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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Race, Sports, and Why We All Need to Shut the Fuck Up

As a kid, my favorite comic book series was the X-Men. To be more clear, I didn't actually enjoy the comics much; paying $3 for something that was one tenth the size of a free catalog that came in the mail didn't even make sense to me as a seven year-old. But I watched the animated series and fell in love with the characters and concept. Here was a group of misfits who were potentially the least misfit of us all. They all struggled with being segregated in different ways; Wolverine was irritable, Gambit a ladies-man, Beast devoted himself to his studies. They all had their issues, some normal, others caused by their unfortunate ostracization.

To return to the intention of this article, I pose a question: if there was a point to the X-Men, as in a meaning meant for humanity, what would it be? Wouldn't it have to be, "If this were to happen now, after having seen the reactions humanity had to it in the comics, we would never do this to mutants in real life."?

Recently I watched a movie called "The Wave" which illustrates a similar idea. In the film (it's set in Germany) children in a classroom groan about having to discuss World War 2 again, complaining that it is old hat and that something like the Nazi's taking over could never happen again. In response, the teacher slowly creates an organization of students that resembles Nazis (the students fail to realize what is happening until... well, watch the movie. It's solid.).

The movie aside, the concept is disturbingly real. We, as a people, are still just as blindly ignorant as we were in the twenties, sixties, or 1700s; just in different ways.

Take, for instance, the depressing coverage of Gabby Douglas winning an all-around gold medal in gymnastics. Now calculate how much of the coverage of this event you saw that failed to say "First African-American" once. Your calculation rests at 0%. I know this because my work oftentimes leaves me bored and reading article after article on the same subject. This was one of them.

Why is this wrong? Because winning a gold medal is an incredible achievement for Gabby freaking Douglas. It is not an achievement for "African Americans"*

*I'm taking an aside here to rant about this term. You are only an African-American if you lived in Africa, then moved to America. After that? YOU ARE JUST AN AMERICAN. Do I call myself a German-American? No! Because people would ask me when I moved here from Berlin! The fact that someone would get more upset about me calling them white or black than me incorrectly identifying their country of origin is mystifying. The fact that people still get upset about being identified by their most obvious physical trait is also still mystifying. If I am in a crowd of black people, and somebody is trying to identify me, and they choose to tell someone that I'm "The guy with blue eyes" instead of "The white guy", they should be beaten.

it is an achievement for that one young lady. The entire damned community of black people in America did not rise up and lift Gabby Douglas to prominence. She did. She struggled, and sacrificed, and probably even delayed getting her freaking period to win a single gold medal. And to put her side-saddle in the coverage in favor of the "African-American" angle is irresponsible at best and racist at worst.

Perhaps this infuriated me so greatly because the same thing happened to the Bears not long ago. Bears vs. Colts, Super Bowl XLI. What was the story leading up to the game? Was it Peyton Manning's chance at winning his first Super Bowl? Grossman's madness? Sure, but both of those stories combined took a back seat to the most irrelevant bit of information one could possibly drum up surrounding the game:

Both Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith were black, and by golly that had never happened before!

Both of these men had reached the pinnacle of their profession; the Super Bowl. Through long and (I'm sure) occasionally arduous careers these two men had become the head coach of a Super Bowl contender. It is an incredible individual achievement. But, once again, the men were overshadowed in favor of their race. This all culminated in one of the most racist goddamned commercials I have ever seen: THIS

Take 33 seconds to watch that, then come back.

Now that we've returned, what did we learn? That apparently the only thing that matters here is that two black guys were head coaches in a Super Bowl. That's right, who cares who wins? Who cares that Lovie and Tony Dungy are great coaches? All that matters is that THEY'RE BLACK and baby, they're HERE. Lays made an entire goddamned commercial just to say "Congrats, black folks, your race of people finally produced a good head coach. Lemme pat you on the head." It's offensive, condescending, and it completely overlooks the achievement of the individuals who made it there by themselves: not by the magical strength of an entire race of people.

If the type of talk surrounding Gabby Douglas is appropriate, then why don't we talk about how the last white guy to lead the NFL in receiving yards was Steve Largent in 1985? How about this: are you aware there has NEVER, since the merger, been a white rushing champion? NEVER. But nobody talks about that. And why? Because, golly, that would be racist.

Huh. That's strange. Because that sounds strangely similar to what we're doing with Gabby Douglas here.

I would like to think the reason we don't talk about not having had a white rushing champion is because it doesn't matter. Because if Peyton Hillis wins a rushing title next year, nobody will care that he's white. They'll care that he was a bruising runner, that he ran over five guys on the way to an eighty yard touchdown run, or that he helped the Chiefs win games. They'll care that he scored them points for their fantasy football team.

But then I think, "What if the NFL had never had a black rushing champion?" And it saddens me, because I know we would see a media firestorm of epic proportions; and none of it would be because Arian Foster or Jamaal Charles or Adrian Peterson was the best running back in the NFL. It would all be because the rushing champion led the league in a certain shade of melanin.

And I haven't even begun to discuss how ridiculous the very idea of race actually is. Do we say that a german shepherd is a different race from a labrador retriever? Or that an american shorthair is a different race from a maine coon? No, that would be ridiculous. They're all dogs, or all cats, or all freaking fish. Consider that. The difference between a white man and a black man is infinitely smaller than the difference between those two kinds of dog: our differences are literally just a color.

But here we are: focusing on someone's race instead of them. And it's unfair. We're all humans, damnit. Just like the X-Men, we all have the same problems. We want food, water, T.V., sports, sex, love, and a home. We want to do well in school (or maybe not), we want to be famous (or maybe not), we want fat sacks of cash (or maybe not). "Race" is a useless modifier; a ridiculous way to categorize an achievement. Black America did not win that gold medal. Gabby Douglas did. Black America doesn't even exist.

So please, media, shut the fuck up. Stop telling me that the reason Gabby Douglas is a huge deal is because she's black. If Jordan Wieber had won that medal, it would have been exactly as significant. America would still have a gold medal. One young woman who sacrificed and trained and bled and broke her goddamned bones and tore her ligaments would still have achieved the pinnacle of success. And it wouldn't have mattered any less or any more just because she was white.

Reread that last sentence. Do you believe it? If you don't, what does that imply?


Anansi said...

The problem with the "first African-American to do (blank)" angle is that it's outdated. This isn't the 1960's, and a governor is trying to keep her from going to Ole Miss.

Erik said...


Seriously, though. The reason there weren't previously any black American gymnastics champions wasn't because they were black, it was because, until this year, the best gymnasts we had were white people. It's not symptomatic of race relations in America. We shouldn't cheapen the achievements of past medal winners because they didn't somehow score a moral victory as well as a physical one. I'm proud to say Gabby Douglas has refrained from getting on this train. She pretty much said "Haters gonna hate" to all the people who were talking about her hair, and hasn't even bothered to talk about what her incredible gymnastic performance on the world stage means for black people.

Anansi said...

Maybe it's just me, but I think the comments about her hair on Twitter was dumber then the media's obsession with Gabby's race. It's moments like those that remind me why I hate it when Twitter comments are posted by CNN, ESPN, NFL Network, etc.

Iggins! said...

Twitter has moved on from being a good way to get quick news to being a cancerous nuisance. I agree with both of you, saying "First African American to do______" is is so outdated it sounds racist, and who cares what color someone is if they're the best in the world?

That's why the ridiculous Rooney clause doesn't make sense. You HAVE to interview a black guy? Do you have to interview a white guy? How about an Asian? Oh, if you interview an Asian you don't have to interview a black guy?