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Nadra Kareem Nittle

Racism, Colorism and Anti-Semitism at the Olympic Games

By August 12, 2012

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Today, the 2012 London Olympics come to a close. As always, the competition saw the world's greatest athletes experience jaw-dropping victories in some instances and bitter defeats in others. As always, the Games didn't unfold without controversy. This time around, many of the incidents that set tongues wagging involved race--whether it was Olympic athletes making racial jabs about people of color, African Americans' concerns over gymnast Gabby Douglas' hair or the International Olympic Committee's refusal to hold a moment of silence at the opening ceremonies for the Israeli athletes terrorists killed at the 1972 Olympics, which has led to claims that the IOC is anti-Semitic.

I round up the major racial controversies of the 2012 Games here, but this particular blog post is devoted to two racial controversies that emerged just this past week--xenophobic tweets about the U.S. women's soccer team's triumph over Japan and the backlash against mixed-race track star Lolo Jones.

On Thursday, the U.S. women's soccer team won its fourth Olympic gold medal after defeating Japan 2-1. That's an achievement American soccer fans have every right to be proud of, but some fans didn't just celebrate the landmark victory, they took to Twitter to send out xenophobic messages about Japan, most of which referenced the country's attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II.

"About time we got some revenge on the japs for pearl harbor," wrote a Tweeter named Rollo after the victory. The website SB Nation has compiled a series of tweets with similar sentiments. All cite the soccer victory as some sort of payback for Pearl Harbor and many include the slur "Jap." It's not only surprising how freely people use slurs on a public forum such as Twitter but also that this isn't the first time U.S. soccer fans have reacted this way to Japanese competitors. Last year, the same thing happened during the FIFA Women's World Cup final in which Japan defeated the U.S. Both the slur "Japs" and the term "Pearl Harbor" began to trend on Twitter.

If most Twitter users were elderly veterans I wouldn't be as surprised by this phenomenon, but the fact is, most Twitter users weren't even alive when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred and probably learned more about this turning point in history from watching Hollywood films about World War II than they did from their parents or grandparents or even in school. So, why the resentment? The insensitive tweets aren't so much about redeeming the U.S. after Pearl Harbor as they are about viewing Asians (and by extension Asian Americans) as the enemy. Even before Pearl Harbor, Americans attached dehumanizing stereotypes to Asians and feared the so-called "yellow peril." Sadly in the 21st century, anti-Asian xenophobia continues to thrive.

During the same week that American soccer fans were taking to Twitter to put down the Japanese, track star Lolo Jones was dealing with a controversy of her own. New York Times writer Jere Longman criticized the sprinter for garnering more media attention than faster American runners due to "her exotic beauty and...a sad and cynical marketing campaign." The article resulted in a number of other writers weighing in on Jones' popularity, including Danielle Belton of Clutch magazine. Why has Jones landed more publicity than Kellie Wells and Dawn Harper, both runners who bested Jones in the women's 100 meter hurdle finals last week? According to Belton, colorism is the culprit.

"You can't ignore the fact that so much of why the media made Lolo Jones its darling comes from its own tortured logic about women, sports, and race," Belton asserts in Clutch. "Jones is conventionally pretty, biracial, and very light complexioned in a sport that - in the U.S. at least - is dominated by African-American women. And because, long ago, Madison Avenue decided black women of a brown-skinned or darker hue have a face only a bottle of syrup could love, they aren't considered 'marketable.'"

Do I think Lolo Jones' ethnically ambiguous look factors into the media coverage she's received? Sure. Marketing executives probably think it gives her crossover appeal, but I don't think colorism is the only factor at play here. After all, the dark-skinned Gabby Douglas is one of the athletes who've drawn the most attention at the Olympics. And it's not just because she won gold in all-around gymnastics. There was tremendous buzz about Douglas before the Olympics even began. Her bubbly personality and journey to the Olympics endeared her to the media and the public alike. And like Jones, Douglas likely has a hell of a PR team.


August 13, 2012 at 10:52 am
(1) Coquinegra says:

Did you write this before all the comments about Gabby Douglas’ hair began to trend?

August 13, 2012 at 12:57 pm
(2) Nadra says:

I really didn’t spend anytime writing about Douglas’ hair in this piece. Someone did ask me to write about it though. Instead, I included a link in this post to a WaPo article that breaks the subject down. I don’t think her hair should have been an issue and am pretty turned off by the people who felt the need to criticize her over it.

August 14, 2012 at 12:05 am
(3) lisa bates-akinfolarin says:

I’m happy you thought better of it then to write about Gabby’s hair. She is a beautiful child who God has tremendously blessed. Lolo didn’t ask for her parents. My son is a beautiful young man with long dread locks (we refer to them as locks). He has a bi-racial girlfriend who loves him for the things that most people won’t know simply by looking at him. He is compassionate, loyal, sharing and kind. He is also a graduate of UCLA with a degree in Poli Sci/Anthropology on his way to law school. I pray that this world will give them and those who look like them the respect they have earned by the work they have done.

August 14, 2012 at 2:47 pm
(4) Charlie says:

Our borders need to defended as harshly as area 51. No exceptions. Its what is best for our Nation. help them strengthen the nations they are from with support . Do not weeken our system by letting it get over burdened

August 15, 2012 at 9:32 am
(5) Coquinegra says:

My opinion is that LoLo got more hype than she deserved because she was very active on social media and able to make endorsement deals because she was a “face” advertisers wanted…but it’s been known for at least a year that her teammates were consistently beating her. What everyone decries as “controversy” is just LoLo being treated as any other athlete who didn’t win the medal would be. And as for the statement about Gabby…she was certainly *not* the media darling…that would be Jordym Weiber. Only after Gabby starting nailing routines and winning golds did anyone discuss her…and half of that was to laugh at her hair!

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