Gabrielle Douglas: Accenting Black Women’s Talent, Agency, Femininity

Anna Holmes has an excellent post on the great achievement of Gabrielle Douglas, the first African American to win the women’s all-around gymnastics gold medal in the Olympics. (And to win the two particular gold medals she got in this one Olympics.) What an achievement for any 16-year-old, but especially for one who has faced the barriers she has faced.

Holmes demonstrates the extraordinarily naïveté and role in systemic gendered racism of key white commentators, in this case the famous Bob Costas. Costas interviewed Douglas and asserted this:

“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.”

As you might expect, this type of white racial framing, in its colorblind Pollyanna-ism, was Holmes’s
main target:

In a political and cultural environment in which the patriotism—the very Americanness—of people of color (including the current president…) is often called into question, Costas’s scripted deep thought .. . was at worst dishonest . . .. What leveled barriers … was Mr. Costas referring to? Who, excepting the most Pollyanna-ish or cloistered … would believe the assertion that Gabby Douglas’ challenges were primarily psychic, a statement that can be contradicted by … the undeniable whiteness of being that is high-level American gymnastics?

Other writers echoed this same white racial framing, reverberating Costas’s colorblindism.

Holmes then picks up on the Costas point that our view of ourselves does makes a difference. But, she adds, structural situations often create that problem for people of color:

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% of the participants in American gymnastics programs were black.

Numerous members of USA Gymnastics, the mostly white coaches and other leaders in the field, often had a negative reaction to this honest report. Many whites there and elsewhere have tended, as they often do, to blame everything but white agents and white decisionmakers for this systemic-racism condition.

Holmes concludes by accenting how powerful the Douglas achievement was, especially for girls and young women around the globe, most of whom are girls and women of color. It will be interesting to see how the mainstream media treat Douglas, and the general white (and other) public too, when this great gymnast and her fine team return to the United States. Holmes concludes with this fine sharp point:

The 16-year-old’s triumph—not to mention her poise, her maturity, her focus, her elegance—will help recalibrate what young females of color believe is within their reach, while also influencing Western ideas and concepts of black womanhood, strength, agency and femininity—which has been historically objectified, sexualized and, it should be noted, feared.

It is way past time for these negative images of black women in the common white racial frame to be attacked for the mythological and racist framing they have always been–and indeed attacked constantly in the mainstream media until they are eliminated in the heads of way too many white (and some other) Americans.


  1. cordoba blue

    “The barriers have long since been down.” This is the key misconception of Bob Costas. Yes, you must have a positive view of yourself to succeed, but no, the barriers African Americans face are still alive and well.
    When I read this, I actually thought, as I often do about barriers black people face, about finances. We all know that black people are way behind whites in average family income. That translates into less money to spend on “extras” like gymnastics lessons, dancing lessons, summer camps, art classes, tai kwon do lessons, piano lessons, violin lessons, chess lessons etc.
    As a tutor, I know parents fit my tutoring sessions in between all of these activities. When school starts, I will again deal with trying to adjust everyone’s schedule around the long list of after school activities. I still teach in the summer, but the only obstacle is vacations scattered across the months of July and August. The point is most black families are just making enough to survive. If they can successfully feed and clothe their children, with the bias existing against hiring African Americans in a wide range of careers, they are doing very well.
    To help your child excel at these extras takes money, driving time to and from the gym, someone to look after your other children while you take the student to his activity, money for uniforms and special foot-wear if required etc. Many African Americans don’t even own a car and must take buses all around the city where I live in North Carolina. Thus, these extra-curricular programs are definitely for the affluent. And much of that affluence is reserved for whites, because many employers definitely prefer hiring whites to blacks in almost all industry sectors.
    In summation, one huge barrier is the finances to participate in these instructional activities. And money is easier earned if you are white than black.

  2. parvenu

    As a senior African American male I viewed Ms. Gabrielle Douglas’ performance in all of her events at the olympics with a level of pride that I haven’t felt since President Obama was elected. However while watching Gabby standing alone on the medal stand gently holding her gold medal as the American national anthem played I was suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of deep sadness. My sadness came from the realization that this very slight young woman who at last had achieved her life long dream could be inadvertantly stepping into a virtual tornado of future emotional conflict and pain. The actual catalyst for my wave of sadness was the excited comment blurted out earlier by one of the network’s roving reporters who said, “Gabby’s got the gold and a hundred million dollars in contracts waiting for her when she gets back home!”

    The dispair and sadness that I experienced for Gabby’s future was justified a few hours later when her mother was holding forth in front of the network cameras emphasizing the “terrible amount of sacrifices” that she and her family made to faciltate Gabby’s gymnastic career. She was doing her level best to convince the TV audience how she as a “single parent” had to sacrifice so much to help her child achieve this level of greatness. In my lifetime I have seen too many black women like Gabby’s mother.

    Evidently Gabby’s father is a man very much in gabby’s life, and keeps in constant touch with her. He is an enlisted man in the U.S. Air Force and was originally married to Gabby’s mother. After the divorce Gabby’s mother sought to keep him away from her and Gabby, but he persisted. Evidently Gabby’s mother remarried or something as her last name is not Douglas. Gabby with mother’s permission relocated to Iowa and lived for two years with a white family while she trained for her gymnastic career with a chinese instructor. This two year relocation was the “tremendous separation” that Gabby’s mother was constantly referring to on national television. Gabby was 14 years old when she relocated to Iowa and now she is 16.

    Gabby has a half sister and half brother who were present at the olympics along with the folks she stayed with in Iowa. I hope that my concern for Gabby’s future may have in this instance been heavily influenced by the current nasty very public internal fight going on inside the Jackson family over who will control the hundreds of millions of dollars of Michael Jackson’s estate, which obviously belongs to his surviving children. My understanding is that Kellog has already started work on preparing the artwork that adorns the sides of its Wheaties Boxes to feature Gabby pictured in her widely published medal winning mid air flight over the balance beam.
    I am still unsettled in what I sense could develop into another nasty family disfunction over money, but my prayers go out to Ms. Gabrielle Douglas for a calm peaceful and enjoyable future. May the wind always be at her back…….

  3. cordoba blue

    I just felt compelled to address Parvenu’s feelings. I think he is actually looking at the underside of extremely high achieving children in sports or any other extra-curricular activities. Even with white children, of course, there are many
    sacrifices, and sometimes parents who push beyond what many children would be able to mentally tolerate.
    For black children, like every other challenge in America, it may be twice as difficult. Success, along with great quantities of money, as are many things in life, double-edged swords! Look at the battles and humiliations President Obama has been subjected to. I would never want to be president of this country if I were black. Not in a million years.
    I think America, always publically at least, likes to see an African American “make it” in this tenuous world. So much praise, so much admiration, lots of hand-shaking and congratulations. I know I myself, in all honesty, have voiced pride, on this site, about some black friends who are successful.
    But does America care about the millions and millions of black people who struggle every day with racism in so many subtle and not-so-subtle ways? It’s fine to praise a winner. But this does not reflect on the AVERAGE experience of black Americans.This degree of success is not the norm.
    At any rate, I think in the end Gabby will probably turn out alright. She will certainly have plenty of financial resources for the rest of her life. If she can stay emotionally balanced (and athletes seem to be better at this than, for example, other celebrities like movie stars) she can enjoy a much superior life-style in America than the typical African American woman. I hate to sound cynical, but huge quantities of cash solve alot of problems.
    Plus, hopefully, because of her young age, she won’t have to go through the horrors of rude, lewd, scrutinizing that poor Serena Williams has endured. Again, she is very young. And if she can somehow keep her private life completely (as much as possible) separate from her athletic life, she will end up on the positive end of the spectrum. It’s not the in-fighting over family money I would be concerned about. It’s the hope that this little girl will not be objectified and humiliated with disrespectful comments and undue curiosity due to her race.

    • CrownsStandUp

      unfortunately the offense paradigm has gotten underway,and in this age of micro analytic electronic prurience, this young girl , Gabby,has it cut out for her. There is no more mystery or barrier betwixt us and a small minded racist competitor in a arm chair… craven jealousy is a mob beast prowling the internet.TV was at least less threat.
      The American dream is a increasing nightmare for the young, the non white. She is a target for exploitation and hate,from a billion avenues. One girl against a system that will always associate her with …well fill in the blank. That money is tainted. God help her.

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