We’re here, we’re fierce, get used to it
Morgan State panelists discuss how even the best black female athletes are often painted in a negative light
Changing an old and established narrative can sometimes feel like an impossible task. But a shift in the public perception of black female athletes is long overdue, even as images of powerful and accomplished African-Americans are more prevalent in the wider culture.
That was the main takeaway from a lively discussion about the negative stereotypes of popular black female athletes held Tuesday at the new Center for the Study of Race, Sports and Culture at Morgan State University, Maryland’s largest historically black college or university.
The event was the first symposium in a yearlong research and journalism partnership between Morgan State and The Undefeated. Moderator Jemele Hill, co-host of ESPN’s His & Hers (and soon-to-be SportsCenter co-host) kicked off the exchange by asking 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad how she was portrayed by the media before and after the games held in Rio de Janeiro.
“I became the first Muslim woman in hijab to qualify for the Olympic team, and my life and my experiences in sport became bigger than me,” immediately after qualifying, Muhammad said. “I think of Simone Manuel in swimming – the first African-American woman to [win an individual] medal in a swimming event. I feel like those moments in our history are so much bigger than us. Now children in our communities don’t have to think about, ‘Is it possible for me to do these things?’ Now they know it’s possible because they are able to see women break these barriers.
“I’m in a sport where I don’t always feel welcome – and for sure Muslim women don’t always feel welcome. But I feel very blessed to be in this position,” she added, “and I hope that it creates more opportunities for women who look like me to take part in this sport.”
Public conversations around the experience of black female athletes can be shaped by people who don’t necessarily understand their backgrounds, upbringing and challenges. The mainstream sports media is still overwhelmingly white and male, which means there are often a lot of problematic spots in the portrayal of black women athletes, said Lonnae O’Neal, a senior writer for The Undefeated.
“There aren’t a lot of African-American sports writers or editors – and certainly not black females – and that shapes the kinds of coverage we get,” she said. “We lack the language, the sensibility and even the expertise for people to evaluate us on an even playing field.
“There’s everything to say because we haven’t said it yet; this discussion is embryonic,” O’Neal continued. “Sometimes before you talk about positive or negative images, you have to talk about power and politics and challenges, and that journey takes up half the conversation.”
The issues aren’t solely on the playing field. At the beginning of her career as an ESPN broadcaster, Kara Lawson, a 2008 Olympic gold medalist in women’s basketball, found it difficult to see a path forward. Success as a TV analyst wasn’t as clearly defined as athletics, where it is obvious how fast a player can run or how many points she scored.
As a broadcaster, “I’ve watched people be promoted over me,” said Lawson, who played college basketball under legendary head coach Pat Summitt at the University of Tennessee. “That can be defeating to see other people get opportunities that you are afraid you won’t have because subjectivity plays such a part in your advancement in this business. That has been very, very challenging to deal with.”
Sometimes, success can be more than just an individual’s experience as an athlete. When black kids who knew next to nothing about fencing see a hijab-wearing Muslim succeed on an international scale – that is a much bigger win than her individual results, Muhammad said. “I want people to envision people in spaces where they aren’t always welcomed,” she said. “I’ve always been a person who hated hearing ‘no.’ ”
“We’re not closer to understanding the negative images [of black female athletes], but we’re more excited about digging into where they come from,” DeWayne Wickham, dean of Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism & Communication, said after the panel was finished. “Kara and Ibtihaj gave powerful, first-person accounts of what it was like to be portrayed as a black woman in the media, and their comments will direct us in ways that we wouldn’t have thought to go.
“Interestingly, all of the panelists attended predominantly white institutions, but it was as if they’d come home,” said Wickham. “They were uninhibited in their conversation, and there was a comfort level between the women and the audience.”
Later this year, the Morgan State center will begin an examination of the pipeline for African-Americans to head coaching jobs in college football and the NFL, and will facilitate lectures and research projects. They will be led by existing faculty at the university, as well as visiting journalists who will work with students on reporting programs.