Saturday, September 29, 2012

Slaves & Athletes: Seeing (or not) Black Women

It seems to me that the some in society are unable and/or unwilling to see Black women. Consider the photos of Michele Obama and of Gabby Douglas.

taken from Girls on the Run Facebook Page

“Michelle Tataranieta De Esclava, Dueña De América” (Michelle Granddaughter of a Slave, Lady of America) was the recent featured article of the magazine Fuera de Serie. The article seems to praise Mrs. Obama by recognizing her struggles and accomplishments. And even calls her the “gran mujer” (great lady) behind the President Obama. The article, in comparison to the cover, drew minimum attention.

The cover became the story. On the cover was Michele Obama’s face superimposed on the body of the art-historical body of an African Guadeloupean female slave originally painted in the 1800s by Marie-Guilhelmine Benoist—a French artist.

The image used to portray the “success” of Michele Obama belies the so-called narrative of success. Why impose her face on an enslaved individual? Why use an image of a partially bare-breasted enslaved woman? These choices, conscious or unconscious, mean something. They send messages to society about how Black women should be valued and ultimately treated.

At the recent 2012 Olympics Black women were celebrated. They were celebrated for winning gold medals in gymnastics and women’s track and field among other sports.  But how do we see these champions?

On their Facebook page, Girls on the Run International posted a picture of the women’s team. The 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, multi-cultural program designed to encourage/foster a “world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams[JJ-Z1].”

The image they 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, front and center are four girls with tightly clasped hands celebrating a victory. In the background, off to the side, with her back to the camera stands Gabby. Her so-called electric and engaging smile is now invisible to the viewing public. Her very African features are removed from sight. In this picture that “depicts” 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?

In a “post” civil rights, “post” racial and “post” gender era, both pictures are steeped in coded language. These images are based on statements—that is, background assumptions of the “proper” place of Black women in society.

 It’s not enough to ask are these images racist; to do such ignores the gendered element of the pictures and the intersection of gender and race. Thus, we lose sight of how and why these images resonate.

Knowingly or not these images are political acts. These images reinforce race and gender divisions and as such they serve as an element in the system of social control. These system of control sees Black women as highly sexualized (in the case of the Obama "picture" and as servants—there to support others and as such not worthy of being celebrated for their individual contributions. As I argue in Black Women, Cultural Images and Social Policy and as argued by Black feminists, such as Patricia Hill Collins and Beverly Guy Sheftall among others, the use of these images results in the often negative treatment of Black women.

Even when Black women are successful in their chosen professions, they are often not seen. Even when Black women “play” by the rules they are often ignored. There is a continual and sustained attempt to categorize Black women as less than or ignore them all together. Mariah Stewart warned against this. Like she did in the 1800s, we in the 21st Century must also challenge the impact of the intersection of race and gender (and other oppressive structures) on our lives. As a result of the intersection of oppressive structures we are constrained and can become boxed into others expectations (often negative) of us. We must challenge multiple and intersecting oppressive structures that are deployed in various domains such as: education, politics, religion, and culture. To do such helps us not only to find our voices and speak for ourselves, but brings us that much closer to freedom.

 [JJ-Z1]August 4, 2012


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Brilliant article.
    I wrote about the Michelle Obama Spanish mag cover for my blog, what I found interesting about it was how is served to 'dress down' Michelle's success as a black female.
    I think this really applies to your discussion about black women 'not being seen' as like Michelle, Gabby Douglas recieved hash abuse after winning her Olympic gold. Its as if successful black females are as you say meant to go unnoticed and should they be seen they open themselves up to scrutiny and abuse - the 'dressing down'.

    I think its a really important discussion to be had, again brilliant article.

    1. Dear Donalea
      Thanks for taking the time to post your reflections. When folk suggest that racism no longer exists, they fail to recognize the multiple dimensions of racism--particularly through imagery. It was a pleasure reading your blogpost. Keep up the good work.
      See Donalea's blog post at

  3. As a nonprofit organization that envisions a world where all girls know and activate their limitless potential and are free to boldly pursue their dreams, Girls on the Run International celebrates all girls and women. We agree with your point that the images portrayed in the media are often times a misrepresentation of the remarkable diversity we both have the honor of seeing and celebrating with our work.

    The photo used to recognize the accomplishments of the US gymnastics team was selected from an unfortunately limited number of media photos available at the time. In order to share all of the teams accomplishments, GOTRI posted not only about the team but separately about the incredible journey of Gabby Douglas. GOTRI believes it is important to showcase a variety of ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds. During the Olympics and Paralympics we highlighted a many Olympians both present and past to celebrate the unity and spirit of the Olympic Games.

    Girls on the Run International

  4. Dear Ms. Ellrod.
    Thanks for taking the time to comment on the post. I sincerely hope that folk will engage all that is said on this page.
    My critique is not about Girls on the Run International. The organization has my support! I am in agreement with almost all that you state. However, I do take exception to one issue. As you state, there were limited pictures from which to choose. I have to honestly challenge this statement. On that day, there were a plethora of pictures available, also there were older pictures of the entire team available for posting. Second, some pointed out the limits of this picture directly on Facebook. To my knowledge, no response was offered and the immediately posted pictures were solo images of Gabby Douglas. Indeed, if I missed something on the Facebook page, please accept my humble apologies.

  5. Yes! I agree with you, Julia! Let us enjoy a wide variety of photos of this day, including all of our Victors!