The dy­namic’

Mus­lim U.S. Olympian, oth­ers dis­cuss cul­tural ob­sta­cles for African-Amer­i­can fe­male ath­letes

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - Peter Sch­muck

Olympic fenc­ing medal­ist Ibti­haj Muham­mad came to Mor­gan State on Tues­day car­ry­ing the same mes­sage she de­liv­ered in Rio de Janeiro af­ter be­com­ing the first Mus­lim-Amer­i­can woman to com­pete at the Olympic Games wear­ing a hi­jab — the tra­di­tional Mus­lim head scarf.

“I re­mem­ber be­ing a kid and be­ing told that I didn’t be­long in my sport,” she said, “and for me it has al­ways been re­ally im­por­tant to try to reach our youth, specif­i­cally to let them know there is no limit to what you can do as long as you’re will­ing to work hard for it … even if you are in a sport like fenc­ing like I was as a kid where there weren’t very many peo­ple do­ing it who looked like me.”

Muham­mad, who grew up in New Jer­sey and won a bronze medal in Rio as a mem­ber of the U.S. saber fenc­ing team, trav­eled to Mor­gan State to take part in a sym­po­sium ti­tled “The Im­pact of Nega­tive Im­ages on Black Women Ath­letes.” The event in­tro­duced the School of Global Jour­nal­ism and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions’ new Cen­ter For Study of Race in Sports and Muham­mad speaks Tues­day at a Mor­gan State panel on “The Im­pact of Nega­tive Im­ages on Black Women Ath­letes.”

Cul­ture, which has been par­tially funded by a grant from The Un­de­feated, ESPN’s mul­ti­plat­form con­tent ini­tia­tive that ex­plores sports, race and cul­ture.

The panel dis­cus­sion also fea­tured ESPN’s Jemele Hill, for­mer WNBA All-Star and ESPN bas­ket­ball an­a­lyst Kara Law­son, and for­mer Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Lon­nae O’Neal, who is a se­nior writer with The Un­de­feated.

The dis­cus­sion cen­tered largely on the cul­tural ob­sta­cles fac­ing AfricanAmer­i­can fe­male ath­letes, a sub­ject that seemed to be tai­lor-made for Muham­mad, whose re­li­gion added an ex­tra di­men­sion to her emer­gence as a world-class ath­lete and, with it, greater re­spon­si­bil­ity to be a role model for African-Amer­i­can and Mus­lim-Amer­i­can youth.

“When I qual­i­fied [for the Olympics], my life kind of changed be­cause all of the sud­den I be­came the first per­son in hi­jab to qual­ify for the United States Olympic Team,” Muham­mad said. “And, im­me­di­ately, my life and my ex­pe­ri­ences in sport just kind of felt big­ger than me. I feel the same way when we think of firsts in swim­ming, for ex­am­ple, with Si­mone Manuel be­ing the first AfricanAmer­i­can woman to medal in an Olympic swim­ming event. I feel like those mo­ments in our his­tory are so much big­ger than we are, be­cause we’ve changed the dy­namic in our com­mu­ni­ties.”

Though each of the pan­elists de­liv­ered a pos­i­tive mes­sage about the im­por­tance of striv­ing to over­come any so­ci­etal im­ped­i­ments to their dreams, the con­ver­sa­tion also fo­cused on the dif­fer­ent stan­dards that African-Amer­i­can women feel they are judged by both in sports and other pro­fes­sions.

One of the first ex­am­ples was the re­ac­tion dur­ing the Olympics when gym­nast Gabby Dou­glas failed — or more likely for­got — to place her hand over her heart while “The StarS­pan­gled Ban­ner” was played dur­ing the gold-medal cer­e­mony for the win­ning U.S. team. Dou­glas was taken to task on so­cial me­dia for be­ing “dis­re­spect­ful” while a sim­i­lar over­sight by two Amer­i­can shot put medal­ists went all but un­no­ticed. She also was sub­jected to petty crit­i­cism for ev­ery­thing from her ap­pear­ance to her at­ti­tude.

“In my ex­pe­ri­ence as an ath­lete, es­pe­cially one that has come into the pub­lic eye fairly re­cently, I feel there are trolls out there; they’re go­ing to find a rea­son not to like you,” Muham­mad said. “Es­pe­cially as a black woman and as an AfricanAmer­i­can Mus­lim woman, they were just look­ing for some­thing.

“I feel like ev­ery­thing we do is un­der a mi­cro­scope. I feel like we have to watch what we say. We have to watch how we act. We have to watch what we tweet. We’re be­ing po­liced more than oth­ers. Michael Phelps can laugh dur­ing the medal cer­e­mony. … Even with Ryan Lochte, it was, ‘Well, boys will be boys.’ ”

The pan­elists went on to dis­cuss the dif­fer­ing per­cep­tions of black fe­male ath­letes and their white coun­ter­parts, at one point dur­ing the ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion try­ing to make sense of the fact that African-Amer­i­can ten­nis su­per­star Ser­ena Wil­liams has been crit­i­cized for be­ing both too masculine and too sexy.

The prob­lem is easy enough to iden­tify, but fix­ing it is another story. O’Neal says that the an­swer might be to take con­trol of the nar­ra­tive in­stead of al­low­ing the nar­ra­tive to con­tin­u­ally repli­cate it­self.

“I’m a big be­liever in force mul­ti­pli­ers … in us hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions with us about us and bor­row­ing some of that white male en­ti­tle­ment,’’ she said. “How about, I’m go­ing to put my story forth and my nar­ra­tive and my sen­si­bil­i­ties and I’m go­ing to do it with the same kind of ex­pec­ta­tion that this is valid, and if you don’t know, you bet­ter ask some­body. You can look it up in the ur­ban dic­tionary. I’m go­ing to do it in my lan­guage. I’m go­ing to frame it the way I want to, and I’m go­ing to ask you to stretch.”

ALGERINA PERNA/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

ALGERINA PERNA/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Ibti­haj Muham­mad, left; Lon­nae O’Neal, se­nior writer with The Un­de­feated; Kara Law­son, bas­ket­ball an­a­lyst for ESPN; and Jemele Hill, back to cam­era, co-host for ESPN2’s sports dis­cus­sion pro­gram “His & Hers,” ap­pear on the panel at Mor­gan State.

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