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President Obama Describes Why "Money Isn't Everything": How the WNBA Represents an Opportunity to "Release the Imagination"

When President Barack Obama honored the 2008 WNBA champion Detroit Shock today, he once again took the opportunity to mention what the league means to his daughters.

Let me also say something as a father -- I was mentioning it to the team before we came out. It's hard to believe the WNBA has already been around for 12 years. And that means that my daughters have never known a time when women couldn't play professional sports.

They look at the TV and they see me watching SportsCenter and they see young women who look like them on the screen. And that lets them and all our young women, as well as young men know that we should take for granted that women are going to thrive and excel as athletes. And it makes my daughters look at themselves differently; to see that they can be champions, too.

So, as a father, I want to say thank you.

These remarks may strike you as a mundane repetition of the comments he made back in April while congratulating the University of Connecticut championship women’s basketball team.

But it never gets old to me.

Although Obama’s agenda for gender equity may not please everyone, the message he’s sending about the value of female role models is an important one and is worthy of repetition as long as we continue to live in a society with deep gender disparities. What makes Obama’s remarks assume even greater importance is that his daughters are young black girls and the dearth of positive black female role models in the mainstream makes the existence of the WNBA even more important.

Although images of positive black female role models in the mainstream have certainly evolved beyond Oprah and Clair Huxtable – including First Lady Michelle Obama – I would argue that our society could do more to support the dreams and aspirations of black girls. That starts with thinking about how black women are represented in the media.

Unfortunately, mere representation is not enough – it is just as important to consider how black women are represented in the mainstream media (the central dilemma in the controversy surrounding Candace Parker’s ESPN the Magazine cover story). Close scrutiny of how black women are represented in the mainstream media reveals more than mere coincidence or arbitrary action, but a pattern of conscious editorial decision-making that becomes rather troubling in the aggregate.

The fact is that the way in which WNBA women are represented is only one piece of a much larger pattern of decision making that not only includes decisions about representation, but omission. And the invisibilizing of black women often reflects a much more troubling underlying assumption – that black women are not marketable.

If we accept the assumption that black women are not marketable, it seems almost irresponsible not to ask a) why?, b) what are the consequences of that assumption, and c) to what extent are the editorial decisions themselves responsible for perpetuating the problem? Ultimately, the answers to that line of questioning only reinforce the point Chantelle Anderson made in her most recent blog post: Money Isn’t Everything.

The violence of omission

As an example of how these editorial decisions operate beyond sports, Australian young adult literature author and WNBA fan Justine Larbalestier recently blogged about her publisher’s decision to use a cover image of a white girl to represent a black female protagonist for her recent book Liar. Larbalestier points out in her blog that she envisioned the protagonist looking something like Washington Mystics All-Star guard Alana Beard.

Larbalestier’s entire post (click here) is worth a read, but this excerpt seems relevant to the present discussion:

Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?

The notion that "black books" don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them. Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with "black covers" don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with "white covers."
While these editorial decisions may seem distant from sports, consider the consequences of this whitewashing of young adult literature – it not only sends messages of who/what is valued in our society, but also presents a completely skewed version of what our world looks like. Compounding the problem is that publishers, libraries, and bookstores, are actively making decisions that set these books up to fail…which thus reinforces their belief that the books are worth publicizing.

The same goes for women’s professional sports, and particularly the WNBA with it’s large percentage of black women: it is paradoxical to not market something – or even deliberately hide it – and then standby the claim that it’s not worth marketing because it’s not marketable.

While this phenomenon should not come as a surprise, it is troubling to think that we live in a society that deliberately prioritizes profit over the humanity of our youth.

What I love about Chantelle Anderson’s recent blog post is that it captures what is humanly at stake in having mainstream representations of black women that serve as role models. The value of honoring the humanity of our young black girls extends well beyond commodification, marketability, and profit margins toward something seemingly more fundamental to what makes us all human.

Anderson’s articulation of why the WNBA is valuable is a perfect example of why all this talk of representation and role models really matters.

To summarize, Anderson tells a story about a high school girl whom she met after a speaking engagement who was involved in gang activity and had recently quit her basketball team. The coach asked Anderson to talk to the sophomore and presumably convince her to return to the basketball team. Anderson not only inspired the girl to decrease her involvement with the gang, but also help her get to college on a Division I scholarship. Anderson nicely explains the value of WNBA role models in her concluding paragraphs:
I met Tamika when she was a sophomore in high school. As of now, she just finished her freshman year at a Division one university, which she attended on a full ride basketball scholarship. To say that I am proud of her would be an understatement. To say that I believe God used my position as a professional athlete to help save this girls life would be the truth. We hear countless stories about the NBA players that used basketball as a ticket out of the dangerous neighborhoods and broken homes of their childhood. But what about the little girls left in those neighborhoods? Don’t they deserve a chance too?

This was not meant to be some sentimental plea to keep the WNBA alive or garner fan support. It was meant to show that even if countless men don’t value it, professional women’s sports do and should have a place in our society. This story is not a fluke or an isolated incident. Stuff like this happens regularly to myself and other WNBA players; and not just involving kids. I’ve had women tell me watching how hard I work in my workouts helped keep them coming to the gym and eating healthy. And I’ve had men tell me they use me as an example to encourage their daughters to dream. These compliments are such an honor to me; way better than being told I’m pretty, or even smart. But I would hate to turn around and tell those people that none of what they feel deserves validation because women’s basketball doesn’t make enough money. That’s why the WNBA is important.
There’s a lot going on in Anderson’s story, but as an educator and someone interested in the welfare of youth, I want to bring it back to this notion of what it means to honor the humanity of youth.

While removing oneself from gang activity and going to college is an important accomplishment, I would argue that the even more valuable aspect of this scenario is that Anderson helped Tamika see alternative possibilities for herself beyond what the limited perspective she saw in daily life. That capacity to imagine an alternative vision for oneself and act upon the world with that vision in mind is what makes all this talk of representations and role models so important.

Releasing the imagination of young black girls is of the utmost importance.

Educational philosopher, social activist, and teacher Maxine Greene has written extensively about the topic of imagination and I think she can provide some additional insight to the value of thinking more deeply about the value of the WNBA both in terms of representations of black women and mentoring relationships, such as Anderson’s.

First, the reason that these mainstream representations are important to reflect upon is not just a matter of self-esteem, but more a matter of future orientation and self-concept: encouraging young girls to imagine multiple possibilities for society and letting them know they have support in those endeavors. When we as a society make decisions not to help scaffold that imagination with multiple representations of what could be (e.g. deciding black women are not marketable and thus not worthy of representation in young adult literature), we leave the possibility of positive self-concept and self-determination to chance.

In her book Releasing the Imagination, Greene writes the following about this problem:
Far too seldom are such young people looked upon as beings capable of imagining, of choosing, and of acting from their own vantage point on perceived possibility. Instead they are subjected to outside pressures, manipulations, and predictions. The supporting structures that exist are not used to sustain a sense of agency among those they shelter; instead they legitimate treatment, remediation, and control – anything but difference and release.
When I read Anderson’s story about her experience meeting Tamika, that’s what I see – a young girl who without support in imagining the range of future possibilities fell victim to the deceptive pressure of gang activity. After all, gang activity provides everything school and society often doesn’t – a sense of belonging, an identity of agency, and a peer community of mutual support…not to mention additional street cred that many school-based options simply don’t provide.

We are often too quick to condemn youth involved in gangs without attempting to understand the opportunity structure in society that they perceive in front of them. For some, this society does not look like it’s full of opportunity and rhetoric to the contrary is thus all the more alienating.

"Imagination," writes Greene, is therefore "…the gateway through which meanings derived from past experiences find their way into the present." To elaborate, imagination is an antidote to the inertia of ill-formed common sense that serves to privilege some ways of being at the expense of others.
To tap into the imagination is to become able to break with what is supposedly fixed and finished, objectively and independently real. It is to see beyond that what the imaginer has called normal or "common sensible" and to carve out new orders in experience. Doing so, a person may become freed to glimpse what might be, to form notions of what should be and what is not yet. And the same person may, at the same time, remain in touch with what presumably is.
As President Obama alludes to, the value of the WNBA is not just in inspiring female basketball players or even female athletes more broadly. What it represents is a small departure from a world in which women were once told there were things they cannot do. It lets them know that there is something beyond what some people still espouse as common sense about women’s limitations.

In my ideal world, we would cease asking whether the WNBA or images of black women are profitable in the mainstream and start asking ourselves what the value of either is to society at large. If what it means is a few multi-millionaires lose a couple of bucks here and there for the sake of millions of young girls worldwide, I’ll gladly go along with it.

For black girls in particular – in a world where some people think of their image only in terms of its toxicity to profit – the WNBA provides a glimpse into a world in which there are a range of positive representations of "blackness" and "womanhood" for them to imagine what has not yet come for themselves.

So I don’t begrudge those who don’t want to watch the WNBA. I begrudge those who go out of their way to demean and dismiss it as some sort of irrelevant sideshow.

Understanding the value of women’s professional sports to our young girls shouldn’t require being a father, brother, or husband. Nor should it limited to radical feminists or political leaders trying to establish themselves as advocates of gender equity.

It’s about respecting the humanity of our youth.