle has come out in an interview. He claims it was an honest mistake and that he was merely using an idiom he had used over a hundred times before. He goes on to say that Lin is one of his heroes both for his skill and because he is an ‘outspoken Christian.’ While some may stick to their original assertion that this was an intentionally racist act, doing so now necessitates the accusation that the hapless editor is lying through is teeth about it. I don’t think he is, but if he is, he’s taking the deception really far. The simplest and in my opinion most likely scenario is that you had a guy working the night shift at 2am slapping a headline he’d used many times before on a sports article without fully realizing his mistake or the outrage that would ensue.

So there you have it. An editor has been fired over an offensive headline. He claims it was an ihonest mistake. The person the supposed racial slur was directed toward doesn’t think it was intentional, immediately forgave the oversight, and wanted to move on. However — and I want to make this abundantly clear without ambiguity — these facts are inconsequential to my original point, which is that great harm can come from acting harshly in condemnation with too little information, and that we as communities are often too easily swept up in outrage at the expense of an opportunity for reconciliation. I fully understand that this outrage can come from a place of deep hurt from past ill treatment, but that does not justify lashing out unfairly toward another human being and causing them harm in unequal measure to their offense, especially if there is a lack of evidence to support  the presumption of guilt.

UPDATE #3: Anthony Frederico has posted a more detailed defense of himself over the incident. He lists his humanitarian work (including work overseas), and pointedly asks ‘My career was taking off. Why would I throw that all away with a racist pun?’ Why indeed.

4 comments on “Racial Linjustice (sorry)

  1. TJ Poon on

    Oh, Jake. I think you make some good points. I really do. But please tell me you see the humor in referring to yourself, a white male, as "the voice of reason" which is so easily brushed aside.
    Regarding your direct response to my FB comment, do you truly think it's appropriate for people who do not share in the cultural story of a community to tell that community when to be offended or not? That doesn't mean that you can't offer anything constructive on the matter – that's a fatalistic attitude which I personally didn't see anyone direct toward you. (Perhaps I missed it.) Yes, you're allowed to have an opinion on the matter. That doesn't mean that everyone of a certain community who thinks differently should have to show ultimate deference to you, "the voice of reason."
    If they're offended, let them be. After all, it's their story and their community that has been marginalized for generations.

    I would encourage you to do some research on power dynamics. Here's a good starter video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkJtWnoBvL4

  2. Jake Carlson on

    TJ, I realize you're speaking from a place of great empathy for the Asian-American community. I'm glad that my attempt at objectivity amuses you, but I'm choosing to address the actual content of your reply rather than your extremely patronizing tone.

    This post reflects my growing distaste for mass outrage over potentially unintentional gaffes by public figures and the media. While Jason's Facebook post and your subsequent shutting down of my opposing opinion were the catalyst for some of the specific content, the topic and general theme of the post are not a direct response to only you. As I looked into the matter further, I found that many other Asian Americans had responded in a similar way. I decided that responding to you directly on Facebook would unfairly target you specifically, and that what I had to say on the matter was not suited for that context.

    The 'voice of reason' can come from anywhere (yes, even a white male). In this case it is a more cautious, innocent-until-proven-guilty approach to a volatile and racially charged situation. My wife tells me that I am less than empathetic. I try to diffuse the extreme emotions of others rather than fueling them. I need someone to calm me down when I am angry about something, too.

    By 'sharing in the cultural story of a community,' do you specifically mean 'being of the ethnicity'? Either way, yes, I do think it's appropriate for people of any race or experience to point out a lack of evidence for the assumptions of those of any other race or experience. I further believe that we should attempt to diffuse, rather than fuel, racial tension. I think that this should be the way forward for racial reconciliation.

    That being said, I think there has been too little empathy shown toward the person that just lost a job over this, and the other dude that got suspended. To my knowledge, we don't know the race, gender, or anything else about the person (or people) that made this mistake. We don't know if it was intentionally malicious, a joke in poor taste, or an honest mistake. To rush to such harsh judgement based on so little information is in my opinion irresponsible. More importantly, I think it works against racial reconciliation.

    Importantly, Jeremy Lin himself has now commented on the matter. If there is a victim here specifically, he is it. Yet he chose to diffuse the situation rather than show outrage. I couldn't have asked for more, short of him expressing regret that someone got fired over it. I think part of the intense emotion over this situation has to do with the fact that Asian Americans perceived discrimination of a person that inspires them, and thus perhaps at least in part acted defensively on his behalf in addition to the general outrage over the perceived racism.

    Thank you for sharing the video. The type of situation that this guy described happened to me and my family many times during my 11 years in China, especially earlier on. I can't say that I fully realized the gravity of those instances when I was younger, but I became uncomfortable with privileged treatment because of my race when I got older.

    I appreciate the work that you and Jason do with Asian American community, which is why we are among your financial supporters. But sorry, I don't agree with you on this one. Our collective outrage needs to be tempered with more understanding and grace, and I think this was sorely lacking in this case. I apologize if my attempt at diffusing the situation offends you.

  3. TJ Poon on

    I'm sorry that my tone came off as patronizing; that was certainly not my intention.

    I never disagreed with your assessment that perhaps the punishment was too strong, or that it was so exactly because of the public outcry. Those are reasonable assertions, and even if I were to disagree, I wouldn't find it worth engaging over.

    However, you said several things here and on Facebook that were unrelated to those assertions and that I did not interpret as an attempt to diffuse the situation. If that is a misunderstanding on my part, then I apologize for that.

    **In the future, since I am your friend and not an unknown ESPN employee, can I also get some of the giving-people-the-benefit-of-the-doubt reason instead of an automatic assumption of condescension? ;)**


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