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Deborah Plummer

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Flying Squirrel Nickname: Offensive or Progressive

Posted: 08/05/2012 7:54 pm

The baby-boomer-civil-rights-advocate part of me cringed when I first heard news anchor Brian Williams use the nickname 'Flying Squirrel" for Gabby Douglas. Was it racially offensive? What did Gabby think of the nickname? What did her mother and family think about it? Then the other diversity-inclusive-global-identity part of me began to smile. Was this nickname depicting her agility, power and talent a small sign of a world where an animal metaphor did not have to be synonymous with racial inequality?

I do not know the intentions of the national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who gave Douglas her "Flying Squirrel" nickname nor do we know if she has used it with other talented gymnast, however, listening to interviews with Gabby Douglas, she does not appear to be negatively impacted by it. We witness a 16 year-old whose confidence in her ability to win a gold medal was central to every vault, every jump, every spring, every step that led her to be the all-round, best female gymnast in the world.

As the recipient of the nickname's impact, I wonder what her thoughts are on the use of the flying squirrel nickname? I wonder if there is a generational difference among those who believe it to be negative and those who do not? I wonder if only Blacks think it might be offensive? I wonder if thinking that the term is offensive holds us to a segregated racial past where nicknames were given by dominate culture as yet another way to suppress minorities? I wonder if we limit our imaginations and hold our perspectives hostage by assuming that the term is demeaning instead of assuming we share a global identity and on the global stage of the Olympics there is a level playing field.

I have read many tweets from blacks upset about Gabby's hair from individuals who feel that, as Blacks, they have a right to dictate how Gabby must represent us. I have read fewer tweets and Facebook posting about the nickname. Are these comments a distraction to the wonderful accomplishment or are they advocacy for racial justice?

Hair comments aside, in my opinion, the answer to whether the nickname is offensive or progressive lies with Gabrielle Douglas. I know there will be disagreement about this and those who believe that she represents all African Americans and is a role model (the same authority from which those who comment about her hair claim as their rationale for speaking out). However, I believe she is first and foremost the individual who gets to say what she finds offensive and what she might find a term of endearment. I do not know what impact the nickname has for her and I will take my cue from her. Those of us from a different generation and who are not on that balance beam, training side by side with her and her coaches and other teammates are in no position to educate her to their intentions. Family members have nicknames; whether or not NBC and other media outlets should use the term should be dictated by Gabby Douglas. We can choose for ourselves not to use the nickname in reference to her (as I have chosen to do) but is this really an issue we should bring to national attention? I believe there are bigger battles to focus on in order to create opportunities for future Gabby Douglas'. Continuing to make this an issue, do we not do the same thing we are accusing the media of -- deflecting from her great accomplishment?

Gabby Douglas is an African American young woman, who was raised by a very supportive family, who trusted her development as an athlete to a coach of Chinese descent while she lived with a white family in Iowa, who then went on to win a gold medal and was cheered and celebrated all over the world by people of all races and ages. Nicknames will come and go. This is a time to celebrate diversity as a driver of excellence.

 

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