Stereotyping Hurts All Americans

We’ve recently seen two seemingly unrelated incidents in which the major themes have been Asian stereotyping and racism.

The first was a campaign ad for Pete Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican seeking to defeat Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow. The ad was titled “DebbieSpend-It-Now,” and featured a pretty young Asian woman riding a bike through a rice paddy. She stops, and in accented, broken English says, “Thank you, Michigan Sen. Debbie Spend-It-Now. Debbie spend so much American money. You borrow more and more from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you, Debbie Spend-It-Now.”

And then there is that whole Linsanity thing. Jeremy Lin is a darn good story: a Harvard graduate who was basically ignored and underappreciated until he came off the New York Knicks’ bench and shocked everyone by scoring 25 points against the New Jersey Nets. Then he shocked everybody again by having a near superhuman run, proving he is not a fluke. One more thing: Lin is the first-generation son of Taiwanese immigrants the first American in the NBA of Taiwanese ancestry. The sports world, reporters and the public went ballistic with the puns. I don’t have to repeat them here, you’ve probably seen them all. But the euphoria and hype took an ugly turn when the stereotyping began.

When the Madison Square Garden Network flashed up a photo of Lin, it superimposed it with a fortune cookie. writer Jason Whitlock tweeted in response to Lin’s triumph over the Lakers, “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple of inches of pain tonight.” Then came the headline on ESPN’s mobile website written by Anthony Federico: “Chink in the armor.” The phrase also was used by ESPN anchor Max Bretos.

Federico has since been fired and Bretos suspended. Whitlock has apologized. And I think we’re seeing something good come from this. Call it a “teachable moment.”

When it comes to perceptions about race in America, most of the conversation has been about black Americans – and rightly so, given our appalling history of slavery. Who in the sports world today would dare use the “n” word or make jokes using broad stereotypes? It happens, but usually there are immediate and harsh repercussions for those who do. People know it’s wrong. Progress has been made.

It’s trickier and more blatantly dishonest in politics. Candidates use code and innuendo to drum up distrust and stoke racial flames. Those who call President Obama the “welfare president” are fully aware that when they say “welfare,” their intended audience translates that to “black.” Don’t even get me started on the outrageous and ridiculous birth certificate controversy and the attacks on Mr. Obama’s faith. These attacks have one thing in common – to portray the President as “the other.” The scary guy who is not like us. That group – the “Other” includes “the Chinese,” “the gays” and “the Muslims.”

The young actress in the Hoekstra ad, Lisa Chan, apologized. To be honest, I’m not blaming her for anything other than maybe a lapse in judgment. But I do blame a culture that allows such bashing to continue. I was also surprised to learn recently that AsianAmericans are the most bullied ethnic group in U.S. schools. The data comes from a 2009 survey supported by the U.S. Justice Department and Education Department, which interviewed some 6,500 students ages 12 to 18. The results?

* 54 percent of AsianAmerican teenagers said they were bullied in school, 31.3 percent of whites, 38.4 percent African-Americans, 34.3 percent Hispanics. * The report shows a spike in racial abuse directed at Muslim-American teens.

Why are Asian-American kids bullied more than others? The report doesn’t answer that question. Why are we still mired in stereotypes? We need to know. Could it be we just haven’t been speaking up loudly enough?

When I said this was a “teachable moment,” I meant it for all of us. DebbieSpend-It-Now showed us how race is still being used to divide and scare us. Jeremy Lin is forcing people to look at their own perceptions and hidden prejudices. The resulting conversation is a good thing.

Our culture is struggling to catch up with the reality. We are not all repressed, violin-playing academics, restaurant workers, martial arts instructors or shop owners. Americans of Asian descent have the right to feel insulted by such stereotypes, and should feel no shame about speaking up and making waves. It’s the only way to let people know we are not all right with it. We are Americans, after all. Just Americans. No hyphens needed.