Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Is Jeremy Lin like Jackie Robinson?

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

As a student of stereotypes and intergroup relations, the Jeremy Lin phenomenon makes me wonder whether Lin has opened the door for Asian American athletes to finally stop being overlooked in American sports, much in the same way that Jackie Robinson opened doors for African American athletes.

There is reason for pessimism, you see. As I have written before (see, e.g., here), stereotypes are very difficult to eradicate, particularly because our minds actively resist stereotype change -- even in the face of disconfirming evidence.

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A great example of this active resistance is a phenomenon called subtyping. Subtyping is a process whereby members of a category that challenge a stereotype -- such as an Asian American male who can drop 38 points on the Lakers-- don't end up changing the stereotype because they are boxed into a different category. Rather than changing a given person's stereotype that Asian Americans can't play basketball, Jeremy Lin might easily be subtyped into a category of his own (e.g. "freaks of nature"), thereby allowing the original stereotype to remain intact. You can think of it as the psychological process that allows people to say, smugly, "See? He's the exception that proves the rule." Another example of a stereotypic subtype is that of the "career woman", which allows the "housewife" stereotype to remain untouched (See Melanie Notkin's interesting post on this).

And yet, Jeremy Lin strikes me as special because he's not easy to dismiss as a freak of nature.

Lin actually has certain qualities that make him a likely candidate to change the stereotype of Asians/Asian Americans as smart but not particularly coordinated. The fact that Lin is a Harvard-educated Economics major actually fits many people's stereotype of the nerdy, bookwormy Asian male (note that we are not arguing whether the stereotype is true or not, only the degree to which Lin confirms or disconfirms a stereotype). And even though he's tall (6 feet 3 inches, only a few inches shorter than Michael Jordan), he doesn't look particularly tall among his direct comparison group (NBA players) in the way that Yao Ming did. These are important qualities for whether he can instigate stereotype change.

Researchers have confirmed that while stereotype change is difficult in the face of subtyping, there are certain conditions under which non-stereotypical category members CAN change the existing stereotype. One of these conditions is when the stereotype challenging information is moderate, rather than extreme. Another way of thinking about this is that Lin challenges a critical part of the stereotype (athleticism), but not other parts of the stereotype (intelligence). These qualities make it more difficult to subtype Lin, and as such, he has a chance to influence the stereotype of that Asian Americans can't be "ballers."

I would love to see Lin open doors for other Asian American athletes in professional sports. It's funny to think that the very stereotype that may have prevented him from getting Division I scholarship offers after a stellar high school career-- and perhaps nudged him towards Harvard-- would now help Lin become a more powerful catalyst for change.

You can follow this blog through Twitter or Facebook. Cross-posted from Psychology Today.

Copyright 2012 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved.