We cannot encourage a culture where only one member of a marginalised group is reserved a platform

by Chan Maroon

The public spotlight can often be cruel towards those aiming for success. In these Olympics, it has been particularly cruel for gymnast, Gabby Douglas.

Douglas was thrust into the public consciousness after her winning display at London 2012. At 16, she was the first black woman to win the individual all-around gymnastics title.

11424267Despite the figurative and literal dizzying heights she reached, her success was not met without controversy.

Most notably, hurtful comments were made about her hair. Details of what seemed to be a difficult relationship with her father were made public. She spoke up about the racial bullying she endured whilst at a her former gym, and was criticised for even mentioning it.

Jump forward to Rio 2016, and it appears Douglas has a lot less of the goodwill she had in 2012. Public perception of her has deteriorated further, and it’s hard not to suspect that she has been replaced with Simone Biles in much of the viewing public’s favour.

Biles has displayed an undeniable talent, even by the higher standards often foisted onto black people. She is now the most decorated American gymnast in history. Her signature move is one so difficult that only she has been able to perform it in competition.

Inevitably the two young women were compared, and it seemed that Simone was more palatable to the public. She has not yet been known to speak out on race, and was reported saying, “I don’t bring race into [my gymnastics].” There have been no reports of problems with her teammates, and she is consistently smiling and bubbly. You don’t have much to work with if you wanted to portray her as the stereotypical ‘angry, bitter black woman.’ But by virtue of Biles being ‘the other’ black female gymnast, even more unreasonable demands have been placed on Douglas.

The 2016 Olympics have not been kind to Gabby. She was unable to participate in the all-around competition because of the directive that only two gymnasts from each respective country can compete. While she played her part in the USA winning the team gold, she didn’t fare so well in the uneven bars. It would be perfectly normal and expected for someone to feel downcast, even angry, in these circumstances. But this is not how it was perceived by the media.

1-f4xRiVL8vGahXLrSMRv7ewDespite wishing her teammates well, Douglas was criticised for not being more like Biles in her temperament (which is absurd in itself; Biles’ Olympics was disappointment-free). There was the controversy about not putting her hand on her chest during the national anthem. Something that is a non-issue and completely benign from others became an act of borderline treason in the eyes of the American public. And once again, her hair became a subject of ridicule.

Douglas’ (likely) final Olympics ended with her facing a barrage of questions about these issues. Why didn’t she put her hand on her chest? Why wasn’t she cheering on her teammates more enthusiastically? She was being asked to reassure the public who in just a few months have the unenviable task to chose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that she was indeed a good American; a good teammate; a good person.

The heartbreaking thing was watching this negatively affect her in real time. Douglas apologised to her critics on Sunday, tearfully saying the social media reaction has been upsetting.

It should not be a requirement for her to act like Biles in the midst of disappointment. An extra layer of scrutiny was added as gymnastics is not a sport that features many black athletes, similar to the challenges faced by Venus and Serena Williams in tennis.

Gabby Douglas did not need to be lambasted and discarded for Simone Biles to succeed. The two could have existed in the same space. They should have existed in the same space. We cannot encourage a culture where only one member of a marginalised group is reserved a platform. No doubt Douglas’ and Biles’ efforts will draw a lot more young people to gymnastics who wouldn’t have previously considered the sport. But what will the point be if after surmounting all the odds, they are still faced with racism on the job, still pitted against each other, still subjected to the merciless glare of the spotlight?

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Chan is an artist, designer and barrister living in South London. You can find her on Twitter @ChanMaroonArt

Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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11 thoughts on “Gabby Douglas Did Not Need To Be Discarded For Simone Biles To Succeed

  1. Reblogged this on Exploration | Emma's Website and commented:
    Not only do I completely agree with everything in this article, I would also add that Simone herself was treated shabbily in the midst of her glory. What I mean by that is the fact that whenever Simone’s success in the All-Around was reported, there was always mention of Aly Raisman who won the Silver. It was a weird coupling, as if to say that as awesome as Simone is, don’t worry we have someone acceptable that whites can aspire to be like in the person of Aly Raisman. In the interviews, et. al it just seemed odd that Simone and Aly were always interviewed together-always coupled in a way I’ve never seen before. When Carly Patterson and Nastia Lukin won, they didn’t do interviews with the Silver medalists-their names weren’t coupled, along with their achievements.

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  2. These self righteous hypocrits get in my damn nerves. If black people abruptly left this country, these same nazis would be sitting around and practicing spit tobacco for the next olympics. Cause nobody would wanna see their lane a….

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  3. I hope Simone is paying attention to how they treated Gabby at this Olympics, b/c she’s next……..Gabby is NOT a “has been”, but she sure was relegated to the back of the bus! She OWES this country NOTHING! Would we prefer she be on another country’s team next Olympics? I thought she carried herself with grace and class. We like our black champions to smile and dance while we pick on them- sorry, Not this time.

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  4. I agree 100% with everything you wrote. I don’t know why they have to be compared, they are two entirely different personalities and skills, not taking anything from either one of them. You don’t need to tear one person down to make another one feel good. I feel ashamed for those that do.

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  5. I agree with you… with one tiny quibble – Simone did have a disappointment in the Woman’s Beam… she was expected to take gold, but a mistake in an otherwise brilliant routine meant she ended up with bronze… It was nail-biting stuff.

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  6. Gabby Douglas’s achievements along with Simone Biles should always be announced everytime olympics gymnastics is playing. Just as the continuation of Phelps and others reinged out the entire segment of swimming. The talk of her hair came from unintelligent people whom didn’t understand everyone can not pull their hair back and have a pony tail hanging down their backs. As for her not placing her hand upon her chest during the ceremony ” Your hand is placed over your heart when you are pledging not duringlo the national anthem. Everyone can see that Ally truly didn’t win the competition between Gabby and herself after all she stumbled and almost fell and they gave it to her any way. So why should Gabby show so much excitement for her teammmates she was robbed at the very beginning from defending her title. What need to be talked about is the four grown ass men that went out destroying property,urinating and lying!! That wasn’t patriotic and they should be made to return all medals because they do not represent America!!

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  7. Yes to this whole thing especially, Douglas was criticised for not being more like Biles in her temperament (which is absurd in itself; I often felt like they were framing them in that – This is what a “proper Black woman should act like vs. Not. Which is so horrible because 1. They’re both amazing, 2. They are individuals with their own feelings, and 3. They are not here to fit whatever box/role you need/want them to play. I loved how Biles and Douglas were with each other and I hated how the media or individuals basically cast out Douglas like there’s room for both girls, you don’t need to put one down to uplift another.

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    1. Gabby is an awesome gymnast in her own right. She does not have to be validated by anyone. She knows what her hard work and efforts have manifested and given her. Self motivation and self esteem. The media again has tried to turn two beautiful black young women into rivary in more ways than gymnastics; they have literally tried to mulniplate these young ladies against each other by compromising their talent and skills. It is always room for both Douglas and Biles and even those to come after them. The true Olympians are these two women that will not allow the media and others destroy the beauty of love for your fellow man or the game. For that they both hold the Gold Medal.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I didn’t even recognise Gabby at first because she was a very different girl from 2012, now in her new role as the ‘has been’.
    Sadly this one black at a time theme runs through all spheres from the workplace to Hollywood – it’s a wonder that Taraji Henson and Kerry Washington are sharing the prime time spotlight.
    Awesomely articulated!

    Liked by 1 person

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