Identity politics are always a tricky beast to navigate. With the uber nationalism of the Olympics, it gets even trickier.
Byron Thomas, a CNN iReporter from South Carolina, waded into the waters earlier this week with a viral video that rails against American Olympic commentators’ use of the word “African American.” (Watch the video below.)
Referring to Gabby Douglas’s historic win, Thomas insists, “She did not win that gold medal for Africa nor was she born in Africa. Africa has their athletes and none of our Team USA athletes are representing Africa or making history for Africa. Let African Athletes represent Africa.” He also mentions the fact that Michael Phelps was not “German-American” or “Irish-American” when he became the most decorated Olympian in history. He was simply American.
Goodness. Where to start?
Well, aside from the fact that Africa is not a country, as Thomas seems to think judging from this gem, “…when I hear the word African American, all I can think of is two countries Africa and America,” his comments undoubtedly strike a chord with the millions of black people, American or not, who navigate these lines of identity on a daily basis.
I, for example, am a literal African American. My parents are from Nigeria. I was born in England and lived in the Gambia. We moved to America for good when I was 11 years old, and when my twin sister and I arrived in predominantly white North Kingstown, R.I., we were tall black girls with English accents. How’s that for confusion. Teachers would refer to us as African American and I didn’t know what to say. I mean, we weren’t American. Our passports was green.
It’s become de rigeur to drop Obama into every conversation about race and identity in America, so I’ll follow suit. If we’ve learned anything from the half-Kenyan, half-Kansan Horatio Alger story that is Obama’s biography, it’s that, at the end of the day, these impersonal, hyphenated, binary mumbo jumbo words don’t actually mean anything.
One of the most beautiful things to watch at the Olympics is the blurring of these labels. Oscar Pistorius made headlines for reaching the 400-meter semifinals, the first double amputee to do so. He’s white. He’s South African.
The face of the British Olympic team is Jessica Ennis, a gold medal winning heptathlon runner. Her father is Jamaican. Her mom is from Derbyshire, Britain.
Mo Farah, who capped off the greatest day in the history of the London Olympics — to give Britain three gold medals within six hours — was born in Somalia.
Sanya Richards-Ross, the 400-meter gold medalist, has parents from Jamaica. She ran under the American flag.
My point? A label is just a label. At the end of the day, it’s a preference. To wholesale insist on one term over the other is futile. If Thomas doesn’t like the word ‘African American’ (and I’m not crazy about it), he doesn’t have to use it. But to base its banning on the shaky premise that Africans only represent Africa and Americans represent America, is to miss the beautiful, complex, fluidity of our identities. And that would be a loss.
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