Why Asian American athletes are tired of the ‘model minority’ stereotype


“Tell Yao Ming, ‘Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh’”.

Those were the words Shaquille O’Neal casually tossed out in a 2003 TV interview when referring to the Houston Rockets’ Chinese star. Whether, as O’Neal claimed, it was meant as a joke or not, it was the kind of language Asians in America have had to endure for years.

Ever since the first influx of Asian immigration started in the 1850s, discrimination towards Asians – and the idea of the “model minority” – has existed, and it is something that athletes are more than aware of.

“The Asian American experience has often been not talked about. Asian immigrants have come over and basically been told what to do, and to be quiet and stay under the radar and to not cause any noise,” Jeremy Lin, perhaps the most prominent Asian American athlete of his generation, explained to CNN’s Anderson Cooper recently.

Lin admitted he had been reluctant to speak out earlier in his career, but recent events have changed his mind. While playing this past season for the G-League Santa Cruz Warriors, Lin was called “coronavirus” by an opponent. The G-League, an affiliate of the NBA, has since identified the player and dealt with the matter internally.

Lin has no doubt the hateful rhetoric by Donald Trump around Covid-19 stoked up anti-Asian racism in the US.

“The previous administration and the rhetoric that was being used,” Lin said. “You can even hear in the audio recordings, the cheers, the laughs, when it was called the ‘Kung-Flu Virus’ and everybody was cheering.”

While some may think Trump’s comments were in jest, the numbers speak for themselves. Stop AAPI Hate, an activist group tracked over 3,500 instances of anti-Asian hate in the United States in the past year or so. Add in unreported hate crimes, and that number is surely significantly higher.

And Lin is far from the only Asian American athlete to have experienced abuse. Reigning Olympic gold medalist snowboarder Chloe Kim recently shared a screenshot of a direct message she received on Instagram that read: “You dumb Asian bitch, kiss my ass”. The 20-year-old says she has received hundreds of similar messages on social media.

“People belittled my accomplishment because I was Asian,” Kim recently told ESPN. “There were messages in my DMs telling me to go back to China and to stop taking medals away from the white American girls on the team. I was so proud of my accomplishment, but instead I was sobbing in bed next to my mom, asking her, ‘Why are people being so mean because I’m Asian?’”

Asians working behind the scenes in US sports are affected too.

The Guardian reached out to several Asians working in coaching or front office roles and a few agreed to share their experiences, but were later told to decline by their employers. One individual of Asian descent in pro basketball circles, who we will call Mark, agreed to talk, but only anonymously out of a fear of retribution.

Several years ago, near the team bench area, a group of fans openly called him “Jeremy Lin”. Another time, while walking through the tunnel into the arena, someone nearby said: “Watch out for Godzilla.” Mark also reports being aggressively questioned at one game by a security guard, who did not believe his credentials were legitimate, something he does not believe would have happened to a white colleague.

This treatment shouldn’t be a surprise. The “model minority” stereotype runs through US culture, helped by the influence of film and media. Instigators often feel abusing Asian Americans has less of a consequence than with other minorities. Karin Wang of Asian Americans Advancing Justice told the New Republic, “It’s easier to target Asians because it seems safer. It’s a community that’s viewed as less likely to rise up en masse and speak out.”

From the internment of Japanese Americans during the second world war to the murder of Vincent Chin, racism towards Asians has always been an ugly part of America. The subject will come up from time to time before the news cycle moves on to something else. It took a pandemic, and ignorant individuals blaming Asian Americans for Covid-19, for the discussion to stay in the public sphere. While the stereotypes and slurs are allowed to fester, minorities like Asian Americans will always feel the need to watch their backs when they leave the house, athlete or non-athlete.