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.
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Even though I believe Gabby Douglas 100% on this, I doubt anyone in her position would give out names and dates. Even when it’s true, it’s usually considered sort of rude to point out who said what racist bullshit where at what time.
What I never get is the automatic defensive stance – you could play dumb and pretend this is the first you’ve heard but vow to look into the racism or sexism, which is the way many racist and sexist organizations scramble to save face once their conduct is publicized.
Rey Fox says
What would names and dates accomplish anyway? Could they corroborate her claims with their security cameras or something? Do they think everyone keeps a diary of shitty things people have done/said to them? What a bunch of assholes.
Improbable Joe says
When I see the automatic defensive stance, I take it as a sign that the accusations are true and the organization knows all about it. Their instinctive urge to go on the attack lets me know that they know, and either explicitly or implicitly support the abusive behavior. When you can’t even restrain your anger enough to simply make a generic “we didn’t know and we’ll look into it” then it seems to be a sign of guilt.
Totally agreed. I’ve seen the second “we didn’t know about this” more in large organizations where people in high places probably didn’t necessarily witness what went on but where they should have been checking their organization for things like this (and given that we live in a world full of prejudice should have expected that they could have known more if they’d only paid attention.)
I wonder if certain sports tend to be more racist – I know that it takes a ton of money to do gymnastics, so the atmosphere might be more elitist, classist and racist. Gymnastics is also not often a school sport in the US so wealthy white people might see it as an area where they don’t have to face competition from minorities.
Great post. I don’t know what kind of non-discrimination policy they have at that gym or what human rights process they have in that state or country, IF ANY. However, if the gym did have a basic policy, this would have allowed them to say something like this:
“We at Excalibur Gymnastics take racism, intolerance and discrimination seriously. For this reason we implemented our anti-harassment/discrimination policy in [year]. We were not aware of Gabby’s concerns and always felt she was treated well in our facility. Had she made a complaint under the policy, we would have investigated the issue and imposed the appropriate remedy. As it stands, we will make a better effort to be proactive to ensure that none of the behavior complained of takes place in our facility, and that our clients feel comfortable raising concerns through the proper channels.”
They could even then say something like:
“We are somewhat dismayed that Gabby took the step of advancing these concerns publicly before we had the chance to address them internally. Her comments have caused us great distress and some financial hardship. [if they did… see Chik-fil-a] We hope to engage in a discourse with her soon to restore our relationship and rehabilitate her memories of her time with us. We have only wonderful memories of Gabby and are proud of her achievement.”
That’s a good point.
And what if she DID name and date?
Name, date, and audio recording?
Name, date, and audio recording that has the names of the people in question clearly spoken?
No amount of evidence would be enough for these people, despite the fact that the claim is perfectly reasonable. They have lived in the world of ‘semi-plausible excuses’ for too long.
I hope that they wouldn’t say something like this. “Rehabilitate her memories” sounds an awful lot like gaslighting, and it’s not much better than calling her a liar.
The majority group expects people who aren’t of that group to kowtow to them, and to go out of their way not to offend them. To suggest to the majority — whether it’s white people, men, or whatever — that they may possibly have been at fault will bring about hysterics on their part.
It is remarkable how people who discriminate or abuse tend to double down when called out. I wonder why that is.
Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says
I wonder if part of it is that because of the way people of color are often stereotyped, a person of color exhibiting exceptional physical gifts and prowess seems less “out of place” from a racist perspective.
I highly recommend Tavris and Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me as an answer to this question. In short: a psychological mechanism common to humans in which we justify our actions in a bid to avoid cognitive dissonance.
Good for Gabby Douglas to air her experience publicly. For every Gabby Douglas, there’s a a dozen or more young athletes of color wondering if s/he is imagining things. I hope Gabby’s forthrightness will help them realize that they are not.
I only hope she doesn’t have to put up with even 1% the crap from her sport’s community that outspoken feminist atheists have endured.
VirginiansAmericans still racist, film at eleven.
This probably holds often, BUT an often-discussed element w.r.t. the drafting and playing of Chinese or Chinese-American players is the appeal to a Chinese demographic, either in China itself or in the US. In some cases, this has meant that not the best man for the job was chosen but the most marketable, under strong financial incentives.
This is not to take anything away from the proven impressive skills of Yao Ming or Jeremy Lin but the willingness to take this step might be much higher when there are additional chances at a payoff – hence the difference between the uptake of Chinese players in the NBA and African-American players in the NHL.
I hate people who “don’t see color.” Not because it would be a bad thing to treat everyone exactly the same, but because it tends to be a convenient excuse for “I’m going to completely ignore the effects of hundreds of years of institutionalized racism in order to justify my belief that (insert racial stereotype here) is completely based on fact and not on my own racism.” And finally, “Douglas genuinely doesn’t see color—it’s not her first thought.” Sounds… inaccurate. I guarantee she may try not to judge/treat people differently, but I have no doubt that in that gym she was reminded every day just how much people “don’t see color.”
The problem with the ‘best person for the job’ mentality is that in some jobs, the skill set for the job is vague and undefined, and success might be determined more by social capital than by individual effort and ability.
I’ve talked to several Black men who told me that moving into management in their companies just wasn’t going to happen – management was all about networking and they just weren’t that connected, so less skilled white guys would move up because they could schmooze with the other white guys more easily. I think something similar goes on in sports where you see more and more minority players, but where coaching still seems pretty white.
You think a female black Olympian is going to get LESS abuse than white female atheists?
Thanks! Most reviews match yours, I’ll certainly pick it up soon.
“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”
And this is why I can’t get all the way behind calls for civility over content. It doesn’t seem to matter whatsoever how civil, mild or non-confrontational someone is when they are speaking against their treatment by the power group. The backlash is the same whether they say “fuck this shit, you assholes” or “hey, that wasn’t nice.”
Pieter B, FCD says
Prior to Elevatorgate, demands for “evidence” immediately followed Phil Plait’s Don’t be a Dick speech at TAM8. IIRC, it was a matter of minutes, not hours.
Yeah… not at all the same thing. Phil told people not to be a dick without defining what “being a dick” was, and then saying “it happens all the time” and then refusing to give examples. Nobody demanded that he prove that ANYONE is a dick – they (we) just wanted to know what he was calling “dick” behaviour.
Rebecca was screamed at to prove that the encounter happened AT ALL. That it was more likely that she was a liar than it was that something happened that is more or less consistent with normal human interactions.
The only way this comparison would be valid is if Rebecca said “guys, don’t be creepy – a bunch of you are creepy as fuck” and then not said what “creepy” meant.
Pieter B, FCD says
Point taken, but I do see a parallel. Dickish behavior is sort of an “I know it when I see it” thing. A short time after Phil’s talk, PZ defined going to the doctor when he had chest pains as “being a dick”; I don’t agree with that at all, but Phil did leave himself open by not being more specific.
No intent to derail the thread, so I’ll leave it there.
Sure, but it’s hard to say “don’t do X” when X is defined post-hoc. It becomes useless as advice. It’s hard to not “be a dick” when you only find out that you were a dick after it happened.
When X is defined a priori – i.e., “don’t approach someone late-night in an elevator for sex when they’ve said they want to sleep”, it is quite useful advice. One can then ask “why not?”, which many did (and learned from). One can ask “under what circumstances might it be okay”, which others did. But one may not say “prove that it happened” without being hyper-skeptical and casting some serious doubt on the motivation behind their questions.
No Light says
As a disabled, gay, atheist woman of low SES, I feel really confident in pronouncing that my white self will never suffer as much bigotry as Miss Douglas.
It’s simple and obvious. Despite all of my disadvantages, kyriarchally speaking, being white and cis will always give me huge, unearned advantages.
Thanks for another great article Cromm!
Pieter B, FCD says
I actually see more people referring to the incident as “asking her out” or “a polite invitation to coffee,” which makes me rage inside. See Stephanie Zvan’s “Elisions.” Any approach to a woman you don’t know that begins with “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” in an enclosed space is creepy as fuck, IMO, at any hour of the day.
The same people also tend to jump on the word “sexualize” in Rebecca’s v-log and worry it like a terrier with a rat.
Agreed, No Light. I’m a white, gay cis woman and it seems pretty clear to me that people of color have to deal with even more shit than I do.
Gabby’s story is inspirational. She’s awesome…and it’s too bad that so many people can’t see that.
No, I don’t. I just wish I did. 🙁
“I don’t see colour” can mean two things:
(1) Denial/Avoidance of history, as you said, and
(2) Attempting to treat all people with the same level of respect and courtesy.
The first is a problem. The second is can’t really be achieved, but trying is better than not trying.
If the man in the elevator had asked her something like:
“Are you going to be speaking tomorrow? I hope to see you then.”
or something similar, I doubt she would have felt it inappropriate (or maybe that’s my male privilege talking).
But what Watson reported was clearly a come-on with sexual overtones. I wasn’t there, it didn’t affect me, and I’d call that creepy.
Sure. “Rehabilitate” is a poor choice of words on my part. The sentiment was, if the gym could apologize or something, it might help make the memory of her training more positive, or less painful.