I won’t lie. After watching folks rake Gabby Douglas over the coals for everything from her hair and her posture during the gold medal ceremony to her alleged “shady” behavior toward her teammates, I wanted to defend her. And I didn’t just want to talk up her numerous accolades, either. Instead, I wanted to take my earrings off, Vaseline up my face, and snatch some wigs—metaphorically speaking, of course—for the champ, and the ancestors. But truth be told, Gabrielle—as she told Mama Oprah she prefers to be called—doesn’t need our defense. She needs our love.
Sunday, after closing out her second Olympic games with a disappointing finish, landing in seventh place on the uneven bars, Douglas addressed reporters, answering questions on a wide range of topics including the negative comments levied against her on social media. The moment was painful, real, and rare.
“I tried to stay off the Internet because there’s just so much negativity,” an emotional Douglas said. “Either it was about my hair or my hand not over my heart [during the gold medal ceremony] or I look depressed…It was hurtful. It was hurtful. It was. It’s been kind of a lot to deal with.”
After she left the press conference, Douglas walked down the hallway, stood in the corner, and cried.
Douglas’ mother, Natalie Hawkins, correctly described her daughter’s treatment as “bullying,” telling Reuters, “She’s had to deal with people criticizing her hair, or people accusing her of bleaching her skin. They said she had breast enhancements, they said she wasn’t smiling enough, she’s unpatriotic. Then it went to not supporting your teammates. Now you’re ‘Crabby Gabby.’”
Hawkins added: “You name it and she got trampled. What did she ever do to anyone?”
This isn’t a defense of Gabrielle Douglas, because let’s be clear, her record speaks for itself. She not only helped Team USA win its second all-around gold medal in a row this year at the Rio Games, but she made history four years ago in London when she became the first African American (and woman of color period) to win the prestigious all-around title at the Olympic Games. On top of that she wrote a best selling memoir, a children’s book, had a Lifetime movie made about her life, and literally became a Barbie doll. To say she was America’s sweetheart would be an understatement, but oh how things change. And unfortunately for Douglas, it has little to do with her, and everything to do with us.
For all of its good–spreading social movements, inspiring meaningful conversations, letting us collectively tweet about our favorite TV shows–social media also has a serious darkside, and far too often its aimed at women, particularly Black women, who do not behave, look, or perform how folks think they should. First Lady Michelle Obama has felt the wrath time and time again for her muscular arms, her reminder that the White House was built by slaves, and wanting to help America get in shape. Not too long ago, Saturday Night Live’s Leslie Jones was briefly driven off Twitter after receiving an onslaught of racist attacks. And this time around Douglas is once again facing the hyper-critical firing squad. But tomorrow it could be current darlings Simone Biles or Simone Manuel who rile up the critics, or some other trailblazing sister who doesn’t know her so-called place.
Before Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad could even enjoy her moment in the spotlight as a bronze medalist, Right Wing news outlets tried to turn her history-making appearance as the first American woman to compete at the Olympics in a hijab into yet another moment to warn America about scary, radical Muslims. Headlines–which I refuse to link to—calling her “Anti-Israel” and “Anti-American” began springing up, and the comments sections quickly overflowed with folks demanding she go “home”—as if competing for the United States of America meant nothing at all.
We are living in interesting times. Borders are erased every time we log onto the web and chat with strangers in every country imaginable, and while many have used technology to connect and build bridges and relationships, others use it to ruthlessly criticize everything and everyone they don’t quite understand—or to raise their own social media profile by firing off something “witty.”
The attacks aimed at Douglas are just another reminder that people can be mean A.F. —and super careless. Increasingly, it seems much easier to deride strangers for the smallest things—and of course, tweeting about it—than even having an ounce of consideration for the actual and factual feelings of someone else.
Call-out culture, as I like to call it, certainly has its place. As a writer, it’s my place to speak truth to power and demand accountability from those tasked with protecting, serving, and legislating on our behalf. But there’s no honor in attacking an athlete (or anyone, for that matter) who has done nothing wrong.
Douglas will hopefully be just fine. By all accounts she’s an awesome young woman, who has served as nothing but a big sister and mentor to her Olympic teammates. But what will happen to the rest of us if we continue to verbally blast first, and think later—or not at all?