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SOLE 'NAPPY' HEAD


By Stephane Dunn

Friday, August 22, 2008.

 

A short time ago in America, Mauricia Grant, the former lone black woman NASCAR official, looked shell-shocked, talking about charges in her $245 million lawsuit against NASCAR. I watched her on ESPN, soft-spoken, articulate, and traumatized as she spoke of her travails in a sport that seems frozen in good-ol-white boys-time warp.

 

The story still hasn’t caused much of a ripple either in the black press at large or in the NASCAR-business-as-usual coverage on sports channels. Still, Grant’s descriptions of the sexist-racist ‘jokes’ she starred in made my scalp tingle a little. I have never gotten a text message ‘funny’ like the one allegedly from NASCAR official David Duke, who seemed to love to try out his black vernacular imitations and ‘Pimpalicious’ fancies on Grant, going as far, according to her as, feeling right at home addressing her with a “What up, my nigga?”

I listened to Grant, read the suit later on and found myself flashing back to past sojourns as the ‘only’ black woman and ‘exotic’ subject of interest. It was always disturbing on complicated levels even outside the professional world as an undergraduate and graduate student and later as one of only one or two blacks or sole black woman in one professional or social space or another.

 

I remember this white guy back in college in southern Indiana. He was from Iowa, and to him, I was some strange bird of a paradise of sorts. He wasn’t that much different from quite a few other well-meaning white peers and professors. He was always trying to touch my hair or arm, wandering aloud about some mystical aspect of my hair-care or secret ingredient to my brownness.

 

Sometimes I laughed it off; other times I responded sarcastically or not at all, or later with sharp rebuke ditto for the amazed reactions to my intelligence in class, the not so subtle extra validation of my credentials, etc. Most infuriating was that white folks so rarely got my discomfort no matter the fake laugh, mean look or whatever.

 

My first teaching job revealed how difficult it is to navigate an environment that in one sense wants to represent inclusiveness and progressiveness but on the other hand wants to pretend that it’s already there when it isn’t.

 

A former dean of mine discovered this after I told him that a particular white male student definitely had issues with having a black woman professor. It wasn’t until he called me all out my name in class that my dean got it.

Grant’s narrative does more than bring on the flashbacks; it dramatically reflects both the long history of sexism and racism in sacredly held American sports and how far we still have to go beyond the “first black” coach, driver, official, owner, manager milestones to create atmospheres that have caught up to the multiplicity of the twenty-first century American population.

 

Remember when baseball was really the great [white] American past time and the greats of the Negro League weren’t allowed to play with or against white players? Lest we forget too, Tiger wasn’t always the beloved golden golf star; a great part of the early interest in his story and still is, had everything to do with him crashing into an elite, very white, masculine sports space. That’s why that “chicken” reference after his first Master’s win happened.

 

Grant’s current lawsuit against NASCAR for racially and sexually driven harassment is doubly telling for what it suggests about how American popular culture and sports culture in particular still nurtures spaces where it can continue its elitism and maintain a veil of intimacy about its inner workings and day to day politics.

This is so even with the Williams sisters in tennis who have endured all kinds of bold, racially and sexually inappropriate remarks about their physical bodies and prowess since arriving on the tennis scene. They continue not to receive the respect or attention their impressive feats and tennis would suggest.

 

Imagine if we were talking about two white sister powerhouses who’d just met each other again in the Wimbledon finals?

 

After graduating as only one of two women from the Los Angeles’ Urban League Automative Training Center, Grant was recruited under an alliance with Magic Johnson to bolster NASCAR’s diversity efforts and thus increase that fan base. Grant’s major duties involved checking the cars before, during, and after races to ensure compliance with NASCAR rules. She worked major annual racing events in her two year stint, including the 2007 BUSCH series.

Grant not only became NASCAR’s first African American female official but a poster child for NASCAR’s racially more inclusive space. But the old guard was still firmly in place and one lone black woman didn’t change that. Instead, Grant seems to have become the ‘color’ for more shameful contemporary plantation humor so much so that the real day to day impact of the Don Imus' "nappy headed ho" comment and all the race relations talk in the media was that another one of her white male colleagues took to referring to her as ‘Nappy Headed Mo’.

It should be shocking to think that the chronicle of some twenty-three major alleged racial and sexual slurs on the part of supervisors, peers, and even some NASCAR fans could happen especially after the last 20 years when sexual harassment and discriminatory lawsuits have become staples in the media and twenty-first century professional workplace.

 

To those of us who’ve been asked “how come the palms of your hands are white”, or had the hair on our heads subjected to all kinds of ignorant questions and insults, it isn’t funny. Diversity is not as good as the look via a lone body of color or two or several; it’s only as good as the actual day-to-day spirit behind closed doors.

With thanks to
New Black Man.

Stephane Dunn is a professor at Morehouse College and author of
Baad ‘Bitches’ & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (August 2008). See her at Charis Bookstore in Little Five Points (Atlanta, GA), September 12, 2008, 8:00-9:30 pm.

 

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