With the modern Olympic Games in full swing this year countries from around the world have sent their best and most fit citizens as representatives of their country to compete for the fame and economic benefits which come with an internationally televised competition for physical and national bragging rights.
Though they hold reverence to their Greek origins much of what constitutes the modern Olympics is an anathema to its historical ancestor. Held in the ancient Greek city of Olympia the Olympics were explicitly Greek in tradition and practice and were primarily the focus of freed Greek men – with a few notable exceptions. This in itself should serve as representation for the bastardization and appropriation of ancient Greek culture which the modern competitive games represent today.
However, what remains is still an important descendant to the original spirit of the games; bragging rights and a means for spreading culture to other competitor’s opponent nations.
For traditional Americans of European descent this includes the 2016 Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad. Born in New Jersey, Muhammad represents the changing and hostile culture being spread and represented as ‘American’ at this year’s Olympics. In an article featured on RollingStone, Muhammad is held up as the paragon for Black and Muslim Americans of African descent.
Riddled throughout the article, however, is the pervasive implication that what America – and by proxy the term American – means to those who share little to nothing with Muhammad is that they have no place for representation among the media pushed fervor and fawning over Muhammad’s Africanness and her Islamic faith. Though TeamUSA consists of a multitude of ethnic nationalities from both men and women the spotlight of this year’s Olympic fervor for the U.S. is Muhammad.
The honor of representing Muslim and Black women is one I don’t take lightly.
Meaning she’s not there to primarily represent all Americans but a specific subset of them. Fair enough – if it weren’t for the worrisome rhetoric coming from the media, political think tanks and interest groups, and even the President himself regarding the changing landscape of the American electorate.
Take, for instance, W. Kamau Bell, writing at CNN regarding Michael Phelps’ nomination to bear the Olympic torch,
Obviously, I am talking about what I hope will be your decision to decline the position as flag bearer in opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Rio De Janeiro on Friday. While you haven’t said this yet, I’m sure this is what you are going to do, because you are not only an Olympic hero, you are — by medal count — the Olympic hero. And yes, being asked to carry the flag is a big deal. I’m betting that even a star of your magnitude is still feeling the glow of being voted to carry the flag by your Olympic peers. But I know that you must know that there is a better choice to carry the flag — the athlete who came in second to you in the vote for flag bearer, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Bell further writes,
[T]hat’s why I would be proud of you for giving up your position to Ibtihaj Muhammad. Muhammad carrying the flag would be much bigger than your one moment. It would be a symbol for our country in this moment when we are mostly known for one of the most contentious, controversial, scandal-ridden, hateful, xenophobic, jingoistic, and just generally unlikeable presidential elections in recent memory. This is at a time when we could use some more symbols of unity and togetherness.
Wouldn’t an even better symbol of unity and togetherness be Bell saying, “you know what, yeah there’s a lot of language and politics I disagree with this year, but the best thing for us to do as Americans in an effort show our unity and togetherness is to ignore race and religion, ignore that hateful rhetoric, and allow Phelps to carry the torch united in our shared American identity and spirit towards a committed drive to win for our country and our people”?
In a more reasonable and unified America – maybe.
Bell’s insistence on focusing on the ‘runner-up’ but religious and cultural winner, Muhammad, directs us to view the America they’re supposed to represent as even more divided and fractured along identity lines while at the same time demanding such an act and rhetoric would do the opposite.
Behind all his disingenuous appeals towards ‘unity and togetherness’ Bell is appealing to the Black and Muslim community to see Phelps’ decision not to acquiesce to such a self-deprecating act as an implicitly anti-Black and anti-Muslim act and by its nature further instills division and animosity towards Phelps and all other White men across the American nation (since Phelps is a White man). He is giving Phelps no other option and goading anyone who reads his words into seeing this in explicitly racially and religiously hostile terms.
But, then again, that’s exactly what Bell wants.
Bell’s anti-White rhetoric is textbook ‘hey White man you don’t need any of that even though you earned it. Just give it to the second-best to signal how progressive we are’.
Beyond his hateful and divisive, but Black-centric, rhetoric Bell is signalling to his readers that America has moved towards a new identity where ‘American’ only means something insofar as you’re not a White man or woman.
In a competition where the best American athlete, as well as the best olympian athlete, gets to carry the torch and all the honor that act comes with Bell is telling Americans that what’s more important to ‘America’ is the second-best woman who just so happens to be Muslim and Black.
I doubt he’d be advocating the same thing for a White male of Christian faith if Muhammad had earned all the achievements Phelps had.
Returning to the Stones article we are given the picture of a woman who’s not American first but Muslim.
Still, she is very proud to be recognized as a Muslim first and foremost. She always makes sure to pray five times a day. “I just read about some new facilities for worship at the Olympics center – I’m excited to check it out.”
Muslim activist Linda Sarsour speaks for many of us when she declares Muhammad is “not representing Muslim Americans. She’s a Muslim representing the United States of America.”
For her to be representing Muslim Americans would mean she’d be representing Americans first who happen to be Muslim. According to Sarsour and Muhammad herself, it’s the other way around as they see it. Which means that, for them, America is not a nation of Americans but of Blacks and Muslims. She’s not representing all those Americans who are White, Asian, Hispanic, Roman Catholic, Methodist, etc.
As Muhammad sees it, she’s representing the America she knows and identifies most with – the African and Islamic America.