Whitney Houston and Jeremy Lin: latent racism and the denial of alcoholism in popular culture.
February 21, 2012
Like a lot of people in the country, I’ve been thinking about two people the last couple weeks: Whitney Houston and Jeremy Lin. One died from a drug overdose, drowning in a hotel bathtub while the other is rising like a Phoenix on one of sport’s biggest stages in New York. Needless to say, his is a happy tale and hers deeply sad. But something bothers me about both stories…
With Whitney’s passing, undoubtedly from a deadly combination of Xanax and alcohol, it is the media’s unwillingness to call Houston an addict and alcoholic that vexes. Instead, the iconic singer’s demise was the result of an “epic battle with her demons” or some other popular euphemism. Like Michael Jackson before her, the media strangely refuses to call her an alcoholic or drug addict.
There is nothing “epic” about alcoholism and addiction. Like cancer, they are diseases that kill millions of people. But unlike many cancers, they are preventable and treatable. Recovery programs work, in particular Alcoholics Anonymous. Yet, the media seldom goes there. Instead, we are told that these “troubled celebrities” were in and out of rehab, whatever that means. Rehab comes off as a drying out place, somewhere to go between gigs.
It was the same for Marylyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Belushi and countless others. By definition Alcoholics Anonymous is a program of attraction not promotion. Yet, the media need not keep the facts anonymous. Sufferers of the disease would benefit knowing that they are going through the exact same thing as these “troubled celebrities” and that there is a way out. When reporters link famous overdoses to bad choices and a lack of will power, the connection to recovery gets lost in translation.
Saturday Night Live opened their latest episode with a sketch about the New York Knick’s phenom, Jeremy Lin. In its parody of ESPN’s Sports Center, the announcers have a field day with Lin’s Asian American roots, poking fun of his name and his race. In particular the black anchors. They relish their opportunity to liken Lin’s prowess on the basketball court to Kung Fu and chopsticks. Yet, when one of the white cast members makes a racial joke about Lin’s black teammates, everyone gets offended. It’s pretty funny and very telling.
When Lin first burst on the scene, coming off the bench to help the Knicks win five games in a row, I noticed a reticence by certain black sportscasters to jump on the Lin bandwagon. While I didn’t disagree with their analysis, I had to wonder about their hesitation and doubt. Was it more than just basketball they were talking about? I got a weird, uncomfortable vibe not unlike the feeling I get whenever the white right wing mercilessly tears into President Obama. Sadly, I think there’s more to it than meets the eye. Namely this: The white man is still threatened by a black President infiltrating their sacred corridors and the black man is similarly threatened by an Asian American infiltrating theirs.
All of us –black and white alike- accept that “white men can’t jump.” In Chicago, raucous cheers go up whenever the “White Mamba,” Brian Scalabrine enters a game, usually during garbage time. Everyone knows white basketball players are passers and students of the game. The black athletes are its stars. So when this Asian kid (from Harvard) got his unlikely turn in the spotlight (in New York) that crossed a racial line that proved threatening to some African Americans.
It is a line few of us care to acknowledge, including me. If it weren’t for SNL’s ripping skit I wouldn’t be writing this at all, even though I had these thoughts weeks before. I’d be afraid of coming off as a hater.
The animus between black and white people is part of our historical record: slavery, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement. Far less talked about are the difficulties between African Americans and Asian peoples. It is a story of Asian run stores in black ghettos, of ‘we were here first’ and ‘you can’t come here.’ Both sides are culpable. Other than Spike Lee, few have addressed it publicly or in storytelling. It just is, simmering below the surface.
People of color are just as capable of racism as white people. It’s not a revelation. We are all created equal and that includes our defects of character. What’s surprising, however, is popular culture’s continuing refusal to completely and fairly address racism and alcoholism.
Finally, I know these two topics are playing with fire and not particularly linked with marketing. But I am interested in popular culture and what lies just beneath it. Although I like provoking my intent is not to offend. If you feel I’m way off base please do tell. All I ask is that you state your arguments respectfully, so that I may publish them…and learn from them.