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The many layers of Jeremy Lin’s hair

The public dialogue between Kenyon Martin and Jeremy Lin over Lin’s new ‘do presents a rich opportunity for nuanced discussion on race, stereotypes, cultural appropriation and the many faces of intolerance.

Miami Heat v Brooklyn Nets
Jeremy Lin goes airborne for the Nets in preseason game against the Miami Heat on Oct. 5, 2017 at Barclays Center.
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

For those who missed it, Jeremy Lin got dreadlocks, shared his thoughts about the decision in a piece for The Players’ Tribune called “So ... About My Hair” and invited others to join in the conversation.

Kenyon Martin accepted the invitation by making rather harsh statements about Lin.

Rightfully, Martin accused those who flooded his social media pages with racist, judgmental chatter in light of his comments to be “next level.” Immediately jumping to the N-word and assumptions about a person’s education is next level and never okay!

But Martin’s statements towards Lin also can be viewed as “next level,” which means everyone needs to take it down a notch — from the hot-headed, reactionary takes to more thoughtful and measured consideration.

Lin spent a few years thinking about his hair, culture, cultural appropriation and what it means to be true to one’s self — while also respecting another culture — before making what TMZ referred to as a “polarizing” hair decision (more on that in a moment).

Lin’s trip to the hair salon was not made on impulse, but after thoughtful consideration. If he could invest the time and energy to research and learn from others before making his choice, it seems only fair that anyone with a viewpoint to share match Lin’s with equal thoughtfulness, openness and vulnerability.

The aforementioned statement applies to me, too, because Lin’s essay and Martin’s comments reopened a wound for me.

This story blew up more than a week ago, but I am only writing about it now — after ruminating upon the information I gathered from Lin’s essay and interviews, and from Martin’s interviews. But I also had to take into account my own experiences as an African-American woman whose hair has always been a thing in a society with ridiculously narrow margins for what is deemed normal or beautiful.

Like Lin, I made the choice to get dreadlocks years ago, after careful research and consideration. But this was during a time when dreads were neither common nor cool. I had very specific reasons for making the choice, but in a society that too often reacts to surface without investigation of substance, my reasons did not matter (more on that in a moment, too).

Lin wrote that he is not certain getting dreads was the right choice, but that he hopes his decision will be a “start, not an end, to more dialogue about our differences.” Lin also called for “more empathy, more compassion and less judgment,” which “takes actual work and communication.”

“[P]lease join me,Lin wrote (who soon may regret opening this door to a writer prone to 2,000-word essays and sharing TMI).

Words matter: Case No. 2017-999-999-999

In his video published by TMZ, Kenyon Martin chalked his comments about Jeremy Lin’s hair up to “a joke.”

There’s joking, like — Ha ha, dude! What happened to your hair? You look like a [insert name of animal or cartoon character, or witty descriptive]followed by actual laughter.

And, then, there’s this:

“Do I need to remind this damn boy that his last name Lin? Like, come on, man. Let’s stop this, man, with these people, man. There is no way possible that he would have made it on one of our teams with that bulls--- goin’ on on his head. Come on, man. Somebody need to tell him, like, ‘All right, bro, we get it. You wanna be black.’ Like, we get it. But the last name is Lin.

It would seem an African-American male in the U.S. could easily imagine being on the receiving end of these words and understand why they are offensive. At the core, they are disrespectful with racist overtones that make many African-Americans — and, in the current political climate, Mexicans, Puerto Rican U.S. citizens and Muslims — shudder:

  • “boy”: In slavery times, Africans brought to the territory now known as the United States of America were deemed three-fifths human. Slave masters called them “boy” to keep them dehumanized. Any African-American adult male would have an issue with this — just as Kevin Durant did when he was called “boy” and other hideous things while facing his former Thunder team in Oklahoma City for the first time last season. Asian men in popular culture have been relegated to an emasculated stereotype. Calling any man “boy” is offensive, but especially for men of color who have been historically dehumanized and/or demeaned.
  • “these people”: See flushed-face or face-screaming-in-fear emoji ... or, any of Donald Trump’s tweets about Puerto Rico in the aftermath of recent hurricane destruction.
  • “his last name is Lin”: And Kenyon’s last name is Martin, which has English, French, German and Czech origins. Do these origins mandate he straighten his hair and dye it blonde to better match the appearance deemed appropriate for an English, French, German or Czech individual? Kimiko’s last name is Glenn (Orange Is the New Black), Ross’s last name is Butler (13 Reasons Why) and Christopher’s last name is Sean (Hawaii Five-0). Are these Asian-American actors permitted to get dreadlocks because they have non-Asian surnames? Rae Dawn is African-American and Asian and her last name is Chong. Does this mean she must relax her brown curls and dye the newly-straightened hair black, to look like the stereotype of her last name? Come on, man.
  • “You wanna be black”: Although Martin is right that many want what they deem to be the fun — and, oftentimes, the profit — of African-American culture, no one in their right mind would want to be black. But Martin’s underlying grievance seems to be that people from other cultures enjoy the spoils of African-American culture, but without having to carry the daily burden that comes with being black in America. In fact, many of the things now embraced in pop culture — like rap and hip hop — were once devalued and frowned upon until rich, white record executives saw profit potential in them. The NBA has certainly grifted off of black, hip-hop culture for years — after the period during which players like Allen Iverson were deemed uncouth, thuggish and bad for the league. Still, anyone with even marginal basketball interest knows Lin does not want to be black. He does, however, want to be accepted for who he is.

Who is Jeremy Lin?

Sadly, I do not know Lin personally and, therefore, am unable to share cute anecdotes about his life. But he has demonstrated time and again, through words and actions, that he is a thoughtful human seeking to live authentically and free of the stereotypes that were assigned to him because of his appearance and last name.

Jeremy Lin is a professional basketball player in the NBA ... who struggles to get access to arenas, in home or visiting cities, which is a problem most players never have to face. At issue here is that Asian-American males are so strictly stereotyped by Hollywood as “token sidekicks ... Bruce Lee or shrimp fried rice” that the average security worker cannot fathom that Lin is a professional baller — despite the fact that he was on a million magazine covers and all over TV during the Linsanity period and is, indeed, a public figure.

I can understand Lin’s frustration with people being unable or unwilling to see you as an individual because their minds cast people who look a certain way into certain roles. For example, a tall, fit African-American man says he’s a professional basketball player and not only is he believed but it is almost expected for this to be true of him. A tall, fit Asian-American man says he’s a professional basketball player and he’s viewed with skepticism.

It’s the same way that, as an African-American woman, when people ask what I do for a living and I say I’m a college professor, they ask, perplexed: “You went to graduate school and everything?!” (Yes, and everything.)

Or, when I told coworkers years ago that I played violin at Carnegie Hall with my youth orchestra at age 17, one guy said directly to my face that he didn’t believe me. The next day I brought the playbill into the office — proof that an African-American woman with dreadlocks happens to be a classically trained violinist. I showed the playbill to everyone except that guy, choosing instead to let him stew in his own angry ignorance.

If the roles were reversed, however, people wouldn’t question Lin if he said he was a professor or had performed at Carnegie Hall in a youth orchestra. And if I was much taller, people probably wouldn’t seem shocked if I said I had once played in the WNBA.

This kind of stuff is more than tiresome. It erodes a person’s sense of self-worth and breeds a feeling of invisibility.

When your very existence is treated with suspicion, if it is viewed at all, “you feel like you’re worth less than others, and that your voice matters less than others.”

I may not know Jeremy Lin, but I know the pain of these feelings all too well, and I imagine Kenyon Martin does, too.

I also know what it’s like to make a well-reasoned decision to get dreadlocks, to the dismay of almost everyone.

A hairy proposition

Like Jeremy Lin, I once got dreadlocks after a few years of research and consideration. I was in undergrad at the time, and literally no one on my college campus of 35,000 students, in a small, conservative city, had dreads.

Like Lin, the desire to live more authentically was a major part of my decision. But, for me, there was a more important motivating factor: a desire to find ways to make choices for and about my body following traumatic violations of said body.

Other more practical and pragmatic reasons were involved, too, like wanting hair that required less daily maintenance (after the initial hard part of locking the hair, of course) and wanting to cease using chemicals to straighten my hair, which I came to view not only as damaging to my hair but potentially harmful to my body after long-term use.

It took forever to find a shop willing to dread my hair because no shops did this at the time (at least not in my small college city). But I finally found a woman willing to do it and made an appointment, even though she’d never given a client dreadlocks before me.

I sat for hours while she did the best she could with a process unknown to both of us.

My mother protested the decision before I went to the appointment and when she saw me after, she looked horrified. My mother mentioned concerns about how I might possibly keep my hair clean, and she warned that I’d never be able to get a job after college graduation. (For years, I’d endure people asking if I wash my hair; for years, I’d offer snarky replies involving shampoo scents.)

When I returned to campus the following Monday, girls I’d seen all semester who had ignored me now pointed and laughed — African-American girls who all had relaxed, chemically-straightened hair. I had already been invisible the majority-white student population, so there was no change there.

Without the damaging chemicals, my hair grew quickly and became beautiful. Soon enough, everywhere I went, people were suddenly asking me about my hair rather than laughing at it — wanting to know how I got the guts to “go natural” and where I got it done. By the time my dreads were to my waist, I began to resent some of the attention I was getting from people who now followed a smoother path thanks, in part, to my previous bumpy one.

To be the only one can be an isolating, soul-destroying experience — especially if ridicule and bullying are involved.

Now, Jeremy Lin is the only one — the only Asian-American public figure with dreads.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Although Lin may be a target for ridicule and judgment now, after a time, Asian-American kids who look up to him will get dreadlocks and it will be no big deal.

But, until that time comes, it is urgent that we answer Lin’s call to engage in meaningful conversation and invest the time and energy required to envision what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether that person has a very different appearance and comes from a different background, or whether that person is similar enough to be a long-lost twin.

“[W]hen it comes to more complicated topics — like racial discrimination, police brutality or the day-to-day difficulties of being a minority — sometimes people aren’t always as interested to go there,” Lin said. “Taking the time and energy to ask about the things we don’t know may be messy — but we don’t really have a choice. We can’t let our divisions get worse.”

Leaping off of Lin’s call for engagement, I’d like to add a call for patience, that we:

  • slow down;
  • research/investigate;
  • strive to understand;
  • withhold judgment;
  • ask questions;
  • respect others’ choices and differences; and
  • remember that everyone has a story.

After all, there’s a big difference between Jeremy Lin — an Asian-American professional basketball player who has daily experience with racial stereotyping — getting dreadlocks after research and careful thought about cultural appropriation, and the pop starlet who wears them to an awards show one time because she thinks they’re cool for a minute ... or the guy at the KKK rally in Charlottesville who feels comfortable having dreadlocks despite espousing white supremacist beliefs and advocating for a whites-only society.

Netflix may have gone to the all-or-nothing, thumbs up/thumbs down, rating system, but that doesn’t mean we can’t choose for ourselves to evaluate everything in our lives — from the people we encounter to the information we consume — in a more nuanced, five-star way.

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