White Privilege and Black Gold: From Ali to Gabby Douglas

White Privilege and Black Gold: From Ali to Gabby Douglas


According to The Nation’s, Dave Zirin, “There are two kinds of political athletes. The first, and most memorable, are athletes who engage in the explicit politics of protest. This tradition is marked by Muhammad Ali… But then there is a different kind of athletic politics: the politics of representation. That’s Jackie Robinson… Whether or not these athletes embraced the burden, they carried the aspirations and expectations of countless others.

We can now add Gabby Douglas to their ranks. The 16-year-old from Virginia Beach is now the first African-American woman as well as the first person of color to win gold in the gymnastics individual all-around competition. She is also the first US gymnast in history to win both individual and team gold at the same Olympics.”

Contrast this enthusiastic sentiment with television personality, Bob Costas’ purposely underwhelming, incredibly telling, scripted statement, uttered immediately following NBC’s delayed broadcast of the women’s Olympic all-around gymnastics final:

“You know, it’s a happy measure of how far we’ve come that it doesn’t seem all that remarkable, but still it’s noteworthy, Gabby Douglas is, as it happens, the first African American to win the women’s all-around in gymnastics. The barriers have long since been down, but sometimes there can be an imaginary barrier, based on how one might see oneself.”

Political writer, Ana Marie Cox tweeted, “Bob Costas just re-affirmed that the success of a black person means we’re not racist anymoreOne person over the wall does not a fallen barrier make.”

Jezebel founder, Anna Holmes wrote, “In a political and cultural environment in which the patriotism—the very Americanness—of people of color (including the current President of the United States) is often called into question, Costas’ scripted deep thought… was at worst dishonest, at best naïve… Who, excepting the most Pollyanna-ish or cloistered of cultural observers—the type who assert the legitimacy of phrases like ‘post-racial’—would believe that Gabby Douglas’ challenges were primarily psychic… [in] the undeniable whiteness of being that is high-level American gymnastics?… Douglas’ triumph seems extremely remarkable, both because of the commonality of her situation—the big dreams, the economic hardships, the one-parent household—and its unusualness: a minority in a historically ‘white’ sport… A 2007 diversity study commissioned by USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport in the U.S., said that just 6.61 percent of the participants in American gymnastics programs were black… Members of USA Gymnastics… responded to (and within) the survey in a variety of ways, many of them unsympathetic: ‘This is just another example of political correctness gone CRAZY!’ Said another: ‘As a middle class, white Christian male, is the NBA doing any ‘reach out’ programs to me and my family?’… Doesn’t sound to me like so many barriers have been felled after all.”

Privilege is the mechanism that allows someone to look upon another individual or group and reach the presumptive conclusion that the reason said individual or group is not enjoying a better existence is because that individual or group is doing something wrong.

Bob Costas’ backhanded compliment of Gabby Douglas’ ability to overcome “imaginary barriers,” is undeniably a statement uttered by a rich white man, blinded by his privilege.

But such statements are not unique.

During his recent trip abroad, Mitt Romney said, “In Israel… [and] the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority… you notice a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality. And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States… Culture makes all the difference… And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”

In Forbes magazine, Gene Marks wrote, “I am not a poor black kid. I am a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background… [But] if I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible… I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city… I know a few school teachers and they tell me that many inner city parents usually have or can afford cheap computers and internet service nowadays… If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study… It takes a special kind of kid to succeed… But it’s not impossible. The tools are there. The technology is there. And the opportunities there… If I was a poor black kid I would get technical. I would learn software. I would learn how to write code. I would seek out courses in my high school that teaches these skills or figure out where to learn more online… Because a poor black kid who gets good grades, has a part time job and becomes proficient with a technical skill will go to college. There is financial aid available. There are programs available. And no matter what he or she majors in that person will have opportunities. They will find jobs… They will succeed… The division between rich and poor is a national problem. But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality. It’s ignorance… Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves… Technology can help these kids. But only if the kids want to be helped.”

Scholar Peggy McIntosh, adeptly describes white racial privilege through the use of a checklist. Following in her footsteps, Professor Will Barratt, adeptly describes the privileges of belonging to the socioeconomic upper class, as well as those associated with middle-class membership. Cartoonist Barry Deutsch, adeptly describes male gender privilege. An unknown author at Earlham College, adeptly describes sexual identity privilege. Professor Lisa Hanger, adeptly describes gender identity privilege. Blogger Nikaia Jadelyn, adeptly describes Christian privilege in the United States. And educator JuanCarlos Arauz, adeptly describes the privilege of documentation conferring status as a citizen or legal resident.

If I were to go through all of these checklists in order to dissect the privileges dripping from Bob Costas, Mitt Romney, and Gene Marks’ words, it would add an indeterminate number of words to this essay. But I can assure you only persons of privilege are capable of concluding, as these men have, that external circumstances don’t matter, and only internally applied ones prevent achievement, abundance, and socioeconomic advancement.

Gabby Douglas is a black woman. She must navigate isms and archys. Her team gold medal does not change this fact. Her individual gold medal does not change this fact.

Although she led the field throughout the all-around gymnastics final, her lack of errors did not prevent countless criticisms about her hair. From Madam C.J. Walker’s formula to give the appearance of straightness introduced over 100 years ago, to the campaign to market “Just For Me” relaxer to pre-teens in the 1990s, African American women and girls have yet to experience a generation of independence form the hot comb without socioeconomic backlash; status and pocketbook consequences. Dodai Stewart noted, “Hair—black hair, especially—remains a hot-button issue. Hair is political, laden with subtext and meaning… But since Gabby Douglas’ hair did not stand in the way of a gold medal, it should be a non-issue.” Despite the fact that she wears it away from her face in a slicked-back ponytail like 99.9% of all other female gymnasts, her hair became an issue.

If she were white, her performance would have been the sole focus of conversation.

If she were white, NBC wouldn’t task, Liz Fischer, with managing public relations, after the network’s decision to air an ad featuring a monkey in a gymnastics uniform alongside their broadcast of her historic individual gold medal victory—a decision for which no apology to those offended has been issued, only a statement acknowledging poor timing.

There’s a photo making the rounds on Facebook of Gabby Douglas, hugging her coach Liang Chow. In customary image macro—a.k.a.Internet meme—fashion, the photo serves as a backdrop for a piece of social commentary.

The message is one word: “America.”

Although I do not know if the author’s intent is to focus only on the United States of America as a nation, or to speak widely about the American hemisphere, comprised of the North and South American continents, I am unabashedly fond of this image.

In the mid 19th Century, Chinese laborers were fast-tracked into jobs associated with transcontinental railroad construction, as well as the mining labor, supplies and service sector boom that accompanied the California Gold Rush. The United States, divided into “slave states” and “free states,” had just fought a war with Mexico. Went on to fight a civil war to end this “compromise” that allowed the existence of laws that defined some human beings as owners and others as property. Mexico outlawed slavery in 1829 (hence why wealthy whites devoted their resources to the establishment of a Republic of Texas). Canada as part of the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833. It wasn’t until 1862 that Abraham Lincoln overturned a federal ban on African American enlistment in the military, and told slaves they were “free” to be soldiers or military laborers.

African Americans fought to do away with the institutionalized dehumanization that would not allow a black man, woman, or child to count as more than 3/5 of a person, and to prove, as African Americans had in every war, including the Revolutionary War that the defense of the Declaration of Independence, (and later the Constitution bookended by a Preamble promoting the general welfare, and a Bill of Rights whose freedoms are uninfringeable) were worth bloodshed and possible death—despite the fact that white Americans resisted every effort toward establishing the legal equality of Americans of color for generations to come.

After the Civil War, Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants were maligned and marginalized by the Chinese Exclusion Act, discriminatory, disadvantaging legislation that was not repealed until 1943, when China became a US ally in the war against Japan. After the Civil War, African Americans and black immigrants were maligned and marginalized by Jim Crow Laws, discriminatory, disadvantaging legislation that was not repealed until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

When I look at the photo of Gabby Douglas hugging Liang Chow, I think of this history.

Their parents belong to the very first generation of human beings on this earth to live after Jim Crow and Chinese Exclusion, respectively. Yet her victory as an American athlete, and his victory as an American coach occur in a United States that not only remains haunted by its hateful, racist past. But lacks the self-awareness to acknowledge and confront the discriminatory, disadvantaging laws and practices that define its present.



  1. Give it a rest. Costas didn't make a huge deal out of her winning because he sees her as an American winning the gold, not a black girl winning the gold. He had enough respect for her to treat her as an Olympian, not some long-shot, no-chance black kid. Why the constant need to discuss race? She made all of America proud, regardless of race. I'm sure if everyone started cheering that a white man named Phelps won a gold medal, they would instantly be shot down as a racist.

    • Agreed. Also, the people criticizing her hair were, in large part, African-Americans. Go figure. The Left are the only people creating a racial schism where there is none. When race ceases to be important, the Left goes into spasms of 1980's-era pseudobabble. Ick. Way to hold everyone – black, white, purple, blue, yellow, pink, and everything inbetween – prisoner to your race-baiting nonsense.

      • Everything you've stated is an absolute cliche. Your talking points are the mantra of those who undoubtedly want people of colour to 'grin and bear' the stupidity of passive aggressive racism. You're not trailblazing with your comments. They are tired,predictable and quite telling of what you really think. Sing a new song already.

    • "why the constant need to discuss race…" Read American history much James? Um and no one was shot when Phelps won goal… see Wisconsin for bigotry related shootings…

    • I could not agree more. She is pretty – she is an amazing athlete and she won gold. I did not think about her color until I READ about it. Perhaps the media is over sensitive?

  2. Though we live in a country that has ostensibly done away with codified racism, "-isms" and privilege still color (pun intended) not only personal interactions, but institutional conduct. Discerning your own unconsciously held biases and beliefs takes serious thought and reflection; follow any of the above links to get started on your introspective journey. Don't you think it's odd that the American who won gold in female gymnastics is probably not usually referred to as "American," but "African American"? And her coach is Chinese American, while the white man who won in swimming gets to be just American. There's an understood definition of "American" and Gabby, her coach, and our president don't meet it, though they are Americans. I don't think it is race-baiting to recognize the difficult histories people of color have had in this country, and the battles that are still being fought today. There are numerous studies that show race still matters, in everything from the educational system, to the health system, to the justice system, to business. And when history is regularly white-washed and achievements of marginalized people are often glossed over or left out, it's important to recognize the first African American winner of gold in the women's all-around.

    • Okay, so when will this end? Do you think that it makes Blacks, Asians, etc. feel more American every time they accomplish something and America gushes over how a minority did something of significance? Now that we've recognized Gabby as the first African American winner of gold in the women's all-around, will she now be considered an American and no longer an African American?

      • Why is their something wrong with the particularity of culture and race? Why is that assumed to be somehow less American?

        When you say things like "an American and no longer an African American," you create the perception that blackness, the Africanness, isn't American (i.e. that American equals white). It may not be what you intend to suggest, but that's what you are saying.

        The point here is that there is no "American," not the way we've traditionally thought of it. When we use the term "American" we are talkign about "White American", but there wasn't a need for a modifier before because white people's power and dominance was not questioned. Now it is.

        So we need to, as a nation of a lot of ethnicities, to incorporate that into what American is. A modifier (white, black, African, Asian, etc) for the word American doesn't prohibit that goal, it furthers it.

        • There is nothing wrong with the particularity of culture and race… as long as we're talking about blacks. You know if people started celebrating the "whiteness" of an athlete they would be immediately shot down. If only the particularity of race could go both ways…

          • Celebrating whiteness of an athlete = harkens back to a history of white supremacy and enslavement and discrimination against other groups.
            Celebrating particularity of minority races = Not that. It's often a way to affirm pride after centuries of oppression. It's because whiteness was celebrated for centuries there may be justification for Black pride, as a raceless society doesn't exist now.

  3. So the problem is that she's seen as an "African American" and not an "American". People have focused on her race and not her status as an American. To fix that, we're going to highlight the fact that she's the first "African American" to win this gold, focusing on race again. Yeah, that should fix the problem.

  4. Thank you for your tweets. I'm literally walking out the door right now and will be away from communications for a few days. I want to make an accurate, well-considered comment as you are correct, I do have strong feelings about this, and some rather unique experience and perspective to bring with it. I will be sure to stop back by when I return from my trip. Have a great day.

  5. If you think that this article is simply about Gabby Douglas being African American, written only for the sake of discussing race, you are missing the point. It was insulting for Bob Costas to say that the only barriers that Gabby Douglas might have faced were "imaginary", or self imposed. They are words spoken by someone who has not had to overcome those barriers. For those that face them, the barriers are very real. If Gabby's achievement was not important, why did Costas point it out at all? Gabby Douglas made history. To point out that she is African American does not make her less American. It recognizes the impact of her accomplishment.

    • Barriers? Her life was harder because she's black? Just because she was the first black girl to win that particular event doesn't mean she had any more barriers to overcome compared to anyone of another race. Please stop acting like we're living in the days where blacks are being lynched and forced to sit at the back of the bus. Jackie Robinson faced some serious barriers, not because he was the first black man in Major League Baseball, but because of the nation's attitude towards him. Sure, today there are people who are still racist and won't give blacks the time of day. Sadly, that will never change. However, acting like the majority of folks in this nation are racist against blacks is just ridiculous.

      • The word "barriers", in this case, does not imply being "forced to sit at the back of the bus", or that "her life is harder because she is black", and this article, nor any of the comments, have stated that "the majority of folks in this country are racist". The fact that you read that into it says more about the way you see race than what was actually written. We have come a long way, but the journey is not over. There are many, often less obvious barriers that people face. If you don't believe this is true, you are either unaware of it, or able to ignore it. I am not attempting to speak for the personal experience of Gabby Douglas. All that I truly know about her is that she's an amazing gymnast, and that her achievement should be celebrated. I am simply commenting on the words of Mr. Costas. I am happy for you that you seem to live in a world where racial barriers are something of the distant past. I hope that someday everyone has the opportunity to join you there.

  6. Maybe they will be cheering that a white man won gold….some day. I certainly hope so, but I don't agree with the comment that the progressive left is baiting anything. It's the right, always trying to oppress people of color.

  7. At least we all agree on one thing: Gabby Douglas is an inspiring individual that's accomplished more than most of us can imagine at a such a young age. I'm not even American (I am a french citizen) and I feel pride towards her. Shame on the nasty tweeters talking shit about her hair and even more shame on gross news anchors and public figures claiming her pink leotard represents soft anti-americanism. Seeing Gabby hug her coach gives me goosebumps. It is touching and to me it signifies progress and a true representation of the melting pot that makes America great.

  8. I just wish my bros would start to see other blacks as equals in society and not try to rally behind people like President Obama or Gabby Douglas as a modern day Malcolm X. We are not underdogs, we are equals. We owe ourselves that.

  9. I'm a white woman and I think some of the commenters here (as well as Bob Costas and Gene Marks) are guilty of being blind to the privilege we enjoy over minorities in this country–a blindness that affords us the ability to become bored with the very real race issues that are still in play here in America, to the point where people who are witnessing, experiencing and holding discussions about these issues are accused of race-baiting. Just because we're not lynching people anymore and a few minorities are making it into the spotlight doesn't mean things are all okay here. The fact that no president ever in the history of the United States has had his birth certificate contested (for four years!) until a black man won the election is a glaring indicator that we as Americans are not "there" yet when it comes to race.

    The fact is, white Americans as a whole have never experienced what black Americans have and continue to experience. Have things improved? Yes, of course. But racism has also evolved into something more insidious than lynching and whites-only water fountains–it's the attitude of "why don't 'they' just get over it already? why don't 'they' wise up and do something with their lives like the rest of 'us'?" Although there *is* an element of sense in what Gene Marks said regarding a good way to rise up out of less than desirable circumstances, his privilege has blinded him to the fact that that little plan of his is just not as easily attainable for minority kids as white kids–not yet. Yes, there are after school programs and financial aid programs and online courses, but a "poor black kid . . . at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city" is probably going to be overwhelmed with just trying to get through each day, never mind understand and have the ability to take full, daily, long-term advantage of the resources available. I'm a 35-year-old educated, employed white woman with adequate resources and *I* would find it difficult to suddenly decide tomorrow, "Gee, I think I'm gonna learn how to write code!" and then actually be able to set and meet all the thousands of little daily logistical, mental and emotional goals required to see that plan through to the end. To think that minority kids in dangerous neighborhoods and poorly equipped schools could achieve that en masse is ridiculous, and ignoring that a huge part of our population still needs help just because a few notable minorities made it, or worse, claiming that racism is over because of those notables, is ignorant at best.

    We've come a long way, but we haven't reached post-racist yet, and the sooner we start *truly* helping one another as fellow human beings, the faster we'll get there. But it's going to take more dialogue and MUCH more action on all sides for that to happen. Ignoring the barriers or claiming they're all in the minds of millions of people is insulting and harmful–to the entire country.