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August 2012

7 Predictable Ways That The Media Portrays Black Olympic Athletes

1) As sob stories. I do not know the financial histories of the parents of any White Olympic athletes. Not one. For Black athletes, it seems that the media places it central to their bios…if they even get biography videos made of themselves (while many White athletes have them made, and they’re cycled over and over). I’ve watched so many interviews with White athletes after a win as well. Rarely is struggle/hardship alluded to and even accomplishments exterior to the Olympics are mentioned (i.e Matt Lauer reading off a laundry list of degrees/professions of the [all White] women’s rowing team who won gold versus mentioning their socioeconomic statuses or parents’ struggles.) Maybe absolutely no White athletes or their parents have ever had economic or familial struggles. Racial economic differences are large. However, there is still more to who Black athletes are than their parents’ paychecks. If we aren’t focusing on the wealth of White athletes then the poverty of Black ones need not be the core element of a bio or interview. The media is desperate to connect Black athleticism to muddling though poverty and “innate” physicality, and never the multitudes of things that makes Black athletes great. This isn’t to say that IF they’ve struggled, those experiences don’t matter or should be a source of shame. But if every Black bio is about a checkbook, it’s not a bio, it’s a balance sheet. Besides, I know the true reason why this is done—to set the place to invalidate the experiences of the everyday non-celebrity Black people with the sinister "well they won something despite being poor so why are you all complaining?" versus "why does poverty exist and how can it be alleviated to improve Black lives?" It’s a subversive way to promote racial/socioeconomic victim-blaming.

2) As “different” from other Black people. I view this form of enlightened exceptionalism as objectification and “othering.” They portray them as so different from the community and population that they are a part of and not as a way to truly praise them, but to diminish Blacks as a whole. (This actually applies to any Black public figure, not just Olympians.)

3) As followers or “weak-minded,” even when they succeed. The disgusting way the media has consistently tried to minimize and erase Gabby Douglas’ contributions (even when her scores soar) to US Women’s gymnastics has been well documented by many amazing bloggers, prior to her all-around GOLD MEDAL. After, that GOLD shines brighter to me than any garbage narrative perpetuated by an incompetent yet predictable sports media force.

4) As just another member of war torn countries. The NBC sports commentators’ prejudiced comments about various Arab nations, African countries and Asian countries during the Parade of Nations of the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics made me angry and distracted me from having a good viewing experience. They mentioned pestilence and war in these regions without mentioning how several European nations, especially the Olympic host countries of Great Britain, are historically responsible for much of it, and how the United States currently profits from it. It would have been fine to simply discuss…I dunno, the athletes? But no, painting brown people as savages as if war is arbitrary and not connected to a larger sociopolitical picture is much more fun for those who frolic through the fields of White privilege.

5) As “innately” physical (which connects to centuries old stereotypes of brutishness) versus as ones who also work hard and use the mental acumen of focus and strategy to contribute to their performances and competitive spirit. Sports are NOT just physical…for any athlete, of any race. It doesn’t matter what sport I watch, Olympic or not, the “natural” physicality (and objectification in relation musculature and size) of Blackness is central to any sports commentary. Rarely is Serena’s mental game that contributes to her success mentioned (as the obsession is ALWAYS about her physical power/size), yet it is always mentioned for White tennis players.

6) As de-sexualized, “masculine” and aggressive, for Black women athletes. John McEnroe made a disgusting comparison of Misty May Treanor and Kerry Walsh to Serena and Venus Williams, saying that the former “out classes” the latter. He also compared their wardrobes. THEY DO NOT EVEN PLAY THE SAME SPORT. Volleyball and tennis are not the same sport. Furthermore, in relation to skimpiness (which he mentioned), NOTHING anyone wears in tennis will ever be as skimpy as volleyball. The hyper-feminization of the volleyball stars because of their Whiteness conforming to Eurocentric ideals of beauty juxtaposed to the consistently negative racialized sexist perceptions that are hoisted on to the Williams sisters is a part of a consistent theme in sports (not that White women should even be applauding this hyper-sexualization). His comparison simply was not even needed in the conversation. The Williams’ aren’t the only ones to be portrayed this way. It’s common outside of the Olympics with Black women athletes.

7) As simply not as important as White athletes. Often even White failures are privileged over Black successes, in terms of media coverage time allotted, and the ways the narratives are shaped. Furthermore, Bob Costas (I despise him—condescension and White privilege are his favorite hobby and interest above sports it seems) tried to minimize Gabby Douglas being the FIRST Black female gymnast to earn an all-around Gold Medal. It IS a big deal. Very few Americans, even White, are in that club. IT IS A BIG DEAL. And, he tried to imply that social barriers have evaporated or if they exist, it’s only because how people (minorities) view themselves. (Yeah…it’s low self-esteem, not microagressions, institutionalized racism and overt racism that’s the biggest problem. Please. We most certainly are not past social barriers.) And of course, he had the disgusting smirk on his face (as he said this) that he has whenever he’s trying to be disrespectful in a subversive way. Truly disgusting. Remember 2008? That’s when the first Black President was elected. We are not that far or removed from Black firsts. There are many more to achieve and they will be given the respect and honor due to them by us, regardless of the resistance, White privilege and bigotry of the media. As I tweeted last night:

I am not able to watch LIVE feeds during the day, or I would look for a stream from another country to watch. I…honestly wish I could afford to attend Olympics. The commentary is only for TV viewers. I would love to see the excellence of these athletes LIVE, and WITHOUT the unnecessary veil of media incompetence, White privilege, and bigotry clouding the view and turning stomachs.

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