By: Erica Thurman, Director of Stepping Stones
Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas and the United States gymnastics team achieved what no U.S.A. gymnastics team has done before or since the Magnificent Seven at the 1996 Atlanta Games—they brought home the gold medal in the team all-around competition.
Douglas took it one step further when she became the first African American woman in Olympic History to win a gold medal in the individual all-around competition and the first American to win gold in both the individual and team all-around competitions.
If social networks are any indication, Douglas received an outpouring of support and well wishes from people across the country and the world. Sadly, dialogue centering on Douglas’ achievements were momentarily derailed by negative comments directed towards Douglas.
These were not comments about her gymnastic abilities, her personality or her character. Instead, she came home to find that many people were concerned with one thing only—her hair.
What we know is that Douglas wore her hair in the traditional ponytail style of gymnasts during competition. The only difference between her hair and that of her teammates is the texture of Douglas’ hair. Douglas’ hair appears to be both thicker and kinkier than her cohorts.
As such, without potentially damaging manipulation, it cannot be styled in a manner that replicates her teammates’ hair.
The discourse about Black women and hair is not new in the social, employment, political or legal environment. What surprised many is the fact that some of the people who made negative comments about Douglas’ hair identified as African American women.
What we learn from this is that the internalization of cultural intolerance is not exclusive to any race or gender.
Hair is both political and not political at the same time. It is not political when a woman prepares for her work and selects a style that she likes, is convenient to her or is culturally traditional. Hair becomes political when people become willing to overlook a person’s skill, talent and achievements because of the texture of their hair.
While some people focused on whether she needed to brush her hair, Gabrielle Douglas concentrated on one thing—winning and the 16 year-old did just that. Thankfully, the judges at the 2012 Olympic Games were not focusing on Douglas’ hair.