Angel Reese should be chilling on an unobstructed high right now.
The LSU Tigers small forward is considered one of the top players in NCAA’s women’s basketball, having racked up a record 34 double-doubles in a single season. On Sunday (April 2), she led her team to their first-ever championship and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Life shouldn’t be a gilded road called Easy Street on a week when you can take two trophies home. And yet, if you Google search "Angel Reese" right now, you’ll be greeted with headlines similar to this one and some version of the same photo on repeat: an image of Reese directing a late-game hand gesture toward her biggest competitor in Sunday’s game, Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark.
Reese appropriated the "you can’t see me" hand gesture, used by rappers back in the day and popularized by former WWE star turned actor John Cena. To wag even more tongues, Reese also pointed to the space on her ring finger where she was certain the championship ring was going to wind up. She was correct in her prediction.
In the vein of the exhausting traditionalist discussion about women "living in their feminine energy," there are some who take issue with women who are openly competitive in any field. In fact, some people are all too comfortable with the idea that these women should just sit down, lay on their backs, and produce babies.
And Black women being competitive? Well, that’s just naked hostility. Pull your purses close.
You want facts? Men’s sports are loaded with post-scoring celebrations and some degree of taunting or trash talk. If Reese’s gesture came instead from her cousin Jordan Hawkins, who helped the UConn Huskies win the NCAA men’s championship title against San Diego State a day later, I’d be writing about something else right now.
Clark, a white woman who is within spitting distance of the most dominant overall team in NCAA women’s basketball, has developed a for her own brand of trash-talk and taunting. This includes her providing the same Cena wave to Reese that she used on a competitor earlier in the tournament.
But when Reese did it, it became the "Hand Gesture Heard Round the World" and was suddenly deemed classless, tacky, and maybe a touch scary coming from a young woman raised where The Wire was shot. Prominent old white men took to Twitter to use the most obscene language to bash a woman who is just 20 years old and young enough to be their daughter. Fortunately, super stars from Shaquille O'Neal to Jemele Hill to LeBron James came to Reese’s defense against the trolls.
Black women who successfully compete in sports are expected to operate with an elevated degree of grace. It's a consequence of their double-minority status. They can’t move freely with the appearance of a ‘round the way girl like track and field sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, whose tattoos, flowy blonde weave, and colorful personality invited far more intense, castigation for than highly decorated Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps endured for doing the same thing.
And don’t let Black women even dare to compete in a sport in which they aren’t traditionally known to succeed. The Williams sisters have of their careers, even as Serena became a living legend of the sport. More recently, their spiritual successor Naomi Osaka has.
Unfortunately, this asterisk next to greatness for Black women isn’t just in sports. It reaches across all professions in which they’re criticized for not compartmentalizing themselves and caving in to "mainstream" expectations. Talk to Ciara, Stacey Abrams or any C-suite executive, medical doctor, or partner in an AmLaw 100 firm, and you’ll be regaled with stories of racism, sexism, and perfect strangers on the internet questioning their prowess and telling them how they should move.
2023 NCAA News
With Clark’s high rankings and Reese not far behind, the Tigers-Hawkeyes matchup also bore some of the racial baggage and politics that accompanied some of the most racially charged sports matchups in history: Joe Lewis vs. Max Schmeling, Earvin "Magic" Johnson. The competitive and racial draw no doubt contributed to Sunday’s game becoming the most watched NCAA women’s basketball game ever. Visit Twitter and look up either woman—you'll see the divided opinions tend to be across racial lines.
Then here comes First Lady Jill Biden who just added fuel to this racial fire by suggesting during a speech Monday (April 3) that the White House break decades of tradition by inviting both the Tigers and the Hawkeyes for a special, congratulatory honor that is typically reserved just for the winning team. Folks are understandably unconvinced that Biden would’ve even made the suggestion if Caitlin Clark wasn’t a thing and if LSU was the team to have actually lost.
For her part, Clark is saying all the right things. She established in a pre-game conference that women athletes should be able to, just like their male counterparts. Though she’s caught a few unfair strays from the hand gesture fallout, Clark had Reese’s back adding that she agrees that her losing Hawkeyes should not be able to visit the White House. (On Tuesday, President Joe Biden formally invited the LSU team only.)
"No matter which way it goes, she should never be criticized for what she did," said Clark, as reported by CBS Sports. "I’m just one that competes, and she competed. I think everybody knew there was going to be a little bit of trash talk in the entire tournament. It’s not just me and Angel, I don’t think she should be criticized."
Even at such a young age, Reese appears to understand intimately the nature of the criticism and her place in the conversation as a high-performing Black woman athlete from an urban city.
"All year, I was critiqued for who I was. I don’t fit the narrative," Reese said in a postgame conference. "I don’t fit the box that y’all want me to be in. I’m too hood. I’m too ghetto. Y’all told me that all year. But when other people do it, and y’all don’t say nothing. So, this is for the girls that look like me. For those that want to speak up for what they believe in. It’s unapologetically you."
It speaks highly of Reese’s character that she can take this level of criticism in stride. It’s emphatically a shame, however, that Reese, and countless other Black women, must still wear the armor needed to protect themselves from that criticism. And that’s the real problem that’s past due from being resolved.
Dustin J. Seibert is a native Detroiter living in Chicago. He loves his own mama slightly more than he loves music and exercises every day only so his French fry intake doesn’t catch up to him. Find him at wafflecolored.com.
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