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Rio 2016: the diverse women’s gymnastics team is great. But it will not “calm race relations.”

By Jenée Desmond-Harris,

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.


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