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Wall Street Journal article on a recent victory of Li Na, China's top-ranked tennis player, currently No. 6 in the world, had this headline: "Fueled with Rice, Li Na Marches into U.S. Open Quarterfinals." The problem? Nowhere in the article is Li quoted as saying she ate rice. And that's led to calls that the headline was racist and offensive

The only times "rice" is mentioned in the article is when it is brought into the article is by reporter Gillian Tan. (Let's be clear: Tan told me that she did not write the headline; it's customary for editors to write headlines for reporter's stories.) The only mention of rice comes in this passage:

When asked what pre-match meal brought her success, Li revealed rice as her key ingredient.

"Normally I eat a lot of pasta, [but] today I said I miss Chinese food so my husband brought it to the [hotel] room. I said, okay, now I have energy," she said with a smile.

Notice, Li is quoted as saying "Chinese food" instead of pasta, but makes no mention of rice. And it's Tan who paraphrases Li's rice meal. And what that looks like is a jump and assuming that all Chinese food = rice, which would be a stereotypical way of thinking about Chinese food. It'd be as incorrect as me writing a headline that says, "Cheeseburger-fueled American player Wins" when that American player just said they were missing "American food." American food isn't just hamburgers, just like Chinese food isn't only rice. Or, in a more blatant example. If I wrote "Bean-fueled Mexican Player Wins" and only included quotes with that player saying, "I was missing Mexican food" the same kind jump occurs. And it's up to the writer and editors, if they've made that claim, to include quotes from the subjects themselves to show that they are not putting words into someone's mouth and making their subject look like a stereotype. 

Li has since won her quarterfinal match and will be the first Chinese player to reach the U.S. Open semifinals, which is a pretty newsworthy accomplishment. But it looks like Tan was just trying to write up a brief post-match interview with Li that produced the kind of quotes ("I was really, really happy today [with] the way I played" … "I [hope] I can play [at the] same level as today") which are, well, the usual things that athletes say after a win. So, neither Tan nor her editor had much to work as far as storylines go. But ending up with "Fueled with Rice, Li Na Marches into U.S. Open Quarterfinals," is not just a false billing for the story as written — it also relies on a racist stereotype. 

As problematic as the story is, Tan did not make up the rice reference. Here is a video of the interview including the quote of Li saying, "I was eating a lot of rice," via the Tennis Channel:


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