Friday, August 3, 2012

White Olympics

As I have been watched the Olympics, I have wondered if anyone else noticed that almost every European, Latin American, U.S. and even African team was predominantly white.  The volleyball team from Brazil, a majority black nation (although with admittedly different ways of categorizing black/white than the U.S.), was all white except for one player, as far as I could see.  The U.S. volleyball team was all white, I believe.  Swimmers from all over the world, including Zimbabwe (!), were white, with the exception of one black man on the U.S. swim team and the swimmers from Japan, China, and Korea.  The only exception to this trend was in the track events, in which most of the athletes were black, according to what I have seen so far.  Again, I could be wrong about the exact numbers and I don't have any stats to back up these observations, but I challenge viewers to see if they also spot these general trends.

And then, of course, there was gymnastics, where we have one celebrated Cuban-American on the men's team, one African-American man, and the now gold medalist, African-American Gabby Douglas.  Following her gold medal performance, Bob Costas gave a controversial commentary in which he said that Douglas was the first African-American to win the all-around.  He then proceeded to say that the "barriers have been down for a long time" (i.e. legal segregation), and indicated that the lack of African-Americans in gymnastics has to do with "how one sees oneself" (i.e. internalized racism on the part of black people).  He then proclaimed that he was pretty sure there were African-American girls watching Douglas and thinking, "I want to do that, too."

I did a search on the Internet to see what people were saying about race and the Olympics.  There were almost no blogs that I could find.  There were a variety of reactions to Bob Costas' commentary.  Interestingly, the trend on social media had to do with the audacity of Costas to even mention race.  People tweeted, "I didn't even see her [Douglas] as 'black' until you pointed it out."  They said, "Thanks for making a 'non-issue' an issue."  In scrolling through these comments, I should point out that the majority of the photos by the tweets were of white folks (based on profile pics).  But to summarize this trend, people were saying that Bob Costas made "racist" comments simply by pointing out that Douglas is black.  

Scrolling through the tweets from black folks (based on profile pics), comments centered more on the fact that Costas had called Douglas the "flying squirrel" and that a commercial featuring a monkey doing gymnastics had followed her gold medal win.  These are both valid observations, although one might chalk them up to accidental (in the case of the commercial) and unfortunate (while it may well have been her nickname, it sounded strange coming from Costas).  There were a few comments about how Douglas should be a role model for all girls, not just black girls.  Finally, there was the uproar from black women about how Douglas should or should not have worn her hair, which I will leave to black women to discuss since I can only begin to imagine what it is like to live in a society where my hair is constantly under-represented and devalued. 

Taking these arguments one at a time, is it "racist" to notice race in the Olympics?  In my introduction, I commented about the racial make-up of the Olympic teams.  Why should that matter?  Is this a "non-issue" as some would say?

My stance is that given a history, both in the U.S. and worldwide, of systemic anti-black racism it is not inherently "racist" to notice the race of the athletes, especially when it is directed at pointing out racial inequality.  My concern with the mostly white Olympian teams is that blacks in various countries are not afforded equal opportunities to enter and compete.  In the end, the Olympics are not about who is the best athlete of any given country, but who has the right combination of wealth, access to facilities, social networks, and lastly, athletic ability.  Only rarely do we hear about a true "rags to riches" story.  The first three elements I mentioned, wealth, facilities, and networks, all indirectly correlate to race.  In the U.S., people of color have unequal access to these resources, or social capital, due to the cumulative effect of "white privilege" and racism in all arenas of society.  So Bob Costas' remark that Douglas was the first African-American to achieve gold in the all-around was first, a factual observation, and second, a celebration of a young woman who had overcome barriers to racial equality.  Noticing race in this way is useful because it acknowledges that people from different racial groups have unequal life experiences because of the way racial difference is socially constructed through daily interactions.

Having said that, there are instances where mentioning race could be "racist."  A famous historic case involved Jesse Owens, the famed African American track runner, who won several gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.  More commonly cited is the fact that Hitler refused to shake hands with Owens.  Less commonly known is that the President of the U.S. also failed to shake Owens' hand.  Further, upon return from Germany, Owens was forced to undergo rigorous medical testing.  No, they weren't looking for drugs; they were looking for an extra leg bone.  You read that right--they were trying to find out how a black man could have performed so well in these games.  Scientists failed to find anything drastically different with Owens' physique (contrast this to Michael Phelps, who actually has strange proportions, but which are never attributed to race).  However, with black athletes Jesse Owens and Joe Louis came a shift in the ways white Americans viewed black Americans.  Suddenly, athletic ability was seen as unrelated to intelligence (blacks were still considered to be mentally inferior), and the "exceptional black athlete" stereotype was born.  To this day, many white folks, and potentially some black folks, hold the belief that blacks are genetically more "athletic"  than white people (although only in certain sports).  This is a racist belief because it holds that one race (i.e. the "black race") is superior to other races in one arena (generally sports, but more specifically basketball, football, and track), but inferior in other areas (education, business, etc.).  It also ignores the fact that race is not a biological reality.  See this article from the "Race: The Power of an Illusion" website for more information. 

Returning to Costas' commentary, was it helpful to mark Douglas as a role model for black girls?  This is potentially the section of the commentary that is most rife with inherently problematic beliefs, so I will need to deconstruct it first before answering.  We must go back to the comment that came before, the one about barriers having been removed for a long time, and "how one sees oneself" contributing to success or lack thereof.

The view that "slavery was a long time ago" and "segregation is a thing of the past" is a prevalent one among white Americans.  While these statements appear true at face value, they ignore the cumulative, generational effect of slavery and legal segregation that I mentioned before.  They also fail to recognize the de facto segregation that exists in U.S. society today, almost to the same extent as the de jure segegration during the Jim Crow era.  And finally, these statements blatantly disregard discrimination currently experienced by people of color on a daily basis.

The other issue I have with Costas' remark about "how one sees oneself" is that it essentially blames the victim.  In other words, according to Costas, there aren't many black gymnasts because black girls have poor self-esteem.  If they could just visualize themselves succeeding and work hard, they would make it.  While there is value in seeing black role models achieve at high levels, the idea that there are not many black gymnasts in the Olympics due to a wide-spread epidemic of poor self-esteem in the "black community" is far-fetched at best.  First of all, this negates the apparent good self-esteem held by black gymnast Dominique Dawes, who reached Olympic gold without seeing any black, female role models in the same position, not to mention the self-esteem of any other black gymnasts who have competed at lower levels in the past.

Secondly, this seriously downplays the effect of discrimination in a sport like gymnastics.  Consider it takes at least ten years to make an Olympic-level gymnast (6-16 years old), take into account that legal segregation ended almost 60 years ago, and then factor in that the Olympics only take place every 4 years.  Now, I'm not good at higher math, but I calculate that in an ideal world, that would have allowed for 4-5 generations of black female gymnasts, if young black girls had been allowed start training the day segregation ended.  However, this would have required that black people immediately be allowed access to white neighborhoods where the gyms were located, which still doesn't happen because of illegal deed covenants and racist real estate practices.  This would also have required that white coaches start actively recruiting black girls for the gymnastic teams in these white neighborhoods, which was unlikely considering that the eradication of racist laws did not also immediately eliminate racist ideology.  And this also would require that these black families have a large amount of money for the cost of training, which takes generations to accumulate in the form of real estate (highly restricted by whites), good paying jobs (also restricted by whites), and inheritances (preceded by two elements I just mentioned).

The ideal situation is above, of course, not what happened, for reasons I mentioned.  So the achievements of Dawes and Douglas happened in real time; in other words, they overcame barriers that still exist in our society today, contrary to what Costas would have us believe.  In that sense, their achievements should be celebrated all the more.  The extent to which they were able to overcome historical and current racism and racial inequality is a tribute to the strong character and strength they and their families possess, and it gives us hope for positive change in our society.  However, the fact that there are not more black Olympians from the U.S. and other countries indicates to me that we still have a long way to go.  Since we have thoroughly disproved genetic/biological racial difference, and since we know it's not that black people don't value hard work and success like white people (i.e. example of cultural racism), then we must conclude that systematic and related barriers are still in place for black people and other people of color.  Until this systemic racism is dismantled, we will not see a truly representative parade of nations at the Olympics.

Postscript: I will not comment at length about the "flying squirrel" comments or the ridiculous "monkey commercial," except to say that networks have been known to do stupid things before. 

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