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Olympian Gabby Douglas – the gymnast is golden, but her family is obscured

Olympian Gabby Douglas has broken through a racial barrier in sports only to be boxed in by old canards about who she is and where she comes from. The more complex story of her family’s influence on her rise on the way to gold deserves to be told.

By Tera W. Hunter / August 9, 2012

Gabrielle Douglas of the US competes in the balance beam during women's individual all-around gymnastics final Aug. 2. Gabby Douglas was the first black woman to win Olympic gold in the gymnastics all-around. Op-ed contributor Tera W. Hunger writes: 'To his credit, NBC’s Bob Costas highlighted the historic nature of the win.' But his comment that 'there can be an imaginary barrier based on how one might see oneself,' is a 'a very odd statement about an expensive sport that continues to be overwhelmingly white.'

Dylan Martinez/Reuters

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Princeton, N.J.

Gabrielle Douglas, the first black woman to win gold in the gymnastics individual all-around, will not escape the burdens that the spotlight brings – especially when it comes to the media’s portrayal of her family.

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To his credit, NBC’s Bob Costas highlighted the historic nature of the win in his closing remarks for the evening after it aired. But his analysis of the significance quickly turned to patting a “post-racial” America on the back: “The barriers have long since been down but sometimes there can be an imaginary barrier based on how one might see oneself,” he opined. Long down? Imaginary barrier? How one might see oneself?

That’s a very odd statement about an expensive sport that continues to be overwhelmingly white. Dominique Dawes blazed the trail in 1996 as the first black athlete (male or female) to win an Olympic medal in gymnastics (she won as part of the US team’s golden performance). And until now, few have followed her to compete in the games.

Gabby did imagine herself very differently, even compared to national team coordinator Marta Karolyi, who just six months ago considered her an “average good gymnast.”

While the media focused attention on her disappointed teammate, Jordyn Wieber, who didn’t make the cut in the all-around competition, Gabby gracefully flew above the razor-thin balance beam, peaking at the right time and in the right place.

Despite the ritual cleansing of America’s racial past implicit in Costas’s remarks, try as she might, Gabby can’t control what others write or say about her. Even as many across the globe have warmly embraced and celebrated her victories, age-old stereotypes about black families have been insinuated in her life story.

Gabby grew up with a “single mother,” Natalie Hawkins, we have been told. Such a moniker when attached to African American children typically is seen as a never-married mother, a derelict father, and multiple signs of family dysfunction. Some assume that Gabby’s story is no different.

Trudy Rubin, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer on an NPR program in discussing Gabby’s achievement offered: “Her father doesn’t seem to be in the picture.” Based on what verifiable information, I ask?

She also referred to Gabby’s host family (Travis and Missy Parton), who took care of her for the past two years while she trained in Iowa, as her “foster parents” – even as she expressed admiration for both families. And yet, “foster parents” is a term usually reserved for caretakers of children who are wards of the state.

Writer Lisa Suhay questioned Ms. Hawkins’s choices as a mother. Commenting on how Hawkins conceded to her teenage daughter’s desire to move to Iowa to train with coach Liang Chow, Ms. Suhay wrote in The Christian Science Monitor: “It made me ask, ‘Who’s the parent?’”

But according to Ms. Suhay the silver lining is that Gabby got to trade in her dysfunctional family of origin: “Perhaps the stability and not just the coaching is what this child really needed coming from a home where her mother, who according [to] the Virginian-Pilot divorced the same man twice and has struggled on disability to provide for her needs.”

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