The internet functions as a global town square—which means that it’s a space for important discussion, but also that it amplifies the opportunity to shame, bully and oppress. It means that a false sense of anonymity can and does spur people to say things they might otherwise refrain from in person. It means that those who are already marginalized are often subject to vitriol intended to impugn their personhood or discipline them into compliance.
We’ve seen that in action in the last few weeks, as Olympian and national treasure Gabby Douglas has come under fire online for everything from her demeanor to her hair.
Gabby Douglas absolutely typifies #blackgirlexcellence. She’s the winner of three Olympic gold medals and several world championship medals. In the run-up to the 2016 Olympics, Mattel announced the release of the Gabby Douglas Barbie doll. In People magazine, Gabby offered sage advice to the young girls who would be playing with the doll: “Be yourself and really embrace your inner beauty and your true talent. Believe in yourself. Never let anyone tell you you can’t do something when you can.”
But during the Games, Gabby would have to embrace her own wise words, as she quickly came under scrutiny on social media for failing to put her hand over heart during the anthem, not cheering enough for her teammates, and finally, failing to smile.
But perhaps the most vicious criticism has been reserved for her hair:
This kind of rhetoric has been a constant in Gabby Douglas’ life. She was 16 years old when she competed in the 2012 London Olympics and became the first African-American woman to win a gold in the team competition and the individual all-around. Unfortunately, Douglas didn’t get to enjoy her success, because instead of talking about her amazing accomplishment, people were talking about the state of her hair. And though Douglas' detractors may have been the loudest, she wasn’t the only African-American woman who had to negotiate hate-filled comments regarding her hair during the 2012 Olympics.
You don’t have to be an athlete to be subject to questioning when it comes to the natural texture of a black woman’s hair. In 2012, actress Viola Davis decided to attend the Oscars with her natural hair, only to be attacked by talk show host Wendy Williams, who claimed no one wanted to see the “‘Room 222′ look on the red carpet,” heavily implying that Davis’ natural hair made her look like a man. Rihanna was questioned on Twitter about why her edges are nappy (her response: “because I’m black bitch”).
Not even children are spared from scrutiny. The media has been particularly critical about the state of Zahara Jolie-Pitt’s hair, demanding that Angelina comb it to their specifications, and 5,679 people signed a Change.Org petition demanding that BeyoncÃ© comb Blue Ivy’s hair. To be black and female in this world is to eternally be found wanting, and for black women in the public eye, it’s impossible to escape policing, criticism, and shame.
It doesn’t matter that Gabby Douglas tumbles across the mat with such fierce determination, or that she flies through the air fearlessly. What matters is her refusal to conform to the socially imposed behavior and appearance standards for black women. BeyoncÃ© may like her “baby heir with baby hair and afros,” but that’s far from a universal sentiment. With her hair pulled back into a ponytail, revealing new unprocessed growth, Douglas doesn’t fit into the narrative of respectability politics, which dictates that black women must never have a broken nail, wrinkled clothing or a hair out of place. Other gymnasts also sport a ponytail or a tightly wrapped bun, but because of the nature of Douglas' hair, it will never lie as flat and uncompromising as that of a white woman. Because of the nature of white supremacy, other gymnasts’ hair will never be seen to reflect badly on them, let alone their entire race.
The most insidious part of the ongoing attacks against Douglas' hair is that they are being perpetrated by black women. Black women don’t have the privilege of being seen as individuals, so we police each other in fear that the actions of another will affect us, too. These acts of discipline are often framed as a kindness, akin to telling someone they have spinach in their teeth. In fact, they stem partly from internalized racism, partly from the conviction that only impeccable appearance and demeanor can spare black people from the worst effects of white supremacy. Black people are taught, implicitly or explicitly, that carrying and presenting yourself in a specific manner can keep you from being the target of racist attacks. It’s why, during the ‘60s, protesters marched in their Sunday best. It’s why black parents today still stress appropriate attire and presentation to their kids.
But respectability is a false shield, one that simply leads to blacks policing our own communities. It’s the platform on which black men from Booker T. Washington to Bill Cosby have stood to shame black people for their supposed failings, totally eschewing the role white supremacy and internalized racism play in the lives of African Americans.
What makes this public disciplining of Douglas so painful is that it invokes the idea of pride—calling to mind the Black Pride movement, which taught black people to embrace their identities as a direct response to white racism. This time, though, pride is being employed not to encourage self-love, but rather to suggest a lack of personal dignity and accountability. Where Afros once represented a rejection of white supremacy, today Gabby Douglas’ nappy edges and kinky kitchen mean a failure to perform blackness in a way that uplifts the race.
Douglas may have won Olympic gold in two Olympics, but her primary job as a black woman is racial uplift; it’s a burden that has been handed down for generations. This job takes many forms, but in this particular instance it means a polished presentation that is above question. It means a goal that is forever shifting to keep black women off-balance and questioning ourselves. That black women themselves participate in this dance keeps the music rolling and the shame and policing alive. Some black women discipline each other into perfection in the hopes that white supremacy won’t notice the ways in which we fail to mimic European beauty. The goal of the perfect appearance is to make blackness itself invisible.
For many, loving Gabby Douglas doesn’t mean celebrating her achievements, but loving her enough to tell the hard truth: Her blackness is showing. That this love resulted in Douglas tearfully apologizing is inconsequential to the larger goal of ensuring that this poisonous sisterhood finds mutual solidarity in self-loathing. The fact that the loudest critics have been black people speaks volumes.
With three gold medals to her name, Gabby Douglas could easily belong to what is known as the Talented Tenth—W.E.B. Du Bois’ term for exceptional African Americans—and not a member of the struggling underclasses whom black elites desperately implore to pull up their pants and act right. Douglas has reached the pinnacle of her sport and set an example for all gymnasts of color who follow in her wake. She’s fulfilled her part of the implied social contract and most certainly lifted as she climbed.
Since emancipation, black elites have guided African Americans on what they believe to be the best path forward. But unwittingly, they have created a form of communal policing with the hope of producing black excellence that has filtered down through the generations to all classes. Respectability politics may have had its genesis in an ideology of black elites, but today, on Twitter and other forms of social media, it appears as simple down-home common sense—the kind your mother would give as she moisturizes and styles your hair for the upcoming week.
Gabby Douglas may be the amazing athlete who represented her country in two Olympic games and won three Olympic medals, but she’s also the young woman who had the temerity to appear on an international stage with her so-called bad hair on display for all to see. In the eyes of far too many, that means Douglas is not someone to be lauded, but someone who failed in the most important task a black woman has: Never let them see you sweat. And while her treatment on social media brought her to tears, in the years to come it will be the little girls who watched her compete who pay the price. What they will take away from this lesson is not that hard work breeds rewards, but that they will forever and always be less.