A Comment on Gabby Douglas

I wanted to take the time to write down some thoughts I had ever since people started saying negative things about Gabby Douglas. People found fault in her hair, her gymnastics skills, and anything and everything in between. After she won the All-Around gold even more controversy arose. I did not know quite how to articulate my feelings about the situation until I saw the following post on Facebook from a young lady named Gloria, who attended the same college as I did:

Hypocrisy in America: Whenever black people accomplish something, like Gabby Douglas winning gold, white people resound with, “Why do we have to point out that she is black American? Why can’t she just be American??? Race isn’t important anymore.” Or as one commenter wrote, “This isn’t team USA-A!” However, whenever we talk about blacks and unemployment, blacks and crime, blacks and education, blacks and welfare, the first thing we hear is, “It’s a black problem; black people need to do better,” and not, “It’s an American problem; America needs to do better.” In this country, race “doesn’t matter anymore” only when “black” is associated with something positive…

In my opinion, Gabby Douglas is nothing short of inspirational. The drive she has had in her life and the ability at such a young age to believe so strongly in a dream and pursue it halfway across the country–if that isn’t inspirational, maybe I’ve just lost touch of what inspirational means. And that is why Gloria’s words really stuck with me, because finally I had seen an articulation of part of what bothered me so much about all the negative talk about Gabby. It is this idea that if you are ‘good’ you are part of the whole–mainstream America–but if you are ‘bad,’ you are an outsider, destined to be labeled as to not dirty the rest of ‘us.’ When I was younger and I heard people making offensive black jokes, I would ask them to stop. Oftentimes the person who was making the joke would just say that they were not talking about me, and I did not count because I wasn’t ‘really black.’ I’m now 23, and I can still say that I have no idea what it means to be ‘really black,’ because to me, that is a ridiculous notion. There is not one way to be black. It is the same way that when a young person of color speaks standard English, they get made fun of and people say they are ‘talking white.’ Standard English does not belong to one race. But it goes back to the idea that if it is good, you can make it part of the whole, but if it’s not what we want, then keep it away. The flip side to that then is when something people deem as wonderful happens to a black person, such as Gabby Douglas winning the gold, and the group of people often labeled as troublemakers and a problem race want to delight in her victory, she is taken away from them. She is ‘good.’ She is no longer for you.

There is an overwhelming cry of how we need to see ourselves as just Americans and not as black Americans or Chinese Americans or Indian Americans, and so on and so forth. However, I sometimes ask myself if the idea of a post-racial America benefits those who are already in power, who already walk squarely down Main Street of mainstream America. It is much like the idea of relative truth in historical context. Abenaki poet Cheryl Savageau learned this in college when her professor would tell her that there were no truths, no history, only many viewpoints. She said, “I argued that some things actually did happen…It is just now, when we are starting to tell our stories that suddenly there is no truth.” The same can be applied here. Now, when black people in America are showing ourselves to be a formidable group of people, capable of rising above the most dire of circumstances, that the bonds of community and identity are being stolen from us. Now, I’m not saying that I get along with every black person in America. I grew up with a saying that ‘skin folk, ain’t your kin folk,’ but I do always recognize a kinship of circumstances and a kinship of life experiences. The types of experiences that we must be honest and say that not everyone in America will go through. Just like when a black person being shown on TV for committing a crime pushes us backwards, so too does the opposite happen–we are pushed forward–when someone like Gabby Douglas becomes the first black gymnast to win the All-Around title. I did not choose to be black, but I choose to be proud of it, and happy and joyful when I see someone who looks like me–whose destiny America has always thrust upon me, especially in a negative light–do something to be proud of.

Even now, as part of Teach for America, one of the things the organization feels strongly about is their commitment to Diversity. They mention that they believe in the power of the contribution to the organization that can be made by those who share the same racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds as the students and communities we serve. There was a lot of controversy during Induction and Institute about this comment because many felt as though it devalued them as corps members. To be honest, the sessions in which this idea was presented to us was not facilitated well, but I do believe the idea behind the Diversity component is meaningful. As much as we want children to have the innocence to imagine themselves doing whatever they want in life no matter what, the truth is that years of seeing their communities policed, relatives thrown in jail, teachers failing to teach them, and neighborhoods entrenched in violence and poverty, throws a heavy shadow over any image that child can create. So when they see someone who looks like them, who may have come from a similar community or background as them, and that person has made it and is doing great things it IS a powerful message. I didn’t have that around me beyond my parents and older siblings growing up. I know I would have valued seeing success modeled more for me, but am lucky enough to have had great support around me so not having it was negated. Role models who look like we do are manifestations of the faith within us for our own lives. Seeing them can have incredible results.

So while Gabby Douglas belongs to all of us, whether an American of any color or a little girl in any part of the world dreaming of Olympic gold, allow her to also have a special place in the black community because of what she represents. She’s DONE IT! And now any young, black girl out there can feel that seed of hope inside of her that she can do it too.