Competing While Black: Rio 2016 Olympics and Racism

Dr. Sheri Parks discusses the media’s depiction of black female athletes and the social issues raised during the games in Brazil

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KWAME ROSE, TRNN: For the Real News Network here in Baltimore, Maryland, I’m Kwame Rose.

The 2016 Olympic Games have come to completion, and there’s a difference between competition and the dominance that was displayed by black athletes this year. Not just on the court, not just on the track, not just in the pool, but on the winners’ podium, where several athletes made statements against police brutality and the social conditions here in America.

Here to join me now to discuss this issue further is Dr. Sheri Parks. Dr. Parks is an associate dean of research, interdisciplinary studies, and programming, and associate professor of American studies and founding director of the Arts and Humanities Center for Synergy at the University of Maryland at College Park. Her most recent publication is the book Fierce Angels: Living With a Legacy From the Sacred Dark Feminine to the Strong Black Woman, an editor’s pick by Essence magazine. Dr. Parks, thank you for joining us today.

DR. SHERI PARKS: Thank you for having me.

ROSE: Dr. Parks, now, you’ve written a lot about what it means to be not just a strong black person, but a strong black woman in America, and what that does to other women. What’s your take on the dominance displayed in particular from black women athletes at the Olympics, and the way that the media perceive their statements, their dominance, and sometimes their gestures?

PARKS: Well, it varied it went from Simone Biles as one of America’s sweethearts to Caster Semanya, whose femininity was questioned. So there was a range, but there was a great deal of display of strong black womanhood. And I think most of the women carried it very well.

It was interesting with the water polo team, with the goalie Ashley Johnson, how often she was spoken of as bursting out of the goalposts. There was an old study that I was reminded of that was done with blind people and black football players, that the blind audience members could tell the race of the football player based on how he was described; if he was described as powerful and in terms of his physicality they knew that he was black. If he was described as smart they knew that he was white. And actually, they were accurate in terms of their interpretation of the [depiction].

And I heard a lot of that throughout the Olympics, with black athletes, particularly women, not only in tennis and swimming, and wrestling, and boxing, being described in terms of their power and their physicality.

ROSE: It’s great that you mentioned that. I want to kind of dip into the pool and then dip deeper into the pool, when we talk about swimming.

Well, let’s talk about Gabby Douglas, right. There was big controversy during the Olympics that Gabby Douglas, after the team all-around competition, that she did not place her hand over her heart. And that same week, Michael Phelps can be seen laughing during the Olympic ceremony with the U.S. national anthem playing. But yet the media kind of just laughed his gesture off, but criticized Gabby Douglas. We saw four years ago she was criticized for her hair not being properly groomed enough, in media’s terms.

Why is it that Gabby Douglas is criticized for her gesture during the Olympic–or during the national anthem–but Michael Phelps, we just see him as some great American hero who doesn’t have to place his hand over his heart and gets to laugh, not pay respects?

PARKS: Well, first, I’m not sure where the rule that you had to place your hand over your heart came from, and who made that rule. She was standing at attention, in her own words. She said, I always stand at attention. And so there was this arbitrary marker, in the first place.

This was a rough time for Gabby Douglas. I mean, she’s one of the best gymnasts in the world. But because the American bench is so deep she didn’t get to compete against other countries where she was clearly a superior gymnast. And so she didn’t smile a lot. She’s a little older than the rest, and more mature than the rest of the gymnasts, so she didn’t act as perky or giddy as some of the rest of them did, and her name happens to rhyme with Crabby, so she got that very fast internet dumping that happens.

It’s interesting in terms of African-Americans and nationalism at the Olympics. We all know that the Olympics are this really huge display of nationalism, the chant USA, and the shirts, and nationalism. And in many ways it came at a good time for us because of all the things that are happening and the display of African-American athletes at this point in time. At the same time, it flips very easily into dumping, and it was unfair. It was just unfair.

ROSE: Yeah, right. Like Gabby Douglas, her attitude was it can be justified. Any one of us would be upset if we can’t compete and we know we’re the best in the world, or at least have a chance to compete. But when we talk about nationalism we have Simone Manuel, who for the first time in history a black woman has won a medal, when we weren’t even allowed to swim in the same pool as whites for decades and centuries.

But interestingly enough, after she won the gold medal, this was her statement: Simone Manuel said, it means a lot. Especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on, and my color comes with the territory.

Now, we’ve seen there has been a call from Black Lives Matter activists that athletes on a larger stage haven’t made a statement enough. Was this Olympic games the response that Black Lives Matter activists have been looking for?

PARKS: I can’t speak for them, but I think definitely that is the type of statement. Some people may question why sports would be important to issues of civil rights and police brutality. It is. I mean, these are heroes, whether they deserve to be heroes in the way we think of heroes or not, that is the way we treat them in that stage. Right now is the biggest stage in the world, and she handled it responsibly.

I think it is important to say yes, I am black, too, because with winning an award like that there is the tendency to make them the exceptional negro, that she’s the one who can swim, and he or she’s saying no, my black face is as black as everybody else’s.

ROSE: And I think that, to give a little pushback, I think it’s important for athletes to speak up on social issues, because they are on a stage with a larger audience. And in this instance, a global audience. We saw in 1968 with Tommy Smith and John Carlos, the moment after they put up the black power fists and walked onto the winning podium barefoot, they sent a message about the inequality that was happening here in America and other parts of the world. But we kind of saw that–we saw that a display of the black power salute again after the men’s basketball team, the USA men’s basketball team. During a photo op three of the players, Kevin Durant and Marcus Cousins being two of them, put up the black power fist as well.

Is America more receptive of political messages being sent by black athletes during these type of showings at the Olympic games?

PARKS: I think so, to some degree. Certainly after the death of Trayvon Martin a number of black athletes stood with hoodies in solidarity. A number of members of the NBA did, as well as other athletes.

I think now it is–there’s still a great deal of pushback that comes with it, but it’s not the heaping on that happened with athletes that you mentioned before. Everyone knows–the majority of white Americans, according to most recent polls, say that racism is a problem. They admit that is a problem. Now, what happens next is a whole other issue, but at least it’s on the table that it is a problem.

ROSE: Now, we got this heated presidential debate. There are two athletes in particular from America who kind of resemble two things that white America claims are a problem. You’ve got racism, with being black athletes. But there were two women athletes who were also Muslim, and last name happens to be Muhammad. We had this conversation about Islamophobia. We have Ibithaj Muhammad and also Delilah Muhammad, who took gold in the 400 meter hurdles. Ibithaj Muhammad was famous for being the first U.S. Olympian to ever compete in a hijab.

How important was it for not only these black women, but also these black Muslim women, to compete? And not only to compete, but to get medals, to show that they are the best in the world, but they just happen to be black and Muslim, as well?

PARKS: Oh, it’s extremely important. This is what America looks like, now. And this is the America that many people on the far right are most afraid of. But the idea that you can wear a hijab and be an excellent fencer, and that she chose fencing because she could wear a uniform that was consistent with her beliefs is really important. This is the diversity that made us the country that we are. It’s the diversity that will make us, if we are to remain great, it can happen in no other way.

ROSE: Dr. Sheri Parks, thank you for joining us today, and thank you for continuing this discussion. Not only was it black girl magic, but there were black statements made, and the Olympics is complete. Black athletes dominated and took home gold, silver, bronze, but also took home a consciousness of knowing that they are black and that they have to deal with that when they get back.

Dr. Sheri Parks, from the University of Maryland, author of Fierce Angels: Living With the Legacy From the Sacred Dark Feminine to the Strong Black Woman. Thank you for joining the Real News.

PARKS: Thank you.

ROSE: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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