What’s up, everybody?
This is the penultimate post of the Communication and Caribbean Society blog series, and we’re going to be talking a little about the issue of representation as it relates to sport.
Personally, I’m a very picky sports fan, but I love the spirit and camaraderie of the Olympics. I mean, come on, who doesn’t? It’s one of the few instances we get to see athletes from all walks of life come from all over the world to participate and represent their countries.
We’ve been hearing of the gymnastics floor routine prodigy that is Simone Biles and lauded her for her unbeatable performance on the floor and stellar performances elsewhere. Between her and Gabby Douglas, the world has praised them for ushering in the era of the black gymnast.
Still, it got me thinking about a prevalent mindset…
Representation in Context
You ever encountered someone who said something like “oh you’re very *insert adjective here*” for a specific kind of person?
That’s the kind of mindset I’m talking about. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “for someone from the Caribbean, you’re very aware of the world” or “you’re very well-spoken/smart for…” You get the idea. And I’m sure we’ve all seen or heard the “you’re very pretty/handsome for a black person” spiel too.
It imposes a kind of inferiority on people. It’s as if it’s saying that they’re too much of themselves to be able to do something a certain way – especially something that another ‘superior’ group of people can do. That’s the representation – one is inferior and as such one shouldn’t be capable of superior or outstanding abilities.
The whole world freaked out because Simone Biles is a phenomenal gymnast, but I can bet you there were some people who thought “wow, she’s very good at gymnastics, especially for a black girl”.
But that’s America. In terms of the Caribbean, everyone knows Usain Bolt – the world’s fastest man – who’s from right here in the Caribbean region. Jamaica to be exact. It’s likely that he doesn’t only have to deal with the same racist stigma that Simone Biles does, but also the stigma of being surprisingly fast for someone from as underdeveloped and unaccommodating to athletics as the world perceives the Caribbean to be.
Already, by calling Bolt’s ‘superhuman’ abilities into question, the sports world has derived a representation of the Caribbean as being this place that couldn’t possibly be developed enough to produce athletes of his calibre.
Even more than that, the sports world is always abuzz about Bolt. Sometimes good things, sometimes not so good. There was the whole debacle with Nesta Carter taking steroids and jeopardising Team Jamaica’s relay medal, and eventually, Bolt came under scrutiny too. Maybe the mindset was that if Carter was so fast and using steroids, there was no way Bolt wasn’t using them too.
Either way, they started watching him very very closely. The representation that we draw is that if people from other, more developed countries cannot, with or without performance-enhancing drugs, meet the standards that Bolt does so effortlessly, then he has to be using some kind of drug, or he is a ‘beast’.
He’s been reduced to being either a cheater or some sort of animal.
I recognised that this is a representation that comes up a lot – the Caribbean doesn’t have the infrastructure to facilitate the level of athletic excellence we produce. Obviously, Bolt is an anomaly. This representation isn’t a new one though.
It goes back as far as the West Indies cricket prowess of yesteryear – with Viv Richards and Garfield Sobers and their team members outsmarting the colonisers’ teams on the field. Back then, no one thought that a bunch of black boys/men could understand the complexities of the sport, far less beat their superiors at their own game.
All of this just goes back to how representations are formed and disputed, and how there is no one fixed truth that acts as a starting point. Extra-regional perspectives of the region represent the Caribbean as this place that is still trying to catch up with the modern world, and therefore can’t produce the best of the best.
Within the region, we have Bolt and a whole litany of other athletes disputing that view by representing the Caribbean as a triumphant place that can produce excellence just like any developed country (if not better).
Hope that puts representation into a comprehensive perspective for ya!
Cyndi, the Sports Enthusiast
- Black Athlete
- Daily Express