In defense of race-based rooting

At the Olympics, you sometimes find yourself rooting for athletes because of their race. And that's OK.

Topics: Race, Paul Shirley, Olympics,

One of the great things about sports in general and the Olympics in particular is that they let you be racist. No, not bigoted or prejudiced. I’m not talking about elevating your own racial identity above anyone else’s, or making pernicious judgments about any race. I’m talking about openly recognizing all the races that make up humanity, respecting them all, reveling in the variety — and yes, sometimes factoring the race of an athlete into your decision about whom to root for. It’s a completely harmless, benign racism. And far more people engage in it than will ever admit it.

Before you fit me for a Ku Klux Klan Imperial Dragon outfit and take me away to Correct Racial Attitudes Re-Education Camp, let me give five examples of what I’m talking about.

I’m rooting for 400 meter champion Jeremy Wariner because he’s white. I rooted for 100-meter hurdler Lolo Jones because she’s mixed black and white. I’m rooting for 110-meter hurdler David Oliver because he’s black. I rooted for speed skater Apolo Ohno because he’s mixed Japanese and white. And I rooted for 110-meter hurdler Liu Xiang because he’s Chinese.

It’s equal-opportunity racism! All the fun of openly acknowledging that humanity comes in different colors and genetic groupings (I know, race is scientifically meaningless, but in the real world it exists), and none of the poisonous stereotypes! All of the positive things about identity politics and tribalism, and none of the superiority or exclusion!

This is an understandably sensitive subject, so don’t get me wrong. Race isn’t that big a deal. I’m not obsessed with what race an athlete is, most of the time I scarcely notice it, and race isn’t the reason I root for most competitors. Moreover, even when it is a factor in my rooting, it isn’t the only one, and it isn’t always that strong a one. It can be trumped by all kinds of other things. But it does comes up, and sometimes it plays a role, and when it does, it’s OK.

Let’s get the big, bad, politically incorrect one out of the way first: rooting for someone because they’re white. That’s what I’m doing with Jeremy Wariner. It sounds like it’s right out of the White Power handbook. But it’s not.

I’m rooting for Wariner because he’s a white man who won a gold medal in Athens running a distance traditionally dominated by black men. It’s the same reason that on those once-every-two-decade occasions when a white cornerback makes it as an NFL starter in my favorite sport, football, I pull for him. It’s racial identification and racial celebration without negativity. You can love Wariner and all-time great Michael Johnson.

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White fans don’t want to talk about this stuff because it makes them seem racist, but it isn’t — or at least it doesn’t have to be. (If you’re a white guy who finds yourself habitually rooting against black quarterbacks in the NFL, for example, you might want to do a little soul-searching.) Indeed, outspoken black athletes can be more forthright in acknowledging this touchy subject than whites. When former NBA great Charles Barkley refers to Phoenix Suns guard and two-time league MVP Steve Nash as “one bad white boy,” we all know what he means — and it ain’t racist. It’s an acknowledgment of reality.

Then there’s Lolo Jones. I rooted for her because she’s mixed black and white. Because that long-despised mixture — and how beautifully it comes together in her! — is part of the American family, the human family, to be celebrated. When the camera showed her white mother and black sister pulling for her in the stands, I have to admit I got a little choked up. That one image of those two women, wonderful and confusing and real, is something the media almost never shows, and it shattered our binary, literally black-and-white notions of race. Two races, one family. It was hard not to think of Barack Obama, and his historic challenge to America’s racial orthodoxies, and for this Democrat, to devoutly pray that he will have better luck than Jones. As my colleague King Kaufman eloquently pointed out, her devastating loss — clipping the next to the last hurdle when, as she later said, “I felt the gold around me” — sums up all the pain and heartbreak that are an inseparable part of the Olympics.

Then there’s David Oliver. I’m rooting for him because he’s African-American. I chose him in particular because I dig his mighty Terrell Owens-like physique, and his football-player-like approach to the hurdles, but I could have chosen Sanya Richards, or Dwayne Wade, or Allyson Felix, or Dawn Harper. I root for African-Americans for both personal and patriotic reasons. For me, the personal part comes out of years of playing football with black kids (most of whom I could outrun, which is one reason why I don’t put black athletes on some kind of pedestal). As for the patriotic, if you’re an American of any race and a sports fan, our black athletes are a treasure to be cherished, the same way we should cherish the fact that black Americans created our country’s greatest contribution to 20th century culture, jazz. This isn’t a stereotype or a minstrel show thing, it doesn’t put black people in a box or imply they can do this but not other things, it’s simply a recognition of these towering achievements. (And we couldn’t leave this subject without a shout-out to Cullen Jones, part of the U.S. men’s gold-medal-winning 400 meter relay swim team, whose performance attached a large weight to Al Campanis’ “they lack buoyancy” canard and dropped it into the deep end of the pool.) Go, bloods, go!

Ohno is easy: I rooted for him because he was one of my people, namely half-Japanese. Since we consumers of haggis sushi are not exactly overrepresented in sports, this doesn’t happen much (an earlier infatuation with Giants’ pitcher Atlee Hammaker, alas, didn’t end well), and I had to let my hapa flag fly.

And finally, there’s China’s Liu Xiang. I was there in Athens when the great hurdler, his face frenzied, half-flew, half-stumbled across the finish line to tie the world record and announce a new era in global sports. How could you not root for an Asian guy who shattered every stereotype by dominating in a sprint event? Liu’s withdrawal because of injury broke the hearts of the Chinese — the entire nation is in mourning. People are crying openly in the streets. How powerful and great is that? And who didn’t feel that humanity itself jumped forward when Liu won in Athens, all of the colors that make up the human race surging forward?

And that’s what it’s all about. On those occasions when race does play a role in your rooting, it isn’t that you’re not rooting against any group, but that you’re rooting for one. At different times, and for different reasons. Maybe the greatest thing about the Olympics is that it gives you a species-eye-view of humanity. By celebrating one color, you honor them all.

I’m expecting a torrent of accusations of racism, but I have a cunning plan to deflect it. My next piece: Why it’s OK to root purely on the basis of looks!

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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