By Terri Lee Freeman
It’s been little more than a week since the closing ceremony of one of the most memorable Olympic competitions in history. The United States secured its largest number of medals ever in a non-boycotted Olympics.
The Rio Olympics saw a number of firsts – the first refugee team, the first African American woman to medal in an individual swimming event (gold no less!), the first American female to win gold in wrestling, Ibtihaj Muhammed became the first American to compete wearing a hijab, and Bahrain secured its first gold medal ever in the 3000m steeplechase. Of course, we also were proud of the record gold medals secured by Michael Phelps, the world-record breaking Katie Ledecky, the consecutive gold medal winning U.S. Women’s basketball team, and the self-proclaimed final five historic U.S. women’s gymnastics team! These are just a few of the memorable and prideful moments we experienced during the 2016 Olympics.
No matter when we watched, we were certain to be inspired by the incredible talents of the world’s best athletes. I’m sure you have your favorite moment. For me, the most inspiring moment of the 2016 Olympics was during the opening ceremony, watching the processional of the U.S. athletic delegation – it was a sea of diversity -- racial, ethnic, gender and age. It made me smile because what I saw was the real America. Even commercial television picked up on what was real. The Mini advertisement tackled labels and stereotypes with 4-time Olympian Serena Williams informing us, “the only label that matters is Olympian.” Even with the notable and inexcusable actions of the 32-year old Ryan Lochte, we enjoyed 17 days of awe, inspiration and celebration!
Post-Olympics, we are once again witnessing a media hungry for red meat. Divisive political rhetoric about race, class and culture seems to be the meal du jour. The narrative that is played is a community of deficit as opposed to one that looks at the assets that diverse communities bring to society. Whether it is focusing on what some see as the lack of anything good in the African American community (lack of jobs, low-performing schools, unmotivated youth) or the focus on the stereotypical “super-predators,” it appears we are back to business as usual – for you to win means I have to lose.
Post-Olympics, the disdain for personal, non-violent protest is again front and center, as Colin Kaepernick decided to employ his constitutionally-protected right to protest the police killings of young African American men. Somehow, his action, or non-action, is identified as being un-patriotic. And the hate talk ensues. Kaepernick’s actions follow a history of athletes using their celebrity to make a statement for freedom and justice. Muhammed Ali took a stand against the Vietnam War. Tommie Smith and Peter Norman used their Olympic wins in 1968 to demonstrate their black community solidarity with a gloved fist in the air during the National Anthem, protesting violence against Blacks.
Unlike that picture of diversity and unity demonstrated by the U.S. athletic delegation, we seem to be a country, diverse in every way, increasingly intolerant and less and less willing to discuss, civilly our varied experiences and realities.
It’s time to make time to understand an experience that is not our own. It’s time to recognize that there truly are haves and have nots. It’s time to recognize that protest is never pretty and accommodating. It has always been ugly and inconvenient. That’s the point!
It’s time to flip the script! Let’s take the time to listen to someone else’s story, one that is different from our own. Let’s employ empathy, say something, and then act to change the wrongs and injustices that we see far too frequently.