Once 'naive' about anti-Asian hate, Jeremy Lin is taking racism head-on

Jason Owens
·5-min read

Jeremy Lin is an outspoken critic of anti-Asian hate. 

The first Taiwanese-American player in the NBA has leveraged his fame and his 2.4 million-strong Twitter following to confront the rise in anti-Asian racism that's intensified amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But he hasn't always felt compelled to speak out. 

Lin met with racism from his NBA breakout

Lin burst onto the scene as a midseason D League call-up for the New York Knicks in 2012. The second-year guard who averaged 2.6 points per game as a rookie with the Golden State Warriors exploded for 25 points in his Knicks debut. And thus, Linsanity was born

Twelve games later, Lin was averaging 22.3 points, nine assists and 2.3 steals per game. The previously 8-15 Knicks had reeled off a 9-3 run. It was the stuff of NBA legend, amplified by the Madison Square Garden stage and the New York media. 

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 19:  Jeremy Lin #17 of the New York Knicks reacts after shooting a three pointer against the Dallas Mavericks at Madison Square Garden on February 19, 2012 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
With Jeremy Lin's Knicks debut, a star was born. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Media, fans failed Lin

Adding to the intrigue was Lin's heritage. American basketball fans and media weren't used to seeing a player of Asian descent thrive on an NBA court. Before Lin, there was Yao Ming and — well, that was about it in terms of NBA stardom.  

Those same fans and media repeatedly failed Lin because of his background. There was the infamous headline that got an ESPN editor fired. There was the fortune-cookie poster in the MSG stands that MSG Network broadcast on its airwaves. There was the racist, sophomoric tweet from Jason Whitlock that prompted an apology from the notoriously unapologetic then-Fox Sports personality.

For the most part, Lin took in all in stride. He was focused on basketball. 

Lin explains why he didn't speak out as a young player

On Wednesday, Lin opened up about his mindset of nearly a decade ago in a discussion hosted by The Paley Center for Media. He spoke about his former thought process on a panel including filmmaker Jon M. Chu and actors Olivia Munn and Ken Jeong addressing hate against Asians and Pacific Islanders in America.

"I was just naive," Lin said. "I didn't understand just how systemic it was, how subtle it was. And even when people would do things really overtly — whether it was tweets about penis size, like crazy stuff, I would be like, 'OK, he's ignorant.' Or, 'OK, he didn't understand.'

"That was kind of just my way of dealing with it, because when I was dealing with racism which happened all the time in terms of on the court, it was just like 'I can't focus on that.' Like, 'I've got to be me, and I have to be as great as I can be.'"

Lin was a 23-year-old basketball pro in the midst of his big break. He didn't want to be distracted by anything else.

TAIPEI, CHINA - JULY 28: Jeremy Lin of the Toronto Raptors meets fans on July 28, 2019 in Taipei, Taiwan of China. (Photo by Unioncom/Visual China Group via Getty Images)
Once hesitant to speak out against racism, Lin is now a champion of challenging anti-Asian hate (Unioncom/Visual China Group via Getty Images)

What's changed for Lin?

Now Lin's 32. He's on the backend of a successful nine-year NBA career. He's been grinding in the G League with his eyes on an NBA comeback. Whether he makes it back or not, his basketball legacy is secure. And he has a new set of priorities bigger than the game.  

"It's different for me now, where I'm at with my career and what I'm trying to do," Lin continued. "In many ways, I feel like I'm trying to make up for lost time or just maybe the naiveness of not understanding the situation."

Lin is intent on advancing the conversation so younger players aren't met with the same tropes, stereotypes, tweets and headlines he faced at the height of Linsanity.

"Growing up everybody called me Yao Ming," Lin said. "Now all these players are being called Jeremy Lin. You would think that makes me feel good. That makes me feel terrible. 

"I don't really care that it's them being called me. It's more the fact that they can't be them."

Now Lin's taking racism head on. The same man who was inclined to let a fortune-cookie poster slide is now unafraid to confront the president of the United States,

Lin didn't hesitate to challenge then-President Donald Trump at the outset of the pandemic last March after Trump referred to the coronavirus as the "Chinese Virus" on Twitter. Lin responded directly to Trump, urging him to diverge from the path of "the racism you're empowering."

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Trump continued to refer to the virus as the "kung-flu." Anti-Asian sentiment increased with repeated acts of violence against Asian-Americans making headlines. The sentiment prompting that violence has been linked back to the former president's rhetoric

No longer "naive," this is what Lin is fighting against — in addition to the everyday racism that Asian-American basketball players face on the court.

"As I've gotten older and I started to really understand these issues, it's not really about me and my validation as a basketball player any more. It's really about the next generation."