By Alvin Halimwidjaya
People who have followed the NBA, even just a little bit, over the last decade have probably heard of Jeremy Lin. In 2012, the point guard led the New York Knicks to an exhilarating seven-game winning streak, with highlights like the 38 points he scored against the Lakers and the game-winner he hit against Toronto going viral and sparking pandemonium.
Recently, however, he’s been more known for the ridiculous hairstyles he’s sported over the 2016-2017 season. He’s gone from a mohawk as tall as his starting center to a double ponytail, and for a while even sported a laughably horrible bowl cut.
This year, Lin has spent the preseason rocking dreadlocks, which has understandably taken people aback. Former player Kenyon Martin spoke out on Thursday, Oct. 5 in an Instagram video he later deleted. In the post, he said, “There is no way possible that he would have made it on one of our teams with that [haircut] goin’ on in 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.” He spent the rest of the week trying to explain he meant it as “banter”, according to The Washington Post, and ended up apologizing in a conversation according to Lin via ESPN.
Lin had already written an article on the Player’s Tribune on Oct. 3, where he outlined the discussion and thought process he went through before changing his hair. From teammate Rondae Hollis-Jefferson promising to get dreads with him to conversations with braider Nancy Moreau, it’s clear that Lin thought this entire thing through before going through with his hairstyle change. In addition, he also responded to Kenyon Martin’s initial comments, bringing up a good point by saying, “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.” As a sidenote: That is the nicest comeback I have ever seen anyone make.
With this conversation about the thin line between cultural appropriation and appreciation, I think I have a clear bias: ever since I can remember, I’ve always fervently wished for the day I could braid my hair and get cornrows. Also, a guy on the Metro North once asked me if I was Jeremy Lin, so I feel like we have a little in common.
But in regards to this particular situation, one point Lin made in his article really stood out to me:
“Over the course of the last few years and all these hairstyles, I’ve learned that there’s a difference between ‘not caring what other people think’ and actually trying to walk around for a while in another person’s shoes. The conversations I had weren’t always very comfortable, and at times I know I didn’t say the right things. But I’m glad I had them — because I know as an Asian-American how rare it is for people to ask me about my heritage beyond a surface level.”
Cultural appropriation is a constant issue in pop culture and in sports, where so many little kids grow up on certain trends or traits, it can be confusing to keep track of what’s acceptable and what’s not. I got my desire for cornrows from watching Allen Iverson step over Tyronn Lue, way before I knew that people can easily rip off black culture with no regard or consideration. I also don’t have the type of hair or head to pull it off, which only reinforces that it would be purely a stylistic choice.
In addition, growing up in Indonesia, I’ve always thought of adopting other cultures as a little different. When foreigners visit Jakarta, they’re frequently gifted with some form of our culture, from batik clothing to wayang puppets. However, my culture has not been nearly prevalent enough to warrant blatant appropriation.
Martin’s response to Lin’s dreads, though ridiculous and poorly worded, voices a valid concern. Lin says as much, writing, “as an Asian-American, I do know something about cultural appropriation… I know how it feels when people don’t take the time to understand the people and history behind my culture.”
And in turn, Martin is definitely not the only player to tattoo Chinese characters on his arms, from Marcus Camby to Tyson Chandler. Even in NBA 2K, you’ll find a ton of MyPlayer users putting random Chinese characters on their bicep just because it looks cool, with no thought to what the characters even mean.
With any issue, there is a middle ground where after a discussion, where people can honor and appreciate different cultures without turning it into appropriation. I think the most important thing is to recognize these kinds of features as a significant part of the other culture. Equating an entire group of people to one specific feature is just as bad as relegating that feature to a stylistic gimmick, but when we approach this issue with caution and courtesy, different groups of people can come together and share cultures without provoking or disrespecting each other.