When I was a young girl, I wanted to be just like you! Yes, I’m about a decade older than you, but seeing you win gold and make history at the London Olympics in 2012 brought me back to my childhood days of obsession with the Magnificent 7 (Dominque Dawes in particular). You possessed talents I could only pretend to have (embarrassingly enough, as my older sister will attest). The fact that at such a young age you overcame racism, loneliness, and separation from your family on top of the intense training required of gold medalists made you one of my all-time personal heroes.
I anticipated your 2016 return to the Olympics in Rio and watched with pride, excitement, and joy as you performed and stood atop the medal stand a gold medalist once again. Your presence on the world stage is a valuable mirror for so many young girls, including my younger girl self, who too rarely see themselves reflected as champions, brilliant and beautiful.
That is why I am heartbroken and angry that you have to experience such hatred and negativity from other people. Gabby, I want you to know that their hatred is not about you. Though it’s directed at you for the moment, it actually has nothing to do with you. Because your position as a world-class gymnast at the Olympics makes you highly visible to the public eye, you are an easy target for public scrutiny. But again, that scrutiny in no way reveals any truths about you, Gabby Douglas.
The people pushing hurtful things in your direction are trapped in an old, destructive tradition of hostility toward black girls and black women who dare to leap and fly into their own destinies rather than fearfully cower in the decrepit boxes society has labeled for them. Society fights ruthlessly to control and dictate your existence. So when you don’t place your right hand where they believe it should go, or when you don’t smile when they think you should be smiling, or when your appearance contradicts their idea of what’s attractive and acceptable, they unleash a verbal lashing meant to beat your spirit into submission.
And I will be honest here, since I think you deserve nothing less: Although all black girls are susceptible to racist attacks, not every black girl will be advised to get a nose job or be ostracized because of her hair or be perceived as grumpy and “jealous” (some of us are all to familiar with that label). Colorism is often an unacknowledged aspect of how we treat women of color, but one has to wonder why other black athletes haven’t received the kind of hurtful criticism you’ve had to endure, why some fans just love Simone Biles and Laurie Hernandez but can’t feel enthusiastic about you. The cruel rejection of nose, hair, lips, and other racialized features predates social media, predates the modern Olympics and the sport of gymnastics. This tradition of degrading the natural features of certain black women is so embedded in our society that many black people, as you have seen, also partake in the antagonism. Because if they can’t be free then neither can you.
I am not writing this letter to give you the empty, dismissive, and clichéd advice to “just love yourself and don’t worry about what others think!” I would not give you that advice if you were being physically attacked, and I don’t think it’s particularly useful for the sort of spiritual attacks you’ve experienced. If you were being physically bullied, I’d encourage you to build up your strength, to develop your fighting skills, to up your street smarts, to arm yourself, to surround yourself with people who’ve got your back. You can do this in spiritual warfare as well. It may take time to develop these resources, and even when you do there will still be battles that leave you in tears, scarred and bruised. But I believe you will be victorious. After all, you’ve already demonstrated your resourcefulness, tenacity, determination, and resilience as a legendary Olympic gymnast.
Gabby, I don’t know if this letter will mean anything to you. I know that criticism is often stickier than praise. And anyway, who am I to you? Nonetheless, I leave you with this: You are gorgeous! Your features are stunning. Your hair is pretty. You’re one of my favorite gymnasts of all time! You make me extremely proud. You are valuable and worthy beyond gymnastics just because you exist. You are a shining representation of greatness, not just for your country but the entire world.