I'm Lena Chen, a writer, activist, and media producer who's been called a "skank" (by Bill O'Reilly) and "a small Asian woman" (by The New York Times). My favorite part of my workday is the hate mail.For the unlikely story that is my life, read on.
I apologize if the rant-y nature of my initial “diatribe” made it incomprehensible (though honestly I think the situation called for a rant given the obscene miscarriage of justice we’re dealing with here). I’m not trying to say that news outlets should cover Chavis Carter, and I’m definitely not trying to say that news outlets shouldn’t cover Gabby Douglas. What I am saying is that there’s a reason one gets attention and the other doesn’t. Chavis was a young adult black male with drug offenses. Gabby is an up-and-coming female athletic star with a “million-dollar smile” (as emphasized by every NBC news anchor ever) - and yes, they’re both black but there is absolutely privilege in Gabby’s position, because no cop is ever going to think that he’ll be able to get away with staging her handcuffed suicide in the back of a police car.
Gabby has the type of mass appeal that eludes most Black Americans, and the latter is what I’m trying to draw attention to - the fact that most people who look like her do not have the same advantages, that she is the exception not the norm, and that by glorifying exceptions, we forget in the process that we live in an incredibly messed up nation, a place where media commentators have the audacity to allege that sport is the “great equalizer”, even as fellow citizens are murdered each and every single day for having the wrong skin color or being born into the wrong circumstances. Even for other aspiring black gymnasts, Douglas’ experience is worlds away from their own. Black athletes are routinely commodified or exploited by historically white institutions, particularly at the college level, and sociologists have long acknowledged the false narrative of competitive sports as a vehicle for social mobility. I don’t think that pointing out these unpleasant facts about our society makes one “narcissistic” or “pseudo intellectual”, but I choose not to take either of those accusations personally, just as I would urge any Gabby Douglas or Olympics fan not take my words to be a personal attack against them or Douglas herself.
There is one additional thing I want to point out - and I want to preface this once again with the disclaimer that I realize Douglas accomplishment was clearly not a run-of-the-mill event. I may not have any experience with competitive athletics, but I can appreciate what it’s like to train to the point of mental and physical discomfort. (And hopefully, the 100-hour yoga training I’m signing up for this fall will not break my body!) But while the regimen necessary to produce your average Olympian comes at great financial, emotional, and bodily cost to athletes across the board, Douglas did arrive in London with one undeniable advantage: she’s American, and as a result, she’s had access to first-world privileges and amenities throughout the preparation process. Her competitors from less prosperous nations have dramatically different training experiences, some of which you might even categorize as child abuse. So although I think Douglas could be a very positive role model, it’s important to put her achievement into context.
Which brings me to this: The Olympics produces far more losers than it does winners, and I am talking as much about the social and environmental consequences of the industry as I am about the impact on athletes themselves. It really bothers me that people like me and my friends consider the Olympics a fun excuse to throw a party, while disenfranchised populations - the poor, the homeless, non-whites, indigenous people - are being displaced, ignored, or literally pushed out of their homes to make room for what is essentially a contemporary Gladiatorial Games. I won’t go into all the details of why I don’t like the Olympics here (as some of them are historical reasons that have little to do with the games today), but I would advise anyone interested in further reading to check out Inside the Olympic Industry: Power, Politics, and Activism by Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, as well as the follow-up Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda. Lenskyj offers “a critical analysis of the politics of Olympic bids and preparations from the perspective of all those adversely affected by the social, economic, political, and environmental impacts of hosting the Olympics”.
All of that said, when it comes to the competitors themselves, I fully believe that no amount of money, but only some kind of passion inexplicable to others, could be the motivation for what they put their bodies through. So, even though I have always considered myself unathletic, that passion is something that I can find myself relating to, and it’s probably why, despite my distaste for the Olympics, I still find Gabby Douglas inherently likable and admirable. I know what it’s like to put a passion before your own best interests, to charge pass the established limits, to learn how to work through pain. That the world we live in treats such dreams like products to be packaged up and sold speaks badly not of Gabby Douglas, but of the industry she’s entered and of the society she lives in. It’s possible that when she won gold, there were millions of would-be black gymnasts in America who had been holding their breath and waiting for someone to represent them, to show them that they could do it too. To me, Douglas’ story does serve a purpose, not necessarily one of racial progress but one of hope, by demonstrating that there are some passions so beyond containment that they find expression even in the least accommodating of worlds.
More burning questions? Ask Lena.
I think we’re basically in agreement here. It bears repeating that I have nothing against Gabby Douglas, since she clearly holds no personal responsibility for how the Olympics are broadcast or how media organizations make their content decisions. But ultimately, this is no more about Douglas than it is about Chavis Carter. She is merely an example of the type of story that most news organizations love to run when they feel like talking about race, and he is an example of the routine racial injustices that get ignored because stories like his probably make most people flip the channel. Yes, she won a gold medal, and yes, that is cool, but I think we can all agree that this accomplishment - while it’s great for her and great for aspiring gymnasts and maybe great for the Olympics too, it will nonetheless change very little about the lived experiences of the majority of black people in this country. And that’s because there’s exactly one Gabby Douglas in the world and as inspiring as she is, her story will never be the story of most Americans. But Chavis Carter? There are countless numbers of people with experiences like his. And if they each got even a fraction of the airtime that Gabby did, well, that wouldn’t be inspiring, no, it’d just be depressing, but it would undoubtedly outrage people and maybe even change the way Americans think about privilege and law enforcement and race.
From the ch!cktionary — The Patriarchy Wants A Lesson On Privilege 101, written a little over a year ago :)
Jesus, over 4,000 notes on Tumblr now … AMAZING, people.
I haven’t commented on it because:
Just because I’m not blogging about it, however, doesn’t mean that I haven’t thought about the topic. I don’t think structural change will come out of this. Sure, there might be a couple occupiers who are actually advocating an end to capitalism, but I see far more who are preaching reform, who believe that there’s a way to essentially make capitalism nicer and less unpleasant. That’s a cop-out because in the end, you can’t reform a system that is defined by exploitation. How do you reform that away? Some people will always be owners, while others are workers. Some people will have more private property, which in turn, makes their neighbors worse off. Social inequality is built into capitalism. All you can do with a system like that is to get rid of it and start over it. You can’t make it “better”. Anyway, I can’t possibly offer this topic the nuance it deserves via a blog post, but if you want to know how I feel about Occupy Wall Street, read this article. It’s a perfect summation of my feelings on the topic.
More burning questions? Ask Lena.