Professional Athletes And The Never-Ending Conversation Around Color

Colorism, like it’s wicked stepsister “racism,” is a tool of derision coded into U.S. culture and tradition. The practice, which centers on the discrimination, or more subtly antagonism or disdain, for other members within a race of people based on one’s physical appearances often creeps into everyday speech, but seems given added impact in the world of contested sports.

The use of the word colorism originates with famed Black novelist and social activist Alice Walker in her 1983 book, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. In the collection of essays, Walker addresses how the division between Black women of fairer skin and their darker hued sistren.

One would think with the Black Lives Matter movement and today’s social climate that solidarity would be taking place. As nuanced as we are, the Black community still feels the effects of social meanings attached to skin tones.

Even in the world of sports, where talent and savvy are not easy to fake, colorism seems to rear its ugly head. No matter how talented an athlete is and their ability to compete under considerably challenging odds, it seems the need to criticise based on one’s appearance cannot be quelled.

Blacks athletes are not only subject to enduring colorism, but more often experience it more bluntly from fans, from media personalities and even their peers. Black athletes are even often pitted against each other. It seems, though, when performance numbers are hard to deny, the argument turns physical, i.e. one uses an athlete’s physical features to justify their own misgivings.

Over the past year, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been lauded for possessing an outspoken, “edgy” personality for his protesting of police brutality and the treatment of Blacks in America. Even in the twilight of a season riddled with criticism for what has been called an “unpatriotic” stance, Kaepernick has been able to secure several lucrative endorsements but since his stance police brutality his spotlight has grown dim.

In August 2016, during the height of Kaepernick’s protest, former New England Patriots player Rodney Harrison, reopened a national can of worms regarding colorism. Harrison suggested that Kaepernick was not a “Black” man during an interview on iHeartRadio. Harrison even went so far as to infer that because Kaepernick was bi-racial he could never understand the plight of Black men.

Although Harrison later apologized for his comments, the question remains. How do Black people move beyond attaching stigma to our hues?

Just last month, Golden State Warrior Draymond Green voiced his opinion about how his teammate, Steph Curry, has become the target of colorizing criticism. On his podcast, “Drey Day,” Green expressed that former and current players try to take away from Curry’s success by calling him privileged and soft as the result of Curry’s upbringing and skin tone.

Further, in June 2006, Michael Eric Dyson’s commentary “The Color Line” explores how Kevin Durant’s initial perceptions of Curry portray the coded language that is embedded in Black culture.

Durant’s statements were not of ill-intent but the dichotomy in paradigm is apparent: in sentiments that seem to shared by many players and fans alike, those who grew up in the “hood” is equated to “real” and, because Curry grew up in the suburbs, his lifestyle allegedly renders him less real (coded: less Black) than those who grew up in more urban communities.

In this light, Durant’s comments may not be completely off the mark in terms of relatability. According to U.S. Census data, the annual median income ofBlack households in 2014 was $35,398, compared to the nation at $53, 657. The poverty rate is at 26.2 percent for Blacks while 14.8 percent nationally.

Sports may indeed give Black youth a possibility of overcoming their current surroundings. That said, Curry’s upbringing may have been different, but neither his success, nor criticism of that success, are not exclusive to light-skinned individuals.

Take for example the curious case of Gabby Douglas, who made history at the 2012 Olympics in London when she became the first Black person of any nationality in Olympic history to become an individual all-around champion and the first U.S. gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympic Games.

Despite these accomplishments, she was widely criticized for the condition of her hair, which had coiled around the edges from its slicked-down state as a result of the heavy sweating that often occurs during competition. Unfortunately, some of the most vicious statements came from African American women.

“I love how she’s doing her thing and winning,’’ 22-year-old Latisha Jenkins of Detroit told The Daily Beast in a 2012 feature by Allison Samuels. “But I just hate the way her hair looks with all those pins and gel. I wish someone could have helped her make it look better since she’s being seen all over the world. She’s representing for Black women everywhere.’’

Instead of simply applauding Douglas’ stellar performance on the global stage, Black women like Jenkins and others took to social media platforms in droves to express their displeasure with the teen gymnast’s use of hair clips and styling gel.

“I don’t know where this is coming from. What’s wrong with my hair?” Douglas questioned in an interview with the Associated Press. “I’m like, ‘I just made history and people are focused on my hair?’ It can be bald or short, it doesn’t matter about (my) hair.”

At only 16 years old, Douglas clenched her gold medals by performing some of the most difficult tumbling passes ever executed in competition amongst the world’s best gymnasts. Throughout competition, the “Flying Squirrel” wowed spectators and judges with her strength, her grace and pleasant demeanor. In spite of all this, Black women—many of whom suffer with the same hair texture challenges—chose instead to cast judgement.

Fortunately, many Black women, including actress Gabrielle Union and Douglas’ mom Natalie Hawkins, have come to her defense. “Why do some Black women always feel they know what someone needs?” questioned Monisha Randolph in her column for SportyAfros. “When in history did it become a hobby for Black women to heavily criticize one another?”

Even in the era of Black Lives Matter, even 30 years after Alice Walker articulated the concept of colorism, we still see this issue arise beyond the every-day aspects of modern life. And it says a lot that these notions about skin tone invade professional sports, where merit and objective measures of excellence are supposed to govern. That is, despite whatever the politics and discussions that happen around race today, colorism in sports demonstrates how deep history's wounds may in fact run.

Joe Blue and Mars Alexander co-wrote this post.


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