What We Talk About When We Talk About "This Jeremy Lin Nigga"

Yellow Mamba. Fortune Rookie. The Linja.

Oh boy. Obviously, it's completely impossible to talk about Jeremy Lin without talking about race. Mindful of the other Asian players who've played in the NBA, I think it's still safe to say that Lin is the Asian player who, through a combination of circumstance, luck, timing, and some monster performances, has captured America's admittedly infantile and famously fickle imagination.

But the true testament to how rare a phenomenon Jeremy Lin is in the NBA is this: NBA fans have almost no vocabulary with which to talk about him. As with any Asian person in popular culture, people's first resort is a torrent of pan-Asian racist gibberish: If it has anything to do with any country, food, product, concept, or stereotype involving Asia, the rule is basically, "Make any association or equivalence you want, whatever." Hence the examples above. There isn't much to say other than that this is racist as fuck.

The case of Lin, however, brings out another issue unique to basketball, summed up fairly succinctly in this Tweet, from @itsGQ:

Where tha fuck this Jeremy Lin nigga came from??

And with that, we have a bit of unpacking to do. Where "this Jeremy Lin nigga" came from is Palo Alto, by way of Harvard—neither one of which is much of a traditional signifier of blackness. How did we get to the point where a Taiwanese-American kid can inspire such a sociologically complex reaction?

It's largely a matter of the less-commented part of his hyphenate identity: the "-American" part. Jeremy Lin plays like a kid who grew up with SportsCenter, NBA Live, and YouTube. He puts people on posters, knows enough to do a self-aware handshake, and has definitely heard all the trash talk before. In short, he plays like anyone else who can ball, from Sacramento to downtown Manhattan.

In the language of basketball, that information plus the fact that he's not white equals "that Chinese nigga." For a black fan of the NBA, it's a way to express admiration for a dude who isn't white. Twitter's @itsGQ is far from alone in this reaction. The tension evoked by this glitch in the racial discourse is, in and of itself, hilarious.

The surreal joy in the juxtaposition only goes so far. White America (and, OK, fine, Asian America) thirsts for permission to say the n-word: "What about in song lyrics?" "What if my black friend says he doesn't care?" "It's racist that black people can say it but I can't." The word is reclaimed by the people it oppresses, and parts of America can't wait to join in on the fun.

Does the Jeremy Lin phenomenon mean rewriting the rules of the N-Word Pass? Without getting bogged down in nuance, the basic rules of the N-Word Pass are pretty simple: THERE IS NO FUCKING N-WORD PASS. If you're not black, definitely don't say that shit.

Jeremy Lin can drop 38 points on the Lakers, but he can't open the n-word to white or Asian people. That groundbreaking moment is going to wait at least another generation or two, OK? So let's chill. In the meantime, I'm sure there's someone on Twitter who can express this more eloquently than I.

Sucks that Jeremy Lin has to be the subject of Asian jokes. Why can't an Asian nigga just be good at basketball?

Andrew Ti started Yo, Is This Racist? and lives in Los Angeles.