How Jeremy Lin’s “I Can’t Breathe” Shirt Challenges The Model Minority Myth


On December 9th 2014, the Los Angeles Lakers made headlines after Kobe Bryant arranged for the entire team (with the exception of Robert Sacre) to wear black shirts emblazoned with the statement “I Can’t Breathe” on them. “I Can’t Breathe,”  which are the last words Eric Garner uttered as he was placed in a lethal chokehold by a police officer on July 17th 2014, have taken on a life of its own. In fact, this statement has become the rallying cry for demonstrations across the country protesting the systemic police brutality and targeted racism that have led to deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and many other Black Americans in the United States, past and present.

As Eric Freeman of Yahoo‘s Ball Don’t Lie column points out, Jeremy Lin is the first non black player of the NBA to publicly show solidarity for the protests against targeted police brutality towards Black Americans. In addition to supporting the protests against police brutality, Lin’s participation in this protest is a direct attack on the model minority myth.

As Ellen D. Wu wrote in her excellent LA Times Op-Ed, the model minority myth defines Asians as “domestic exemplars, upwardly mobile and politically docile”. Because of the stereotypes perpetuated by the model minority myth, Asian Americans are used as juxtaposition against the Black American and Latino American communities. In doing so, the Asian Americans who can’t be squeezed into the model minority myth’s parameters are ignored, such as the Southeast Asian American communities that have the highest high school dropout and poverty rates  in the United States.


During the era of peak Linsanity, Jeremy Lin was being shoved into narratives where he was both shattering the model minority myth, while also the prime example of the model minority myth. On one hand, Jeremy Lin excelled at a “masculine” sport that Asian men are traditionally not “expected” to partake in (yeah, because that makes sense). And on the other hand, Jeremy Lin’s Harvard background, his humility and Christian faith were all heavily emphasized in media portrayals of him at the time. In the end, many Asian Americans looked up to Jeremy Lin as a role model to emulate.

Even more than dunking a basketball or graduating Harvard, Jeremy Lin showed true character on December 9th 2014. By standing in solidarity with his teammates and the Black American community, Jeremy Lin demonstrates empathy, courage and defiance against racism and injustice. Along with the rest of his teammates (sans one), The Lakers are ensuring that the NBA’s audience will not forget about what’s going on in the world outside of basketball. They are keeping the conversation going and making sure that Eric Garner’s (and any other black man’s death at the hands of the police) will not be forgotten.

Now that is role model behavior worth emulating.