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 anymore… One 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.