New study shows that focus on appearance creates big barriers for Black women in sports
The Undefeated recently commissioned a study from Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism & Communication entitled “Beating Opponents, Battling Belittlement: How African-American Female Athletes Use Community to Navigate Negative Images.” The study examines Black women’s participation in basketball, track and field, tennis, golf, and swimming, looking at cultural factors that may get in the way of women’s success and the way they adapt as a response to those barriers.
One of the editors of the study, Chairwoman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Morgan State Stella Hargett, told the Undefeated: “We also wanted to make it clear that we understand that the press sees black female athletes in certain kinds of ways… Their representation is always part of their process. What’s interesting to me is that, throughout, what we find is oftentimes appearance becomes more important than the playing of the sports.”
The study discovers that for Black female athletes there has almost always been an emphasis on both their skills and femininity. For instance, in collective celebration of “fastest woman of all time” track and field athlete Florence Griffith Joyner in the ’80s, the tendency was to celebrate her for not only her phenomenal speed, but her hair, makeup and fashion sense.
Hargett explains the cultural resistance to Black women being successful in sport in this way: “As long as black female athletes are considered the ‘other,’ I’m going to doubt that they will get the kind of respect that we want them to get… That doesn’t mean they won’t get respect. The more dominant black female athletes become in sports, the more likely they are to become the ‘other.’ If you’re going to talk about respect [of black female athletes], that respect is always going to be conditional.”
In addition to white resistance, Black women in sports also face in-group resistance that often comes in the form of questioning their sexuality, or criticism for participating in traditionally white sports if the women play something like tennis or golf.
Kevin Merida, the editor in chief of the Undefeated, says of the study: “Sometimes you have to show people that this is not anything new, and the fact that some of the same terms and the same portrayals have happened over more than a century is telling… Even the fact that even in the face of it, some of these black female athletes have been successful throughout the course of our history. Now here’s Serena Williams, a black female athlete, and she’s in the conversation for the greatest athlete in the history of our country, I think that’s something to point to.”