The Olympics, Gabby Douglas, Ryan Lochte, and White Male Privilege

We’re two weeks into the Olympics, which, for the most part, I love.  I love the competition, the pageantry, the hard work, the athleticism, the excitement, and the photo finishes.  I don’t love the large amounts of money that go to corrupt politicians and the lack of money that goes to athletes.  Nonetheless, it’s fun to watch.

Because it’s 2016, we don’t only watch the Olympics but we Tweet, Insta, Snapchat, and Facebook post about them.  And because it’s 2016, there are controversies on controversies on controversies, some of which are legitimate and some of which are not.   The most recent is #LochteGate.  There are layers on layers on layers to this story.  It’s not entirely clear what happened but due to the intersection of race, class, and nationality, it has become a legitimate international incident.  The reaction has, unpredictably, been one of outrage.  Depending on where you’re from and what you look like you’re outrage may be how well/badly/strictly/loosely that Lochte/his teammates/Brazil officials were treated by each other and/or the press.

This may be a #HotTake, but some (not all) reactions to the #LochMess show a real deficiency in critical analysis and coalition building by the American left (and I say that as a Democrat who voted blue up and down the ticket in June and likely will do so  in November).  What reactions am I taking about?  The Huffington Post’s “White Male Privilege Is Why We Laugh At Lochte And Vilify Douglas,” Nylon’s “Ryan Lochte Shows The World What White Male Privilege Looks Like,” and many, many blog and Twitter posts (see, e.g., this).  Now, this isn’t to say, that white male privilege doesn’t exist.  And it’s not to say what Lochte did was acceptable at all.  But maybe we should look beyond race and gender/sex when analyzing this incident.  Just as we shouldn’t look first to race or gender/sex when a person of color or woman (or, especially, a female person of color) does something stupid or shitty, maybe we shouldn’t do it for white guys.

Why do I think that maybe there’s a better explanation for Ryan Lochte’s behavior than the fact that he’s a white man?  Well, because he’s a celebrity athlete who is well-known for not being bright.  Maybe his privilege has to do with the fact that he’s a rich, famous athlete, a group that is known for being coddled and protected, and less due to the fact that he’s a white dude.  When Rey Maualuga was arrested for battery, he exclaimed, “I own the police.”  If Ryan Lochte did that many would undoubtedly attribute it to white male privilege.  Maualuga, however, is of Samoan descent.  But he was an athlete at a school (like most successful football schools), USC, known for coddling and protecting its athletes (the charges were later dismissed, as were later assault charges; a few years after charges for the second incident were dropped, Maualuga was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence).  Similarly, earlier this year, two African American University of Alabama football players had charges of possession of marijuana and possession of a stolen gun against them dropped; the district attorney explained that his main reason he didn’t want to prosecute them is because they’re football players who have “spent their adolescence and teenage years, working and sweating, while we were all in the air conditioning.”

It’s not only men who think celebrity status might allow them to be above the law where others aren’t: Reese Witherspoon famously berated Georgia state troopers arresting her husband with lines such as:”You are going to be on national news” and “Do you know my name?  You’re about to find out who I am.”

At this year’s Olympics, two men have been arrested on suspicion of rape.  One was Nimibian and one was Moroccan.  I don’t think their race or nationality had much to do with it (maybe, but you’d have to provide a very compelling argument to convince me).  Sadly, they join a long line of celebrities and athletes accused of rape or sexual assault.  The adoration, deification, and protection of celebrities and athletes (especially those who attain fame at a young age) might be a better explanation than race (e.g., Bill Cosby, Kobe Bryant, Darren Sharper, Brock Turner, Ben Roethlisberger).

One thing many of the articles about white male privilege and Lochte discuss is the treatment of Gabby Douglas at this year’s Olympics.  Douglas was treated poorly by some people online because she allegedly was unpatriotic by not having her hand over heart when the national anthem played after the U.S. women’s gymnastics team won gold and didn’t support her teammates enough during the individual all-around competition (despite the fact that her teammates won gold and silver and Jordyn Wieber was not criticized for her tearful reaction to a similar situation in 2012).  The poor treatment was stupid and shitty.  Douglas is an American sports hero and should be treated as such.  I do think that racism (overt or not) has a lot to do with the online hate (much like the hatred towards Cam Newton after his abbreviated press conference after this year’s Super Bowl).  As many have noted, Michael Phelps didn’t catch flack for laughing during a part of the national anthem nor did Peyton Manning after he left a Super Bowl loss without shaking hands.  It’s a sad fact that racism and sexism are rampant in society, but especially online.  But we shouldn’t engage in false equivalence by acting like Lochte is getting a free ride by the media while Douglas was being vilified.  I couldn’t find any actual news articles condemning Gabby’s actions, which were reasonable and for which she should not have felt compelled to apologize.  Many, in fact, defend her, such as a Washington Post article helpfully titled “Gabby Douglas shouldn’t have had to account for judgments outside the arena.”  And after the hate that was lobbed at Douglas, many came to her aid online; #LOVE4GABBYUSA began trending, in large part due to Leslie Jones, who herself was subjected to hateful racist, sexist attacks due to her role in the recent Ghostbusters film.

The headline writer of the aforementioned Huffington Post article is particularly irksome.  Who is “we”?  I certainly didn’t vilify Douglas nor did anyone I know (or even see on any of my social media feeds).  If the writer vilified Douglas or their friends did, perhaps they should examine themselves of their friends.  Or note that there’s a shitty segment of society that is racist and sexist, particularly online, but not use universal language for non-universal behavior.

While most of Douglas’s criticism was by social media haters, Lochte has not been spared by the actual media.  The NY Post has had covers of Lochte with “THE UGLY AMERICAN” in bold with smaller text of “Liar, liar, Speedo on fire” and “WATERGATE: Something’s fishy with Lochte’s Rio ‘mug’ tale.”  The NY Daily News used, “The Lochte Mess Monster.”  Here’s a New Republic blog post that starts simply: “Ryan Lochte is a very dumb man.”  Sadly, this is in line with what Americans already thought of Lochte.  Here’s a 2012 Jezebel article that has a list of reasons why Lochte is a douchebag.  And it’s not like social media was easy on him either.

Why do I care?  Why minimize white male privilege’s role?

First, I think we’re missing the point of the Olympics if we’re blaming race and sex/gender for behavior that very well might not have been caused by race and sex/gender.  The Olympics show the great diversity in the world and what can be accomplished with hard work, regardless of things such as race, sex/gender, religion, nationality.  This year, Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first Muslim woman to represent the US while wearing a hijab.  Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky continued their dominance in the pool while Simone Manuel became the first African American woman to win a medal in an individual event in swimming.  The only gold medal Phelps didn’t earn was a silver, a race in which he came in second to Joseph Schooling, who earned Singapore’s first Olympic swimming medal.  The Final Five, the most successful US women’s gymnastics team in Olympics history, consisted of two African Americans, a Latina American, and two white Americans, one of whom is Jewish.  Jamaica has had a historical performance in men’s and women’s sprints on the track.  Ashton Easton tied the Olympic Record while securing his second consecutive gold medal in the decathlon; he’s biracial and his wife is Canadian Brianne Theison-Eaton, who won Bronze in the heptathlon.  Michelle Carter, who is African American, won the shot put during a year in which she’s been outspoken about positive body image for women of all shapes and sizes; silver went to a woman from New Zealand; third went to a woman from Hungary; a woman from China just missed getting a medal.  Great Britain has had a strong year and is currently second in gold and silver medals; perhaps its best athlete is Mo Farah, who was born in Somalia.  Fiji won its first Olympic medal, a gold in rugby.  In true Olympic spirit, Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand and Abbey D’Agostino helped each other up after a mid-race collision, warming hearts worldwide.  These things are great.  These things are amazing.

Second, I think the left has over-corrected with respect to white male privilege.  Yes, it exists.  Yes, white men don’t have to deal with racism and sexism like many other people do.  And if they’re straight, as Lochte apparently is, they don’t have to deal with homophobia.  And if they’re cisgender, they don’t have to deal with transphobia.  And if they’re not Jewish they don’t have to deal with anti-Semitism.  And if they’re not Muslim they don’t have to deal with Islamophobia.  And so on.  But if we overplay white male privilege and use it to explain situations that may not call for it, we run the very serious risk of being the proverbial boy who cried wolf.  Shitty stuff happens all of the time.  Sometimes it’s because of some (for lack of a better term) demographic factor.  Other times it is not.  If every controversy is made to be about demographics (even when it’s not truly the case), people will become dulled and fail to act when things actually are racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.

For example, this is from a Huffington Post article on the Green Party’s recent convention: “There was the roll call vote, a disorderly and poorly managed process that, even by the standards of this year’s sometimes raucous and discordant conventions, was an utter shit-show. When the very first delegate, a white gentleman from Alabama, stood up to deliver his state’s votes, many in the crowd booed him. “THE GREAT WHITE HOPE, HUH?” one delegate yelled.”  Yes, the US has issues with race and power, but booing and heckling a delegate just because he’s a white guy seems pretty shitty to me.

Let’s use the Olympics to broaden our understanding of the world, not analyze it through a lens that is, frankly, perhaps overused by some in the US.  If Lochte’s celebrity and lack of cognitive abilities explain his shitty behavior better than his race and sex, then let’s use that.

Most of us agree that racism is bad.  Sexism is bad.  Etc.  If we make everything about race, sex/gender, sexual orientation, religion, or some combination thereof and if we make mountains out of molehills we lose all nuance and ability to focus on the real issues.  There is enough sexism and racism in the world that being distracted by sideshows isn’t helpful.  And overuse of “white male privilege” is a sideshow.

It’s important that we can distinguish between a Green Party delegate who happens to be a white man (don’t boo or heckle him) and white men who foment anger and hate, like, say, David Duke, who, by the way, is running currently running for Senate (boo and heckle him people like him).  If we treat all white men as white supremacists, we’re getting further away from MLK’s dream, not closer.

It’s important that we can distinguish between Hillary’s single use of the term “super predator” and subsequent apology versus the litany of racist statements Donald Trump has made.  If we just yell, “racist!” and fail to look more deeply at the candidates and their histories, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.

It’s important that we can distinguish between Cam Newton recently saying, “I don’t want this to be about race, because it’s not.  It’s not.  Like were, we’re beyond that.  As a nation.” and Erik Bolling, a white Fox News correspondent, saying, “I don’t think there’s racism [in the United States].”

Making mountains out of molehills also leads to a backlash, such as a majority of white people who think that anti-white racism is a bigger problem than anti-black racism, according to a 2011 study.  This is, frankly, ridiculous.  Looking at just about any measure (as well as most government buildings, corporate boardrooms, law firm partnerships), you’ll still find whites on top in the United States, especially compared to African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.

So, moving forward, let’s try not to overreact.  When we see racism, let’s call it out.  When we see sexism, let’s call it out.  But when a white man does something shitty, let’s analyze it carefully before we label it as a byproduct of white male privilege.  Is it because he’s a white man or is it because he’s an accomplished, rich athlete who has had his own reality TV show and whose mother has said in an interview that “he goes out on one-night stands” and can’t “give fully to a relationship because he’s always on the go”?  (BTW, the current controversy started gaining media attention because his mom told multiple media outlets that he was robbed at gunpoint).

Let’s discuss white male privilege when explaining the lack of diversity among CEOs, tech workers, who gets funded by venture capitalist, and politicians.  Let’s discuss white male privilege when Vanity Fair publishes a photo like this about late night TV hosts.  Let’s discuss white male privilege when a new study about implicit bias comes out.  Let’s discuss white male privilege when discussing racial disparities in sentencing decisions.

But let’s maybe not discuss white male privilege the next time Ryan Lochte or Justin Beiber or Eminem do something stupid/illegal.  Yes they’re white and men.  But they’re also rich, famous, and entitled.  And like such a diverse range of celebrities has demonstrated, their behavior is much more likely due to the way society treats celebrities than the way society treats white men.

3 thoughts on “The Olympics, Gabby Douglas, Ryan Lochte, and White Male Privilege

  1. This article is so weak. You could easily turn everything you said as a defense for using a racist and sexist lens instead of claiming it is actually about entitlement /celebrity and class. History and well documented experiences of people of all races and backgrounds in the US have shown clearly that celebrity and class alone don’t always affect how people of color are treated or portrayed in the US.


    1. I don’t think that’s what the article says and that wasn’t my intention.

      As I noted, I think that many times race/sex do come into play, as it did with the reactions to Gabby Douglas and Cam Newton. I agree that often sex and race greatly affect how people of color are treated or portrayed in the US.

      I just don’t agree that white male privilege is the best explanation for the Ryan Lochte saga in Rio. Since I wrote my post, he’s been dropped by four sponsors (but picked up by one) and a warrant has been issued for his arrest in Brazil. In what way is that response to what he did, which is still under dispute other than he admitted to initially over exaggerating his story, the byproduct of white male privilege? Would the one sponsor not have picked him up if he were a woman of color? Would he have been charged with a graver crime in Brazil (and, by the way, at least some Brazilian attorneys think the charges against him aren’t warranted)?

      Again, my point is not that race/sex don’t affect how people are treated in the US, it’s that white male privilege isn’t a great explanation of Ryan Lochte’s drama in Brazil. My point is we should analyze each situation and only call out certain privileges when it’s warranted. An example of race/sex affecting a celebrity in the US is Leslie Jones, for example. What she is going through is horrible and is much less than her white female Ghostbusters co-stars are being subjected to, though none of them should have to be subjected to any hate, harassment, or vitriol.


  2. Makes you really think about how dangerous generalizations can be – it simplifies things but is just a lazy way to have the discussion. Interesting breakdown of a topic that didn’t even occur to me…maybe I’ve become too numb by the musings of mainstream media!


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