They Got Game: The racial and gender politics of sport in Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander communities in the United States.
Kathleen S. Yep, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Joint Appointment
In recent years, highly visible Asian sports stars such as basketball player Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets occupy center stage in a variety of prominent United States sports arenas. From Hideo Nomo in major league baseball to Se Ri Park in women's professional golf, Asian male and female sports figures are shifting the racial and gender landscape in mainstream media representations and Asian and Asian American community formations in the United States.
Rather than a leisure activity free of politics, sport is an important and contested political site or what Paul Gilroy calls a "mediating space" between individuals and institutions. As scholars Joel Franks, David Mayeda, and Mia Tuan have argued, nation-building, colonialism, racialization, diaspora, masculinity, femininity, normative sexuality, the model minority myth, and community building are all mediated through sport.
Sport in Asian American communities has been longstanding and widespread. Since the late 1800s, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in rural and urban settings competed all over the country (e.g., Los Angeles, Oakland, Watsonville, CA, Hawaii, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, New York etc.) For example, while gold and silver medalist Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku revolutionized competitive surfing in the 1920s and 1930s, contemporary Hawaiian athletes such as the 2002 national champion men's volleyball team from University of Hawaii, Manoa continue the tradition of high-level athletic competition.
Japanese American baseball leagues formed in the late 1800s and teams barnstorming in the United States and Japan in the early 1900s cemented the longstanding integration of baseball within the Japanese American communities. Historians Gail Nomura and Sam Regalado have documented how Japanese American women and men played softball, football, baseball, volleyball, and basketball before and during in the World War II prisons or "internment camps."
Besides community participation, there were breakout athletes before Tiger Woods dominated the golf scene and Apolo Ohno captured his national, world, and Olympic championships in speed skating. In 1947, New York Knicks player Wat Misaka was the first non-white to play in the National Basketball Association. Korean American Sammy Lee took home diving gold medals in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics while Ann Kiyomura earned a Wimbledon juniors tennis championship in the early 1970s.
In recent decades, the Sato family created a volleyball dynasty with siblings Eric, Gary, Lisa and Liane competing at various times on the United States Olympic volleyball team and in elite beach volleyball competitions from the 1980s to the present. In 1993, the New Jersey Nets selected Rex Walters in the first round of the National Basketball Association draft while in professional football, linebacker Dat Nguyen has contributed to the Dallas Cowboys since 1999 and Kaulana Noa from Hawaii was drafted in 2004. On the women's basketball scene, Lindsey Yamasaki played on the Women's National Basketball Association's 2003 New York Liberty team and University of Oregon's Corrie Mizusawa is a visible and potent playmaker.
Similar to economic, religious, and political organizations, sport is a critical institution in Asian American history. This essay briefly touches upon some themes that are negotiated through sport. It is neither exhaustive nor an in-depth analysis. Instead, it sketches some points of departure and highlights the potential of using sport as an analytical doorway into not only Asian American history but also broader social processes such as the social construction of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, nation, and socio-economic class. This essay focuses on the intersections of race, gender and sexuality, the interplay between domestic and international cultural circuits and subjectivities, the relations of representations, ethnic formations, and varying roles in the sports industry. Integrating discourse, individual practice, and community formations, sport is everywhere; therefore, it is a powerful medium to reframe and distribute notions of race, gender, power, class, nation, and sexuality. Athletics have been the site for non-Asians to encounter Asians and Asian Americans; and at the same time, it is a medium for many Asian and Asian American communities to negotiate and contest inequality.
Racialized masculinity and femininity
Highlighting the political nature of sport, representations of Asian and Asian American athletes construct notions of race, gender and sexuality. As scholars Michael Messner, Susan Cahn, C.L. Cole, and Shari Dworkin have analyzed, racialized constructions of both masculinity and femininity pervade the sports pages. For example, Elena Tajima Creef and Albert Lowe compare the media depictions of 1992 Olympic figure skaters Kristi Yamaguchi from the United States and Midori Ito from Japan. Casting Ito as the threat and Yamaguchi as the quintessential Americanized heroine, the sports journalists featured gendered and sexualized themes of America, loyalty, and "Japan as other." Later, the media coverage of Michelle Kwan, a Chinese American in the 1998 and 2000 Olympics figure skating competitions, integrated gender and the "model minority" with themes of Asian American as foreign. Skaters Kwan and Yamaguchi were not only "all-American girl" pin-ups but also held up as upstanding female minorities. In this instance, race, gender and nation were weaved together through the sport. Simultaneously prized and marginalized, the historical gendered and racialized tropes of the China Doll and Geisha Girl was integrated within the hyper-heteronormative feminine arena of women's figure skating.
In addition to Asian American femininity, sports has been a visible arena for constructing and reinforcing dominant notions of masculinity. For example, Asian and Asian American male athletes also are framed as subordinate to the dominant and desirable standard of white masculinity. Whereas the physical strength of African American male athletes is both revered and criminalized, the athletic talent of Asian American male players are either trivialized or cast as the exception. Mainstream discourse circulates racially and gender coded terms that resonate with popular culture depictions in movies, television, and on the internet.
While African American male athletes are described as drawing from their raw (read: savage, carnal) physical strength, Asian American men (versus Pacific Islander men) are often framed as athletes who are in their heads. For example, 1989 French Open tennis champion Michael Chang was not given credit as a skilled tennis player but as the tireless, persistent, and strategic person who used "mind over matter " to overcome his physical qualities. Similar to male Jewish basketball players in the 1930s as discussed by historian Peter Levine, this "intellectual" style of game has been racialized, demeaned as particularly Asian American, resonating with the model minority myth. In this story line, Asian and Asian American male athletes are not viewed as "real" athletes within the narrative of desired masculinity. Interestingly, this "intellectualizing" of sport is read differently for Caucasian male athletes. While Asian Americans are framed as narrow and trapped, white male athletes, such as quarterbacks, are seen as leaders and visionaries. This theme of the "intellectual game" is also reinforced when sports media highlights the opposite. New York Yankee baseball player Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui is seen as an aberration because of his power hitting and basketball player Yao Ming is a novelty because of his towering height. Ming's match ups with former Los Angeles Laker Shaquille O'Neil highlight the competing racialized masculinities. The representation of athletes demonstrates how the physical and the mental are racialized, gendered, and placed into shifting hierarchies in relation to different racial groups.
Relations of representations
Sport integrates both the production and consumption of representations. This consumption involves performance and embodiment as fans also play the game in various forms. In one moment, a teenage girl can watch Chan Ho Park in a Texas Rangers game on ESPN cable television and then pretend to be him on her Sony Xbox video game system. In the next instance, she can take her glove and bat and re-enact plays from the games at the local baseball diamond. Sport highlights not only the content of images but also the politics around their production, circulation, and reception or what Stuart Hall calls the "relations of representation." The Asian American community both accepts and reinterprets the mainstream images of Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander sports figures. While the mainstream press cast Kwan as the non-American by default against Tara Lipinski in the 1998 Olympics, the San Francisco-based Chinese Historical Society interrogated the racial politics of this exhibit celebrating the opening of the Chinese American National Museum and Learning Center in 2001.
Besides documenting prominent sports figures, public intellectuals and community scholars also document and present the everyday athlete through oral history projects, exhibits and documentaries. For example, the Los Angeles "Linking our Lives" 1970s oral history project includes stories of 1930s women's basketball players, while the tales and photographs of these athletes can be found in New York and Boston's Chinatown. While San Francisco television reporter Rick Quan won an Emmy for his piece on a Chinese American men's professional barnstorming basketball team in the late 1930s, Kerry Yo Nakagawa's Nisei Baseball Research Project includes the "Diamonds in the Rough" documentary, traveling exhibit, and web site which includes archival footage. Similarly, Gary Otake of the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles have featured exhibits and documentaries on Japanese American athletes. These examples show the range of community sources of representation and remind us that the representation of Asian American athletes includes a variety of sources. The significance of media portrayals of athletes lies not only in their content but also in the range of different groups producing certain depictions and the power dynamic among these different sources. As Angela McRobbie and Robin Kelley discuss the oppositional potential of culture, what are the political implications of Asian American community-based representations and practices?
International and domestic circuits
Sport sheds light on not only the relationship between the international and the domestic but also how these pathways involve individuals and the political economy. For example, the mainstream media coverage of Houston Rockets basketball player Yao Ming and baseball New York Yankee Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui illustrate the uneven and multidirectional routes of exchange between Asia and the United States. Sport is big business. While the Yankees make a tour of Japan in April 2004 to solidify and promote economic interests, Asians travel to Los Angeles to catch Hideo Nomo of the Dodgers match up against Jae Weong Seo of the New York Mets. Blurring the lines between Asian and Asian American, the NBA's Golden State Warriors advertises "Great Wall" ticket packages to watch teams with Chinese players compete against the struggling Warrior franchise in the densely Asian American populated San Francisco Bay Area.
The global-local dynamic is not only between mainstream United States and Asia but also between Asia and Asian Americans. A combination of economic and community uplift, major league baseball hosts "Japanese American community days" with the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodgers Stadium including youth clinics featuring Japanese and Korean baseball players on the teams and ceremonies honoring past Nisei athletes. And, as Rachel Joo argues in her article "Reading Chan Ho Park," mass media sports is one site to reconfigure diasporic subjectivities. Joo uses current major league baseball player Chan Ho Park, currently a Texas Ranger, to explore how Koreans in the United States rearticulate and integrate t
Sport as a Form of Ethnic Formation
Asian Americans in sport also shed light on the politics of racial and ethnic formations since sport is also used to police ethnic borders. For example, Japanese American basketball leagues and teams vary on whether they bar and/or limit the participation of certain Asian ethinicities For example, some do not allow Korean Americans to play and allow only a certain number of non-Japanese per team. The rationales for rescinding, and enforcing these ethnic-based policies provide insight into both the diasporic nature and legacy of former colonial relationships. Moreover, as more pan-ethnic basketball teams and leagues emerge, sport offers an insight into the dynamics between ethnic and pan-ethnic formations. For example, what ideology influences why one Asian American sports organization create a team, league, and tournament around ethnicity versus a pan-ethnic rubric? How does generation, time of immigration, socio-economic class, regional location, and politics shape these institutional structures? The politics of ethnic banners in cultural practices offer an intriguing spin to the pan-ethnic formation scholarship. Lastly, sport illuminates some of the nuances in multiracial politics and formations in both recreational leagues and in the high-stakes elite sports. Sociologist Rebecca King explores how multiraciality is debated in eligibility for Japanese American basketball leagues. And, with high profile multi-racial athletes such as Tiger Woods, what are the hierarchies among races and ethnicities in a multiracial identity by mainstream media, racial minority communities, and the athlete himself/herself? How are the different races and ethnicities within the multiracial athlete viewed, disregarded, and/or claimed?
Different actors involved in the sports industrial complex
Although Asian American community members participate on a wide-scale and in various roles in the sports industry, they remain mostly hidden. While athletes may be the most visible elements of the sporting landscape, the myriad of other roles Asian Americans play is also significant. Because of restricted opportunities, many talented athletes continued their involvement in sports by taking on other functions as coaches, trainers, journalists, promoters, etc. While this range of related positions reveal insights into the various structural barriers and openings in the sports industry, it also complicates our perception of what constitutes the sporting terrain and what influence individuals can have from different locations. The coach of an elementary school-aged girls softball team on the Big Island, the newspaper journalist for ESPN magazine, or the public relations specialist for a national football league team absolutely impact mainstream and Asian American communities' understandings of the continued legacy of sport to Asian Americans.
As the participation and recognition of Asian, Pacific Islander, and Asian American athletes continues to grow at both the elite and community levels, how individuals will be represented, marketed, and consumed remains to be seen. While major league baseball talent scouts scour Japan and community basketball tournaments in California celebrate their 75th anniversaries, the challenge is to move away from assimilationist framework of sport and towards critically engaging with the complexities of the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, the dynamic among the international and the domestic, and the relations of representations.
Joo, Rachael Miyung. 2000. (Trans)national Pastimes and Korean American Subjectivities: Reading Chan Ho Park. Journal of Asian American Studies 3 (3):301-328.
King, Rebecca Chiyoko. 2002. "Eligible to be Japanese American: Counting on Multiraciality in Japanese American Basketball Leagues and Beauty Pageants" in Contemporary Asian American Communities: Intersections and Divergences edited by Linda Trinh Vo and Rick Bonus (Philadelphia: Temple University Press).
Yu, Henry.2000. "How Tiger Woods Lost His Stripes: Post-National American Studies as a History of Race, Migration and the Commodification of Culture," essay in volume on Post-National American Studies, edited by John C. Rowe (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press).
Esaki, John. 2000. Top of Their Game. Los Angeles, CA: Media Arts Center, Japanese American National Museum.
Nakagawa, Kerry Yo. 2000. Diamonds in the Rough: Zeni and the Legacy of Japanese-American Baseball. Los Angeles, CA: Nisei Baseball Research Project.