I want you to take a careful look at the above picture and tell me what you see. Don’t just give it a sweeping glance, take your time and look at it. This is important for the story that I’m about to weave.
“Dangerous Linda” in response to a blog post I wrote said,
“Are you sure you're not an angry woman? You kind of seem like one to me. Just an observation, for whatever that's worth to you...”
After Gabriel Douglass won the gold medal in the all-around women’s gymnastics competition, Bob Costas (NBC commentator) said,
“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.”
How do we begin to interpret the picture celebrating friendships and victory? How do we begin to interpret a White woman, who has never met me, telling me and indeed insisting that she knows that I am angry? How do we interpret Costas’ statement?
Let’s take the picture first. On their Facebook page, Girls on the Run International posted the above picture. Its status update read,
"We love this image of the USA Gymnastics Women's team holding hands after they won the gold in the Women's Team final yesterday in London. This image reminds us of how so many Girls on the Run cross the finish line holding hands with their teammates. The women of the gymnastics team are an example to us all, not just because they won the gold, but because of the friendship and teamwork they have shown the world. They are truly inspiring!"
Girls on the Run characterizes itself as an inclusive, multicultural program designed to foster a “world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams.” The image used to celebrate the friendships fostered between girls seems to belie, consciously or unconsciously, their commitment to multiculturalism. The women’s team, not including alternates, comprise of five young women. In the foreground of the picture, brightly lit, are four girls with tightly clasped hands celebrating their victory. Missing is Gabby. In the background, off to the side, with her back to the camera stands Gabby. Her smile, often described as electric and engaging, is now invisible to the viewing public. Her very African features are removed from sight. In this picture “depicting” the team we see Gabby but yet we do not see Gabby. In a picture that depicts friendships, Gabby is excluded from the clasp. What does this suggest about interracial friendships—Gabby is the one African American young woman on the team? What narrative is conveyed in separating Gabby from whiteness?
Depicting Black women in this manner serves a larger political project—whether or not the person using the photograph is consciously or unconsciously engaging in this project. In the words of Kres and Van Leeuween "Like linguistic structures, visual structures point to particular interpretations of experience and forms of social interactions "(Kress and Van Leeuween 1996, p.2). Indeed pictures speak a thousand words. They tell us who gets to be designated as pretty, worthwhile, and who is included in our understanding of community. One reading of the above picture suggests that Gabby is an outsider—she is not a part of the larger gymnastics world.
Now, to “Dangerous Linda”. Dangerous Linda, by deploying a historical tactic often used to silence Black woman, was attempting to delegitimize my claims. In her attempt to construct me as “angry”, Dangerous Linda employed two narratives—one of irrationality and one of morality. The intersection of irrationality and morality with race and gender tends to produce a Black woman who is “senseless” and incapable of moving beyond her basic childlike instincts. Think of the child who is throwing a temper tantrum. As she indicated I was incapable, even if angry, to engage in critical thought. Implied is that I did not have the intellectual capability, regardless of the fact that I hold a Ph.D., to offer a critique of American society in general and White women’s tactic understanding of racial hierarchies. In my response, I asked why was such a categorization necessary, why not comment on the substance of the argument made in the post? The response once again informed me that I was angry.
Bob Costas, what was he attempting to do? Is he suggesting that there is a level playing field and that all Black girls have access to gymnastics and the possibility of winning gold? Costas deploys the rhetoric of post-racialism, which is an ideology that suggests that racial differences are no longer salient. It is part of the color-blind rhetoric that actually relies on racialized hierarchies. He seeks to minimize and in fact erase racism. In his comments, Costas seems to be implying that Black women and Blacks in general face only the psychological barriers that they impose on themselves. He sits on the outside telling Black folk that their problem is internal. Bob Costas, while recognizing the triumph of Gabby also engages in a similar tactic as used by Dangerous Linda and to some extent the image used by Girls on Run International. He too delegitimizes the voices of Black women by suggesting that barriers, while he was primarily referring to racialized barriers, I’m also including gender, class and sexuality barriers, no longer exist. Thus, Black women cannot make the claim that many of the inequalities they confront on a daily basis springs from these barriers. Now it is about individual desire and individual ability. Thus, if you fail to win the gold, the problem rest solely at your feet. Society is now free of its responsibilities to address inequalities—in terms of access to sports, education, health, etc. I wanted to recommend that Mr. Costa’s read Souls of Black Folk, Invisible Man, Native Son and any of the speeches penned by Maria Stewart, among countless other works by Black men and women living in the U.S.
Girls on the Run International, Dangerous Linda and Bob Costas are all engaging in the same practice—marginalizing the voices of Black women. Choosing to speak for us and to depict us in a way where we are there, but our existence is only seen and understood via their lens. These individuals don’t seem to understand that they are looking at the world via cracked lenses; lenses that hold the scars of race, class, gender and sexuality hierarchies. They do not own their privilege in defining how society sees or not sees Black women.
Black women are being marginalized. Yet when we take the time to challenge our marginalization by publicly speaking some attempt to discredit us. Why? What is the politics behind such actions? Why are they afraid of Black women speaking on their behalf?
These rhetorical strategies used by Girls Run International, Dangerous Linda, and Bob Costas limit Black women’s quest for social justice. They also mask White insecurities. Turning the spotlight on Black women as the source of the problem or ignoring them all together allows some to easily ignore environment, culture, racism, threats, and discrimination and their impact on the daily lives of Black women. What might we learn if the spotlight was turned in the other direction? Why is there such resistance to and fear against turning to the spotlight to look at White behaviors?