One of the cool things about North American culture’s increased multiculturalism (as a statistical fact, if not a political one) is that we begin to see an increasing permeability in roles that were once divided strictly along racial lines. The United States has a black president, which is a nifty thing in and of itself, but the Calgary Flames ice hockey team also has a black captain who will probably be inducted into the hall of fame – perhaps an equally remarkable accomplishment. Jackie Robinson is the most celebrated of race-barrier breaking athletes, but golf (a sport once almost synonymous with white folks) has a number of established and emerging stars who are people of colour (PoCs). And then there was that whole “Lin-sanity” thing.
Perhaps it is precisely because there is a much stronger incentive (particularly financial) to pick the best person for the job regardless of race, and perhaps it is because of how high-profile the field is, but sports seems to be one of those places where racial barriers can drop pretty quickly. Part of this must undoubtedly be a cohort effect that is a by-product of the selection process. For example, your family has to be able to afford to give you tennis or golf lessons when you’re a really young kid – this is often beyond the reach (and/or lies outside the reasonable life expectations) of many immigrant families, meaning that it probably takes a generation or two before you’ll see athletes of colour rise through the ranks. Even those merely economically disempowered domestic (i.e., non-immigrant or non-recent-immigrant) minority groups will have some generational lag time before they will be recognized as a youth prodigy and receive the requisite attention and coaching it takes to become a star.
But it is tempting, in the days of Tiger Woods and Lydia Ko, to forget that the racism in the background of even the brightest stars follows them, and will find any opportunity it can to take them down:
In the blush of Olympic Gold, the Washington Post wrote the following: “[Gold-medal American Olympic gymnast Gabby] Douglas genuinely doesn’t see color—it’s not her first thought.” Now in the Olympics aftermath, she has come forward to say that others have chosen to see it for her.
Ms. Douglas recounted her experiences with bullying and racism at the Excalibur Gym in Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Oprah Winfrey. She said, “One of my teammates was like, ‘Can you scrape the bar?’ And they were like, ‘Why doesn’t Gabby do it, she’s our slave?’ I definitely felt isolated, I felt ‘Why am I deserving this? Is it because I’m black?’ I was scared at my old gym to show my potential.… I was just holding back.” She also shared that it was an atmosphere where, “I was just, you know, kind of getting racist jokes, kind of being isolated from the group. So it was definitely hard. I would come home at night and just cry my eyes out.”
So Gabby, a young black woman who was excelling in a sport historically reserved (at least in America) for white girls, experienced harsh and sometimes explicitly racist treatment. In the state of Virginia. Not exactly the most controversial of claims. It’s actually fairly common for PoCs who excel in a field that’s dominated by white folks to experience racial abuse (often in the form of highly-racialized “compliments”) by those who are losing their racial hegemony; it’s often parallel to the treatment received by women who excel in “men’s” endeavours, like business, math, sciences, etc.
Gabby thought that, since she was being held up as America’s darling for winning a medal representing her country, to talk about the experience that she’d had while training. Not only has she more than earned the right to speak about that treatment, her relevance on the national stage means that she’ll be able to speak to other aspiring black athletes (or indeed, any athlete working in a field in which ze is a minority) and say “this happened to me, I figured out how to get past it, and it’s possible for you to as well”. In a sane world, this would be welcomed as a story of perseverance over adversity.
But of course, we don’t live in a sane world:
Excalibur Gymnastics CEO Gustavo Maure also accused Douglas of being “a liar.” “Is Gabrielle a credible person just because she is an Olympic champion? She is not giving any names or dates, leading us to believe that the accusation is fake.”
Another gymnast, Kristina Coccia, defended Excalibur by saying there was no racism at the gym and then followed up with this whammy: “What Gabby is saying makes me sick. She should stop playing the victim and pay back the money she owes.” (There is no mention of what money Ms. Coccia is referring to or why that would be any of her concern.)
If there’s anyone out there who suddenly smells late-night coffee and elevator cable fluid, you’re not wrong. This kind of “where’s the evidence???” screeching and accusations of “attention whoring” and “playing victim” is in no way dissimilar to the treatment experienced by women who speak out (however mildly, civilly, non-confrontationally) about negative experiences they’ve had when those experiences reflect poorly on the majority group. This is the price that the minority must pay simply for the arch-crime of suggesting that they were not always treated equitably or fairly.
The article ends this way:
The people at Excalibur could have and should have said, “We’re aware that racism is a problem in our world and in our state. We aim to provide as nurturing an environment as possible and will continue to work to be better.” Instead, Gabrielle Douglas is “a liar” “playing the victim” and makes people “sick.” To put it mildly, the people defending Excalibur aren’t doing themselves any favors. In fact, they seem intent on proving Ms. Douglas’s point: that Excalibur Gymnasium has more than its share of bullies.
The lesson to take away from this is that it’s possible for members of the majority, especially when accused of things that are entirely consistent with what you’d expect, can use the opportunity to be introspective about how they may have played a role in the undue suffering of minority members. They can learn to listen, to empathize, and to make steps toward restitution and inclusion that will have far-reaching beneficial effects for all parties involved. They can find ways to salvage a positive outcome from the mistakes and missteps of their past (intentional or otherwise).
Or they can do what they usually do.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!