Last week, sixteen-year-old Gabby Douglas became the first American gymnast to win a gold medal for both the team and individual all-around competition. More significantly, she also became the first African-American gymnast to win the all-around gold. Unfortunately, what should have been a proud, historic moment was marred by public criticisms of her outer appearance, complaints that her hair was unkempt–complaints colored by blatant racial overtones. Furthermore, the biographical coverage of Douglas by popular media outlets such as NBC and NPR radio give a largely distorted picture Douglas’s family life, focusing mostly on her white host family and making false and implicitly racist assumptions about her real, African-American parents.
These negative and distorted public portrayals of Gabby Douglas reveal that though racial equality have made large strides forward on the Olympic stand, it still has a long way to go in the popular culture of a supposedly “post-racial” America.
Fortunately, OpEd Project Public Voices Fellows Oneka LaBennett, Noliwe M. Rooks and Tera W. Hunter all took this opportunity to publicly confront the issue of a more insidious but very much present racism within contemporary American culture.
Oneka LaBennett, Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham, delves into the implicit tensions of racial identity embodied by African American hair in her Ms. Magazine article, “Gabby Douglas is Not Her Hair.”
Noliwe Rooks, Associate Director of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton, wrote her own response to “Hairgate” in her Time magazine piece, “What’s Riding on a Ponytail? At the Olympics, A lot“, a sharp and insightful critique of the deeply-ingrained perceptions of African-American hair today and how they reflect a disturbing ignorance of African-American beauty.
Tera Hunter, another Princeton Fellow and a scholar of US History specializing in African-Americans, gender, labor and the South, wrote the third PVF op-ed of the week on Gabby Douglas in the Christian Science Monitor, “Olympian Gabby Douglas — the gymnast is golden but her family is obscured,” a brilliant analysis of the subtle racial bias implicit in popular media portrayals of Gabby Douglas’s family. Tera argues that these biases are so deeply ingrained in cultural perceptions of the African-American family that even prominent media figures such as NBC’s Bob Costas and Philadelphia Inquirer’s Trudy Rubin make assumptions about Gabby’s family life that greatly distort the actual picture.
Oneka, Noliwe and Tera, thank you for shedding light on the complexities and neglected problems of a seemingly well-covered public moment. We commend your brave and perceptive words!