Commentary

When Jeremy Lin's hairdo sparked a cultural debate

Heard of Jeremy Lin lately? That Asian American National Basketball Association (NBA) point guard who made such a magical breakthrough with the New York Knicks in 2012?

You might not recognise him if you see him now. He is no longer with the Knicks, no longer as stupendous and, oh yeah, he has dreadlocks now instead of that clean crew-cut five years ago.

Dreadlocks on an Asian American? It is a rare sight, but considering that Lin plays professionally in a league dominated by African Americans, one can at least understand how he could have been influenced to make his hairstyle decision.

Still, it created a mini-stir. Kenyon Martin, a former NBA player who starred in the same New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets team who Lin now plays for, took to social media to admonish Lin's look.

"Do I need to remind this damn boy that his last name (is) Lin?" Martin said in an Instagram video posted last Thursday.

"There is no way possible that he would have made it on one of our teams with that bulls*** going on on his head. Somebody needs to tell him, like, 'All right bro, we get it. You wanna be black.' Like, we get it. But the last name is Lin."

Jeremy Lin of the Brooklyn Nets with his dreadlocks hairdo against the Miami Heat in a pre-season game last Thursday. His measured response to accusations of cultural appropriation avoided a possible unsavoury spat.
Jeremy Lin of the Brooklyn Nets with his dreadlocks hairdo against the Miami Heat in a pre-season game last Thursday. His measured response to accusations of cultural appropriation avoided a possible unsavoury spat. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It's a familiar, knee-jerk reaction to cultural appropriation. That somehow, when someone from another culture takes up a custom, tradition or artistic expression unique to your own culture, he is immediately labelled as inauthentic and not "keeping it real".

Lin could have felt insulted. He may even feel aggrieved, for Martin sports a prominent tattoo of a Chinese idiom on his left arm. Is the pot calling the kettle black?

Instead, he dialled down the tension in his reply: "Hey man, it's all good. You definitely don't have to like my hair and are definitely entitled to your opinion...

"At the end of the day, I appreciate that I have dreads and you have Chinese tattoos because I think it's a sign of respect. And I think as minorities, the more that we appreciate each other's cultures, the more we influence mainstream society."

It would help if we could take the opportunity to learn more about the other cultures, for it would serve to ease the defensive attitudes which many minority races hold against such acts.

In a country where race issues abound, this is akin to Lin holding out an olive branch. Martin subsequently uploaded another Instagram video on Friday, saying that he was only joking and that, while he didn't like Lin's new look, Lin is free to have the hairstyle of his choosing.

Unsavoury spat avoided, but this incident shows that distaste for cultural appropriation isn't limited to just Hollywood celebrities or pop artistes.

When those celebs were admonished, it was usually because they treated other cultures as fashion statements (reality TV star Kylie Jenner flaunting her own cornrows hairstyle), or worse, as a marketing tool to pull in audiences (Victoria's Secret models wearing Native American head-dresses during their fashion shows).

Sportsmen should have been less susceptible to such accusations, because it is their physical skills that are their currencies to fame, rather than their fashion sense.

Yet, as Lin found out, even a hairstyle change can spark off negative, defensive sentiments from individuals who are only too eager to preserve the purity of their cultural heirlooms.

Which was why he had penned a thoughtful essay on The Players' Tribune, even before publicly unveiling his dreadlocks, that he had sought the advice of his African American team-mates and club staff before taking the plunge.

One of them, Nets staff member Savannah Hart, told him that, if his intention was not to be dismissive of another culture, this could be a chance to learn about that culture.

And through his actions and words throughout this incident, Lin has been respectful of the emotions of his peers. By welcoming conversation about his dreadlocks, he is making his hairstyle less of an individualistic expression but a chance for unity in diversity among minority races in the United States.

We as sports fans can take away some pointers on cultural appropriation too. Too often, we try to emulate our foreign sports idols' looks - wearing their team jerseys, copying their hairstyles and tattoos - as a frivolous act of adoration.

It would help if we could take the opportunity to learn more about the other cultures, for it would serve to ease the defensive attitudes which many minority races hold against such acts.

Lin has shown that appropriating other cultures can be done inoffensively so long as the attitude is right. Let's hope he maintains this attitude throughout his dreadlocked years.

And when it is time for him to move on to a new hairstyle, let's hope that he would be equally open to conversations about why he has out-grown that hairdo.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'When Jeremy Lin's hairdo sparked a cultural debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe