“At this point, y’all are obsessed with me,” tweeted U.S. Olympic hammer thrower Gwen Berry on Monday. She was responding to a Fox News segment featuring right-wing Congressman Dan Crenshaw, who was deriding Berry’s decision to turn her back when the national anthem played as she stepped onto the podium to receive a bronze medal in the U.S. track and field trials over the weekend. Berry took that opportunity to don a black t-shirt that read “Activist Athlete.”
(She believed the timing was suspicious, but a USA Track and Field spokeswoman said the playing of the national anthem was preplanned for a set time).
“We don’t need any more activist athletes,” Crenshaw told the gang at Fox and Friends. “She should be removed from the team.”
He continued: “The entire point of the Olympic team is to represent the United States of America. That’s the entire point. OK so, you know, it’s one thing when these NBA players do it, OK fine, we’ll just stop watching. But now the Olympic team?”
ABC News reports that Berry intended to represent the United States in the Tokyo Olympics to raise awareness of racial injustice, saying, “My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports...I’m here to represent those... who died due to systemic racism.” There’s nothing novel about athletes—Olympian or otherwise—using their platform to spread a message, especially a message about institutional racism in the United States. Tommie Smith and John Carlos—Black Americans who won bronze and gold medals for the 200-meter dash—raised their fists as the U.S. National Anthem played at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, a symbol of Black pride in the face of systemic adversity. Colin Kaepernick derailed his NFL career by simply kneeling during the national anthem. But Crenshaw’s attack on Berry seems like a piece of a larger scheme by conservative chauvinists, one that positions Black women as villains in their insipid culture wars, bleating their anxieties to like-minded news outlets and its consumers. This isn’t new by any means—the Welfare Queen is a lasting example of the misogynoir wielded by the right—and it’s a tried and true way to reassert the potent political influence of white masculinity.
We saw this recently in the brouhaha over Nikole Hannah-Jones, journalist and Pulitzer winner behind the 1619 Project, which has become the source of conservative ire since its publication. In April, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced that Hannah-Jones was hired as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. But in May, news broke that the prestigious title came with a caveat: No tenure. It was bad enough that major school donor, Walter Hussman Jr, who the school is literally named after, allegedly voiced concerns over Hannah-Jones’s employment, claiming she lacks objectivity; bold, given the fact that the newspapers Hussman owns reportedly have a clear conservative slant. Worse, though, was the clown car of usual suspects who have made their disgust toward Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project a personality trait: Tucker Carlson, Lou Dobbs, Mike Cernovich, Laura Ingraham, the entire Trump administration.
There are legitimate critiques and quibbles to be made of the sprawling 1619 Project, but they’re DOA coming from Republicans who believe that frank acknowledgement of America’s ugly past and present is “cultural Marxism.” It’s the same energy that has prompted the frenzy over critical race theory (CRT). CRT simply examines the ways in which U.S. law and race interact, historically and through a contemporary lens. For the right, however, this translates to teaching-kids-that-white-people-are-bad, and has led lawmakers across the nation to propose and pass legislation banning CRT from classrooms, even though they themselves cannot actually define the very thing they want to ban.
All this, because a Black woman spearheaded a project about slavery and got some white conservatives riled up.
Though Black men tend to be the preferred boogeyman of the white right, the last few months have emphasized the way in which Black women can and often do occupy a leading role in the mind of the modern American bigot. Black women have a larger platform than ever to express their grievances, to be a persistent thorn in the side of those who want them to sit down, shut up, and be thankful for their Americanness, as if it protects us the way it does our white counterparts.
The Dan Crenshaws of the world best get used to this: Black women aren’t going to be quiet to absolve the white right or their allies of discomfort. Gwen Berry’s act of silent protest was a reminder of that just as Nikole Hannah-Jones’s success has been. It’s why conservatives condemn them with such unveiled contempt.