Last Sunday, Louisiana State University made history by winning the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship game with the highest score ever recorded in a women’s final. During the game, 20-year-old Black player Angel Reese taunted another player, Caitlin Clark, by gesturing to her ring finger, a common move in sports signaling that the player believes they’re going to win “the championship ring.” Reese has received significant backlash for her actions—despite Clark, who is white, using the same gesture earlier in the tournament without receiving any criticism.
This is a clear and blatant example of the double standard Black players, particularly Black women, experience in sports. Reese’s experience mirrors a long line of Black women athletes who were vilified for behavior that’s accepted by white players. Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, has been criticized for her on-court behavior and labeled “angry” or “aggressive” (Washington Post). Sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was judged for her being self-assured after becoming the fastest woman of all time (Harper’s Bazaar).
• Read “How White Women Use Themselves as Instruments of Terror” in the NYTimes.
• Consider: When have you witnessed an example of similar behavior being perceived differently because of the person’s race?
Black athletes are more likely to be labeled as angry or aggressive than their white peers. They are often fetishized for their physicality, and media depictions tend to ignore examples of their leadership, sportsmanship, or intelligence. Because of all this, it’s no wonder women who play professional sports, especially when Black women over-index the sport, are paid less and receive less public support (Aljazeera).
“On one hand, racialized athletes, particularly women, are penalized more harshly for everything that they do. On the other hand, they’re assumed to be tough and resilient, and they’re under-cared for.”-Dr. Janelle Joseph, assistant professor at the University of Toronto and founder of the Indigeneity, Diaspora, Equity and Anti-Racism in Sport Research Lab, for SportsNet.
But people were quick to admonish Angel Reese while defending Caitlin Clark in the same breath. This demonstrates how, as often as Black women and Black girls are vilified for their actions, white girls and white women are protected because of their perceived vulnerability, innocence, femininity, and dominant culture—traits not afforded to their Black peers. But Clark didn’t just use the same hand gesture earlier in the tournament; she’s known for trash-talk. In fact, ESPN had just created a segment on Caitlin Clark entitled “Queen of Clapbacks,” celebrating her history of taunting behavior on the court (Twitter). For what it’s worth, the term “clapbacks” is AAVE, so there’s an added layer of using it to describe a white woman’s actions. I’m curious, would Angel Reese have received the same type of hate online if she made that move towards a Black female player and not a white one?
To be clear, Clark herself did not play the victim, instead defended Angel Reese in a press conference, saying all women should be able to trash-talk in the same way that men do (CNN). Yet there’s a persistent narrative in U.S. history that pits the innocence of white women against a false notion of Black aggression. This statement doesn’t just make Black people “guilty” on the court, but in the workplace, as neighbors, and in the eyes of law enforcement and other public institutions. It doesn’t matter how Black people act if our society is predisposed to believe that, in the lens of whiteness, they’re never the victim.
Perhaps in defense of Clark, too, First Lady Jill Biden invited both LSU and the University of Iowa to the White House to celebrate the game, even though the losing team had never been invited before, prompting a swift rebuttal from Reese. But the gesture only underlined these disparities. When we discuss equal pay and opportunity in sports for women and girls, it’s imperative that we address how race and other marginalized identities hinder that goal. It’s remiss not to mention here the gross exclusion of trans women and girls in sports that’s worsening today. And more broadly, when we rally for the safety and security of women and girls in the United States, we must center the ones most likely to be attacked. That’s going to take, at minimum, the same level of criticism for white feminism as individual Black women receive on the internet each day.