Olympian Gabby Douglas: A Case of Here We Go Again
Try to deny as we might, race remains a looming presence in our pre, sub
and unconscious minds; more than the proverbial 800 pound gorilla or
James Baldwin's classic dead body under the table, the issue of race is
deeply imbedded in the American psyche. The irritation around the issue
of race often inflames and engorges until erupting at the slightest pin
Such, was the eruption while Gabby Douglas was in London completing what
no African American female gymnast had accomplished since the inception
of the Olympics: succeeding at becoming the first African American
gymnast to win gold. Our joy was curbed by castigations, commercials and
questions -- all related to (here we go again) race.
First, there was the outcry from what appeared to be predominantly black
viewers expressing shame, embarrassment and revulsion about Gabby's
hair. Reportedly, it just wasn't right that she wasn't taking time from
her busy schedule to get her hair "done". Given how so many of us have
been brainwashed, suggestions that she use some of the upcoming
financial gains to narrow her nose and thin out those lips, would come
as no surprise. But then, the issue of Gabby being referred to as "the
I'm sure this "pet name" is meant to be affectionate and endearing, but
it is important to exercise a bit of empathy, sensitivity and caution.
Let's not forget that, only a few generations ago, a concerted attempt
was made to purposefully dehumanize black people in America.
Essentially, this was done to rationalize and reconcile the profound
contradiction between democracy /freedom and slavery/bondage.
While there are primary go-to animal used to liken black people to apes,
chimpanzees and monkeys, flying squirrels bear a sharp similarity to
monkeys in appearance, size and habitat. Categorically, squirrels are
akin to rodents, which is not a positive association. There is nothing
noble or majestic about squirrels. Hence the pejorative term
"squirrelly" (1. mildly insane 2. unpredictable and jumpy, often in a
cowardly way 3. nutty; resembling a squirrel looking for nuts.")
As to the ironically ill-timed airing of the monkey commercial directly
following the Bob Kostas interview with Gabby Douglas, there are two
things of which I'm certain: First, there was no personalized racial
animus on the part of the network, including the person(s) in charge of
positioning commercials relative to program content. Secondly, there is
little doubt that the historical institutionalized myth of black
inferiority is the root of the problem.
If a basic understanding of this sensitive subject had been operating at
any point along the path to airing this spot -- from the creation of the
commercial, to the network's approval, to the basic attention of the
person charged with looking out for problem placements -- there would
not have been an issue.
What was missing was an understanding of the historical propaganda that
linked black and simians (gorillas, apes, chimps and orangutans).
To get the connection, refer to my book, Brainwashed: Challenging the
Myth of Black Inferiority, specifically page 44: "The belief that blacks
are sexual savages descended from fiction rooted in the first impression
of Africans. Englishmen were introduced to the chimpanzee and Black
Africans in Western Africa at the same time and place. The startlingly
human appearance and movements of the chimpanzee aroused their
The book cites more recent studies showing that the mythic link
continues. "We believe that even among people who are not particularly
prejudiced, the association between blacks and apes is still strong,
held in place through "implicit knowledge', the result of a lifetime of
conditioning, rooted in historical representation of blacks as less than
human…it was a kind of racial programming, a legacy that even something
as progressive as Obama's election cannot obliterate."
As painful as it is to accept, as much as shame and guilt continue to
work overtime to bury, dissipate and deny its presence, the issue
continues to pop up, jump out and run over into our everyday existence.
And until that is no longer the case, it is still necessary to
de-stigmatize the notion of 'race consciousness'.
While discussing this topic with a friend, he asked the question: "Does
this mean that simians should not be used in any visual communications?"
My answer is that whenever such depictions are being considered, we need
to proceed carefully, especially when the depiction is mimicking or
personifying human beings. Have a mental caution flag up while on the
look-out for context. With the working premise that race is still
potentially relevant, be ready to pull the plug.
The projection of negative words and images not only reinforces the myth
of black inferiority; it can also be gratuitously damaging for the
businesses and organizations that create and deliver them.
Marketing communications pioneer and Advertising Hall of Fame
inductee, Tom Burrell is credited with revolutionizing the image of
African Americans in television and changing the face of American
advertising. His award-winning work promoted positive and realistic
images of blacks and acknowledged the purchasing power of the African
American community. Burrell, author of the book, "Brainwashed:
Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority," is the founder of The
Resolution Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes intra-racial
dialogue and community-based new media “stop the brainwash” campaigns.
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