Gabby Douglas and White Man’s Privilege

Gabby Douglas and White Privilege According to the Nation’s, Dave Zirin, “There are two kinds of political athletes. The first, and most memorable, are athletes who engage in the explicit politics of protest.

This tradition is marked by Muhammad Ali… But then there is a different kind of athletic politics: the politics of representation. That’s Jackie Robinson… Whether or not these athletes embraced the burden, they carried the aspirations and expectations of countless others.

We can now add Gabby Douglas to their ranks. The 16-year-old from Virginia Beach, Virginia, is now the first African-American woman as well as the first person of color to win gold in the gymnastics individual all-around competition. She is also the first US gymnast in history to win both individual and team gold at the same Olympics.”

Contrast this enthusiastic sentiment with television personality, Bob Costas’s purposely underwhelming, incredibly telling, scripted statement, uttered immediately following NBC’s delayed broadcast of the women’s Olympic all-around gymnastics final:

“You know, it’s a happy measure of how far we’ve come that it doesn’t seem all that remarkable, but still it’s noteworthy, Gabby Douglas is, as it happens, the first African-American to win the women’s all-around in gymnastics. The barriers have long since been down, but sometimes there can be an imaginary barrier, based on how one might see oneself.”

Political writer, Ana Marie Cox tweeted, “Bob Costas just re-affirmed that the success of a black person means we’re not racist anymore… One person over the wall does not a fallen barrier make.”

Jezebel founder, Anna Holmes wrote,

bob costas

Bob Costas

“In a political and cultural environment in which the patriotism—the very Americanness—of people of color (including the current President of the United States) is often called into question, Costas’ scripted deep thought… was at worst dishonest, at best naïve… Who, excepting the most Pollyanna-ish or cloistered of cultural observers—the type who assert the legitimacy of phrases like ‘post-racial’—would believe that Gabby Douglas’ challenges were primarily psychic… [in] the undeniable whiteness of being that is high-level American gymnastics?… Douglas’ triumph seems extremely remarkable, both because of the commonality of her situation—the big dreams, the economic hardships, the one-parent household—and its unusualness: a minority in a historically ‘white’ sport… A 2007 diversity study commissioned by USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport in the U.S., said that just 6.61 percent of the participants in American gymnastics programs were black… Members of USA Gymnastics… responded to (and within) the survey in a variety of ways, many of them unsympathetic: ‘This is just another example of political correctness gone CRAZY!’ Said another: ‘As a middle class, white Christian male, is the NBA doing any ‘reach out’ programs to me and my family?’… Doesn’t sound to me like so many barriers have been felled after all.z”

Privilege is the mechanism that allows someone to look upon another individual or group and reach the presumptive conclusion that the reason said individual or group is not enjoying a better existence is because that individual or group is doing something wrong.

Bob Costas’ backhanded compliment of Gabby Douglas’ ability to overcome “imaginary barriers,” is undeniably a statement uttered by a rich white man, blinded by his privilege.

But such statements are not unique.

During his recent trip abroad, Mitt Romney said, “In Israel… [and] the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority… you notice a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality. And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States… Culture makes all the difference… And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”

In Forbes magazine, Gene Marks wrote,

“I am not a poor black kid. I am a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background… [But] if I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible… I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city… I know a few school teachers and they tell me that many inner city parents usually have or can afford cheap computers and internet service nowadays… If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study… It takes a special kind of kid to succeed… But it’s not impossible.  The tools are there.  The technology is there.  And the opportunities there… If I was a poor black kid I would get technical.  I would learn software.  I would learn how to write code.  I would seek out courses in my high school that teaches these skills or figure out where to learn more online… Because a poor black kid who gets good grades, has a part time job and becomes proficient with a technical skill will go to college.  There is financial aid available.  There are programs available.  And no matter what he or she majors in that person will have opportunities.  They will find jobs… They will succeed… The division between rich and poor is a national problem.  But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality.   It’s ignorance… Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves… Technology can help these kids.  But only if the kids want to be helped.”

Scholar Peggy McIntosh, adeptly describes white racial privilege through the use of a checklist. Following in her footsteps, Professor Will Barratt, adeptly describes the privileges of belonging to the socioeconomic upper class, as well as those associated with middle-class membership. Cartoonist Barry Deutsch, adeptly describes male gender privilege. An unknown author at Earlham College, adeptly describes sexual identity privilege. Professor Lisa Hanger, adeptly describes gender identity privilege. Blogger Nikaia Jadelyn, adeptly describes Christian privilege in the United States. And educator JuanCarlos Arauz, adeptly describes the privilege of documentation conferring status as a citizen or legal resident.

doublas chow

Gabby Douglas and Liang Chow

If I were to go through all of these checklists in order to dissect the privileges dripping from Bob Costas, Mitt Romney, and Gene Marks’ words, it would add an indeterminate number of words to this essay. But I can assure you only persons of privilege are capable of concluding, as these men have, that external circumstances don’t matter, and only internally applied ones prevent achievement, abundance, socioeconomic advancement.

Gabby Douglas is a black woman. She must navigate isms and archys. Her team gold medal does not change this fact. Her individual gold medal does not change this fact.

Although she led the field throughout the all-around gymnastics final, her lack of errors did not prevent countless criticisms about her hair. From Madam C.J. Walker’s formula to give the appearance of straightness introduced over 100 years ago, to the campaign to market “Just For Me” relaxer to pre-teens in the 1990s, African American women and girls have yet to experience a generation of independence form the hot comb without socioeconomic backlash; status and pocketbook consequences. Dodai Stewart noted, “Hair—black hair, especially—remains a hot-button issue. Hair is political, laden with subtext and meaning… But since Gabby Douglas’ hair did not stand in the way of a gold medal, it should be a non-issue.” Despite the fact that she wears it away from her face in a slicked-back ponytail like 99.9% of all other female gymnasts, her hair became an issue.

If she were white, her performance would have been the sole focus of conversation.

If she were white, NBC wouldn’t task, Liz Fischer, with managing public relations, after the network’s decision to air an ad featuring a monkey in a gymnastics uniform alongside their broadcast of her historic individual gold medal victory—a decision for which no apology to those offended has been issued, only a statement acknowledging poor timing.

There’s a photo making the rounds on Facebook of Gabby Douglas, hugging her coach Liang Chow. In customary image macro—a.k.a. Internet meme—fashion, the photo serves as a backdrop for a piece of social commentary.

The message is one word: “America.”

Although I do not know if the author’s intent is to focus only on the United States of America as a nation, or to speak widely about the American hemisphere, comprised of the North and South American continents, I am unabashedly fond of this image.

In the mid 19th Century, Chinese laborers were fast-tracked into jobs associated with transcontinental railroad construction, as well as the mining labor, supplies and service sector boom that accompanied the California Gold Rush. The United States, divided into “slave states” and “free states,” had just fought a war with Mexico. Went on to fight a civil war to end this “compromise” that allowed the existence of laws that defined some human beings as owners and others as property. Mexico outlawed slavery in 1829 (hence why wealthy whites devoted their resources to the establishment of a Republic of Texas). Canada as part of the British Empire abolished slevery in 1833. It wasn’t until 1862 that Abraham Lincoln overturned a federal ban on African American enlistment in the military, and told slaves they were “free” to be soldiers or military laborers.

African Americans fought to do away with the institutionalized dehumanization that would not allow a black man, woman, or child to count as more than 3/5 of a person, and to prove, as African Americans had in every war, including the Revolutionary War that the defense of the Declaration of Independence, (and later the Constitution bookended by a Preamble promoting the general welfare, and a Bill of Rights whose freedoms are uninfringeable) were worth bloodshed and possible death—despite the fact that white Americans resisted every effort toward establishing the legal equality of Americans of color for generations to come.

After the Civil War, Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants were maligned and marginalized by the Chinese Exclusion Act, discriminatory, disadvantaging legislation that was not repealed until 1943, when China became a US ally in the war against Japan. After the Civil War, African Americans and black immigrants were maligned and marginalized by Jim Crow Laws, discriminatory, disadvantaging legislation that was not repealed until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

When I look at the photo of Gabby Douglas hugging Liang Chow, I think of this history.

unai montes-iruesteTheir parents belong to the very first generation of human beings on this earth to live after Jim Crow and Chinese Exclusion, respectively. Yet her victory as an American athlete, and his victory as an American coach occur in a United States that not only remains haunted by its hateful, racist past. But lacks the self-awareness to acknowledge and confront the discriminatory, disadvantaging laws and practices that define its present.

Unai Montes-Irueste

Posted: Wednesday, 8 August 2012


  1. cass says

    “America” is short for “United States of America,” the same way “Mexico” represents a shortened version of “Estados Unidos Mexicanos.” I am so tired of people flipping out over Americans – ahem, “U.S. Americans” – using “America” as shorthand for the country, or “American” as our nationality. Sorry, but Unitedstatesian doesn’t exist in English, and since there is no other nation in this hemisphere that uses “America” as part of its official name, there’s no need for us to say “U.S. American.” We know which country we’re talking about:

    United Mexican States – Mexicans in Mexico. United States of America – Americans in America.

    The US was the first nation to declare its independence, write a constitution, etc.; the colonies and the colonists had long been referred to as “America” and “Americans” by the Brits; since the territory was known as “America” and the colonies had become states, it was in fact the most boring, uninspired name ever. In English, it is obvious when we are speaking of countries and when we are speaking of continents. “Well, I’m American, too” as a response to someone innocently answering “What nationality are you?” is just ridiculous. Hell, if I were Mexican I could pompously say “Yo también soy estadounidense,” if we looked at the official name of the country, or that I too, was from “los Estados Unidos.” Silly, right? It’s silly the other way, as well.

    Get over it. Stop looking for racism and ethnocentricity that isn’t there – the rest of your article already highlights enough of it.

  2. Nihilist says

    the nbc version of the olympics has been a cluster ‘f’. i have been watching on bbc one, and its a whole different experience. the multinational media, and the plutocrats ruin everything.

  3. Gymguy04 says

    Please do not pretend to be a gymnastics expert. Look at olympic trials and the multitude of ethnicities and nationalities represented. Secondly, I guarantee gabby, a young girl not a woman, was never once thinking about race as she trained countless hours to attain her dream. This article is rubbish and will distract many from truly appreciating this remarkable achievement.

  4. ftwom says

    If we continue the process of microscopically dissecting each and every word spoken on the media of TV, and assume that there is malevolence or ill-intent lurking behind phrases that we and others may personally find objectionable, we will never create an atmosphere that lends itself more to human progress and less to emotional venting. Since Mr. Montes-Urieste is not a personal friend of Ms. Douglas, are we to assume that he is also racially or otherwise insensitive because he uses the nickname ‘Gabby’ instead of Gabrielle? There comes a point when attribution of insensitivity to someone, based on an ill-considered utterance is simply not productive. In the final analysis, we are all human, we hurt others and others hurt us. The past infects the present and always will, but that doesn’t necessarily warrant a personal tirade.

  5. Tyrannus Evisceratus says

    Ok your argument is that white people have it better and I can believe that.
    My question has always been if your white then why should you want this to change?
    If your answer is because it is the right thing to do then please grow up.
    The world is a much darker place than wide eyed idealists want to admit and no one ever has an answer as why I should want white privilege to go away?

    • says

      Nothing with rare exception is ever ideal. So what would you suggest? Just say preference, aristocracy, unfair advantage and so on are just the way it is? Learn to live with it? Persistant racism so what? If you’re vulnerable, you should expect to be victimized? So sure, if you’re privileged and inhumane by nature, why should you want privilege go away? Those are the kinds of people we want for spokesmen and leaders? That’s how successful criminals see it too. It’s all good, right?

  6. says

    Oh, how easy and comfortable it is for someone such as Mr.Illes to be so forgiving of another’s insensitivity given that neither Mr. Illes nor Mr. Costas share ancestors who endured the most brutal form of slavery known to history and generations of ongoing racism since then. Why not? Neither one of them will suffer from it. I suppose here that the main thing is that Costas is good guy and that makes up for everything.

  7. dusty says

    We spend too much time letting “experts” or commentators explain, define, or redefine the world for us: many with their own agendas or the paid agendas of their sponsors.

  8. dusty says

    Gabby Douglas is a champion, Bob (who is he) Costas is not, it’s that simple. It is disappointing that he could not step out of what he is long enough to understand the issues.

  9. says

    It would be hard to imagine that there’s someone who doesn’t know that politics and racism have always had a roles in the Olympics. What Bob Costas displays here is the more common variety of racism. No, he’s not out there burning crosses on lawns but he’s rather smug about having been a beneficiary of racism throughout his life and so feels no reluctance about making a thoughtlessly insensitive comment. But this isn’t the only example of that kind of behavior displayed in London. Just today, during the men’s 4X400 relay we saw it again although it will go unnoticed by an equally racist press. During a semi final, the South African team and the Kenyan team were last and next to last. Only the first two finishing teams would be allowed to proceed to the final. The South African team has a runner, Oscan Pistorius, a double amputee, who sports mechanical legs. There is some controversy over whether or not these don’t provide and unfair advantage. But that’s another issue. Anyway, a Kenyan runner crossed over into the lane of the South African runner. He obviously wanted to shorten the distance by moving to the inside lane of the track. Both the South Afrcan and Kenyan runners collided and went down. They were out of the running or so it would seem. But the South Africans protested and were reinstated into the final. Happy ending? Think about that for a moment. In each of the semi final heats, only the first and second finishing teams qualify for the final. Each of those teams worked hard for four years to achieve the level of necessary skill to “earn” their way into the final. The South Africans were already dead last and far too far behind to even suggest that they could have moved up to challenge for the final. This was anything but a triumph of the South African spirit. It was rather a blatan triumph for South African Apartheid.

    • huetohold says

      This is factually inaccurate. The Kenyan was *already* on the inside lane; the South African was on an *outer* lane. So this was not a strategic move, at least for the reason you provided; instead, as the track officials decided, he was impeding. Perhaps the South Africans didn’t deserve to move on because they would never catch up. Regardless, they had every right to protest if they felt that was an impediment – which the above argument far from rebuts – and to have their grievance heard, regardless of the ultimate redress.

  10. says

    Bob Costas from all accounts, certainly what I see of him on TV for the last 30 years, seems to be a gentle, humble, thoughtful man – a superb commentator and journalist. I think his comment was well intentioned, but a bit twisted in this essay. Rather than being an obtuse rich white guy, I believe he was saying to others use Gabby as a role model; don’t let perceived barriers stop you from striving. He seemed to be actually celebrating the fact that it was markedly unremarkable in Douglas’ wonderful victories, her race was a secondary fact in the story, really, as it should be – albeit historic, and a fact to be celebrated and honored. I’m sure, if asked to respond, Costas would be the first to agree that no, he was not saying all the walls have all come down – a peek at the presidential race demonstrates racism is alive and well, even though we have the first African-American President in the White House. No doubt there are far worse reactions to Douglas’ success than Costas’, some of which are cited (like the absurd comment by Mr. Marks) in order to make the same point. But I think focusing on Costas’ comments is a bit overwrought.

    • Sheria Reid says

      “Perceived barriers?” I think that this is a phrase that is essential to Unai Montes-Irueste’s well raised points. The barriers are not perceived, they are real. Costas, perhaps unintentionally, minimizes the continuing existence of the very real racial barriers in this country. Barriers which Mr. Illes acknowledges exist, yet insists that this author is overwrought in his analysis of the significance of Costas’ comment. No where in this post does the author accuse Costas o being a sheet wearing member of the KKK. However, he does accurately shine a light on the assumptions subsumed in Costas’ choice of words, “perceived barriers.”

      Costas’ word choice suggests that any racial barriers are in the minds of those who dare mention that post racial America is a goal but not yet an achievement. We are a considerable way from race being a secondary factor in any story in which a minority is the first to make a significant achievement be it in arena. It’s 2012 and those “perceived” barriers are still in place. I not, then young Gabby would have a line o brown skinned youg women preceding her, standing next to her, and waiting in the wings to follow her.

  11. Patricia says

    Mr. Costa’s comments were not a surprise to me. Almost any African-American accomplishment is discussed with qualifiers. In an effort to make America look free of problems, many find it necessary to minimize the presence of anything that shines a light on them. However, their efforts to minimize only shines the light brighter. I was not surprised but I was annoyed by the back handed compliment. He gave Jordan’s disappointment more excitement than Gabby’s wins. Typical. The sad thing is, I don’t think he knows what he did.

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