In the lead-up to the Rio Olympics, the United States women’s gymnastics team is generating excitement for two main reasons:
First, as Vox’s Alex-Abad Santos has explained, they’re almost certainly going to win the gold.
Second, the five women who will compete — Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian, and Laurie Hernandez — make up the most racially and ethnically diverse group of Olympic athletes in the team’s history. Biles and Douglas are African American. Hernandez, whose mother describes her as a "second generation Puerto Rican," identifies as Latina, Kocian and Raisman (who is Jewish) are both white.
That second point has been the topic of a lot of discussion. Why? Because it signals increasing inclusiveness in a sport that, here in the United States, has historically had mostly white participants and, on a global level, is still plagued by lazy stereotypes about the abilities of athletes who aren’t white.
As recently as 2013, Italian Gymnastics Federation spokesperson David Ciaralli asserted that women of color in the sport are "well known to be more powerful," contrasting this with the "more artistic" style and "elegance" of their white counterparts. He later apologized, and a recent analysis by Deadspin’s Dvora Meyers explains the big holes in this theory. But, wrong as it may be, the statement is a powerful example of the biases that exist in the gymnastics community.
There’s a more straightforward, emotional reaction to the diverse team, too. In the words of the social media celebrations of the many fans who’ve shared images of the five leotard-clad young women, "Representation matters!" What they’re saying is that for black and Latino people — especially little girls — to be able to turn on the TV and see people who look like them in this rare-until-now context is a big deal. Many white Americans who are simply pleased to see a team that includes more reflections of the ethnic makeup of the country we live in are equally enthused.
Positive sentiments like these seem to make up the bulk of the reaction to the team's composition.
But there have been other, stranger reactions, too. To be fair, they don’t seem to be widespread (at least not yet), but they’re interesting to think about because they each mirror common anxieties and misunderstandings about race in America that go far beyond the gym.
Let’s take a look at a tweet or two representing each of them (presented with personal information redacted, to focus on the ideas expressed instead of the nonpublic figures who shared them).
This must be the result of affirmative action
It goes without saying that this did not happen. The Olympic team was chosen by national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, not by President Barack Obama. By all accounts, the members were selected with an eye on the combination of skills that would provide the greatest chance of winning the all-around gold medal.
But the sentiment behind the tweets — a visceral sense that evidence of diversity in any context must mean white people have been robbed of something to which they were entitled — is worth talking about. It’s both common and troubling.
In fact, it’s an assumption that plays a giant role in modern racism. This mindset not only denies the concept that diversity is a positive thing, it also imagines that a world in which white people dominate everything and enjoy every opportunity reflects the normal and correct order.
The idea that this world is slipping away fuels a brand of anxiety that can color decisions much more serious than whether or not to be excited about the gymnastics team. Angst over larger-scale diversity can shape political decisions and thereby the direction of entire nations.
Think of the widespread consensus that June’s Brexit vote turned out the way it did at least in part because of white residents' angst about the ethnic changes immigration was making to their country. And, here in the US, the New York Times’ Anand Giridharadas linked Trump’s popularity to the way he "taps into the anxiety of white American males":
The anxiety of white men may not be a viable long-term fuel source for the political right, but, in the polls’ telling, it may be good enough for right now.
The polls offer a way of framing the election: as a referendum on how white men see their place in a changing country; and, one layer beneath, on whether they perceive themselves as being joined by women and minorities or rather as being replaced by them…
…Yet there is some evidence that a sizable number of white men see the push toward diversity, along with the larger changes it telegraphs, as less about joining and more about replacement, and a country that is less hospitable to them.
That sentiment is perhaps expressed in a quote widely circulated online in these discussions, though the origin is unknown: "When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression."
So, deciding that white gymnasts must have been robbed in order for nonwhite gymnasts to succeed is pretty harmless, but the worldview behind that thought can have — and has had — very real consequences.
Why don’t we care about the diversity white athletes provide?
This person seems to be saying "Everyone is excited that the gymnastics team is less white, but where’s that excitement when the track team is less black? That doesn’t seem fair."
A well-intended person whose concept of equality means thinking about all racial and ethnic groups in exactly the same way could easily wonder this. And in fact, the Undefeated’s Justin Tinsley uncovered similar thinking when he looked at reactions to a 2007 survey designed to assess racial diversity in gymnastics conducted by USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny:
Others took offense at the implications of the survey. "As a middle-class, white Christian male, is the NBA doing any ‘reach-out’ programs to me and my family? When there is controversy in the NFL regarding the number of black head coaches, and they implement a system that requires NFL teams to interview African-Americans for their head coach vacancies (in an effort to "raise participation in underrepresented racial groups"), do they also implement a system where teams are required to draft at least one Caucasian running back?" one commenter asked. "As far as I’m concerned, the racial makeup for my club is what it is based on the interest of individuals. Implementing programs that raise representation of certain races is racist in and of itself."
The short answer is that we tend to push for — and celebrate — diversity in situations where the lack of diversity was the result of discrimination, racism, or a lack of opportunity caused by these things.
If you remind yourself of the history of segregation and formal and informal discrimination against nonwhite people in America, it’s easy to see how the makeup of teams in the past was the result of racism. Signs that racism has less of an impact these days is worth celebrating.
The dearth of white athletes in track and field and the NFL does not have the same history, because there isn’t a history of systemic exclusion of and discrimination of white people in America. That explains why the question of diversity hits people differently depending on who’s left out.
That doesn’t mean that it wouldn't be nice to see more racial diversity in sports dominated by black athletes, too — it would! But when you understand that no systemic racism against white people had to be overcome to get there, you can understand why few people are emotionally invested in seeing changes in the makeup of these often predominantly black teams.
The mental exercise of asking "What’s the history here?" and "How did things get this way?" can clarify why we’re more concerned when it looks like people of color are being locked out of a sport than when white athletes are underrepresented. The same approach also applies in answering broader questions about race in America: Why is blackface offensive, yet the movie "White Chicks" is okay? Why would a white student union or white history month be frowned upon, when the black versions are embraced? Why isn’t it surprising — or racist — that the first black president made people excited?
If we remember to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, we’ll do a much better job of avoiding false equivalence — and resulting confusion — when it comes to thinking about the experiences of different racial identity groups.
Cheering for these girls will heal racism
This is obviously a lighthearted tweet, and it’s totally possible that this person was just kidding around. But underlying the thought is a widespread sentiment that many people believe sincerely: This country’s problem with race is all about individuals not understanding each other — often called "the racial divide" or "racial tension" — and this is cured by interactions between people of different races, whether working out in the gym or obsessing over the latest game.
Unfortunately it’s not that easy.
Alana Conner, the executive director of Stanford University’s Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions (SPARQ) Center, explained that the "basic recipe for reducing prejudice" was set out in a 1964 book, The Nature of Prejudice, by Gordon Allport. He suggested that prejudice can be reduced through friendly or cooperative interactions between members of different groups. This idea is often referred to as the "contact hypothesis."
But it’s not as simple as just having contact.
Allport, Connor said, identified four important elements that interactions between different types of people should have in order to reduce prejudicial attitudes:
1) The people involved are working together
2) as equals
3) toward a common goal
4) and in an environment where those in the position of authority support social change.
Those elements are rarely present. They’re definitely not there when it comes cheering for a sports team from our respective living rooms. As W. Carson Byrd, assistant professor of pan-African studies at the University of Louisville put it, "If that was the case, then why didn’t that [a national drop in racial prejudice] happen after the LA Riots with talk about the Olympic Dream Team in 1992?"
Byrd said the misconception that simply interacting across racial or ethnic lines can reduce people’s prejudice toward one another is common and "resonates strongly with people today." However, he said, "this view of social interaction misses the complexities of what can make an interaction have the ability to reduce prejudice."
Moreover, thinking about America’s problems with racism as something that can be solved by individuals getting to know each other and learning to overcome their biases does a disservice: It can tempt us to forget that there are bigger, structural problems that require legal and policy solutions.
In other words, even if lots of people make friends of different races and work together, there will still be residential segregation resulting from discrimination, educational inequality, police violence informed by racial bias, and much more. These things — not the absence of cross-racial friendships — are what cause the sense of injustice that in turn causes "race relations" to be less than "calm."
The bad news is that, even if they come home with the gold, this year’s groundbreaking gymnastics team won’t do much to move the needle on racial inequality in America. But perhaps there are some lessons to be learned from the way we talk about them.