Sports are a large part of American culture and past times. People tailgate for hours before a football game, or they create brackets for a month full of basketball games. No matter how people get involved, sports are heavily watched and supported. One part about sports that catches people’s attention is the large amount of black talent within sports. Black athletes appear to be prominent within sports, specifically basketball, football, and track and field. The perception behind black athleticism carries negative connotations for the black community. Black athletes are thought to be naturally talented; born with physical aptitude; and less intelligent. Black athleticism can harm how black people view success: they cannot be successful without sports. The different connotations behind black athleticism reinforce stereotypes held about black bodies.
Black bodies are perceived to be physically better than white bodies. As a tactic to persuade people that slavery was beneficial for black bodies, white men proposed black bodies were stronger before emancipation rather than after (Hoberman, 1997). More so, black bodies were thought to have a different biological and genetic makeup to make them physically superior (Hoberman, 1997). White men described the elaborate details of the strength and ability of black bodies. White people benefited from this perception to rationalize the labors of slavery. If black bodies were physically superior before emancipation, slavery heightened the ability of black bodies.
After emancipation, ideas of black biological inferiority circulated despite the mention of superiority (Hoberman, 1997). Many different views arose about racial biology: specific biological aspects were racial characteristics (Hoberman, 1997). Many statements about biological differences remained undisputed. Notations were consistently made of the decline of the black race. In response, black scholars had to speak up against the illegitimate claims (Hoberman, 1997). To balance out the negative ideas of black biology, scholars utilized physical superiority to prove ability (Hoberman, 1997). This created the focus on physical aptitude that would lead to athleticism (Hoberman, 1997).
Stereotypes continue today of black bodies’ physical superiority. They are perceived as physically and athletically superior to white bodies while remaining intellectually inferior (Harrison, 2001; Hodge, Burden, Robinson, & III, 2008; Hoberman, 1997). Hoberman (1997) notes,
An understanding of the culturally acquired habits that imagine black potential in physical terms, that convert intellectual performances into physical ones and vice versa, offers an alternative to a resurgent biological theory of racial intelligence. The fact that this cultural syndrome has never been studied in a systematic way suggests that belief in the essential physicality of black people is an unspoken premise of modern thinking about race. (p53)
Connotations about the physical ability of black people are deeply tied to their race. The overarching theme of successful black athletes further emphasizes these ideas about racial biology. Commonly, black athletes are perceived as successful because they have a different genetic makeup. Meanwhile, being marked as intellectually inferior takes a toll on the educational motivation of black children (Harrison, 2001). If black youth are not being encouraged academically, they may resort to athletic ability because of the apparent success within that career path. And if they are unsuccessful in sports, they may be discouraged from education and drop out altogether.
Self-stereotyping can appear in black people because of the connotations of black athleticism (Hodge, Burden, Robinson, & III, 2008). This internalization can be harmful to black people’s self perception. Some black people may conceive they are not successful unless they develop their athletic talent; others are thought as socially acceptable the better they are at sports (Hoberman, 1997; Hodge, Burden, Robinson, & III, 2008). Peer and family pressure push the notion that someone is not good enough if they do not effectively use their athletic ability. This notion can harm black children who look up to successful athletes as the person they can become (Hodge, Burden, Robinson, & III, 2008). Athletic success is known as an acceptable way to achieve social mobility for black people, and black children more often see black counterparts being successful in athletics rather than in intellect (Hodge, Burden, Robinson, & III, 2008; Hodge, Kozub, Dixson, III, & Kambon, 2008; Hoberman, 1997). Because of the lack of known successful black intellectuals, children may internalize their need to be successful through sports (Hodge, Burden, Robinson, & III, 2008). Furthermore, the idea of intellectual inferiority is reinforced, and sports are perceived as the best way to succeed as a black person (Hodge, Burden, Robinson, & III, 2008). Black people accept the notion that they are meant to be physically adept rather than intellectually (Hoberman, 1997).
White athletes can feel affected by these stereotypes, and they may think they are physically inferior to black athletes (Azzarito & Harrison, 2008). Negative stereotypes like this can affect how well people perform in sports (Azzarito & Harrison, 2008). If someone is thought to be naturally less good, they may not think they have the capability to do as well. The common impression “white men can’t [sic] jump” affects standards of black and white athletes (Azzarito & Harrison, 2008; Hoberman, 1997). When white athletes think they are inefficient compared to black athletes, whites maintain the stereotypes they hold for black athletes. Since black athletes believe these stereotypes are true, they do not speak up against them. When competing against each other, black athletes are expected to defeat white opponents (Hoberman, 1997). If they do not beat their opponents, their ability is questioned (Hoberman, 1997). Athletics may be the only place black people are ranked above white people. Unless black athletes are aware of the social affect athletics have on their self image, they do not have reason to object to the stereotypes of white athletes. More so, the pressure behind being a great athlete may overwhelm any second thoughts of real athletic aptitude compared to white athleticism. The challenge for success and mobility overshadows the need to question the accuracy of these stereotypical claims.
The black athlete stereotype plays into the overall stereotype of the aggressive black male (Hoberman, 1997). Athleticism is a form of progressed physical dominance of black men throughout history (Hoberman, 1997). Black athletes are juxtaposed with black criminals—the two main black stereotypes of physical aggression. Also, the two roles of rappers and athletes are often fused together especially with the popular combination of athletes who also make music (Hoberman, 1997). This combination influences young African Americans into thinking they need to have specific attributes to be successful (Hoberman, 1997). Additionally, these are the two largest areas where black people are deemed successful (Hoberman, 1997). It is a detriment to black people to accept these as the only way to be successful. To become a professional athlete can be difficult, and emphasizing strictly athletic success erases the importance of academic or educational success. These stereotypical roles erase the black middle class and the possibility to be successful otherwise (Hoberman, 1997). Also, these stereotypes impact how white people view blackness; and they are perpetuated when black people continue to enforce their expected natural role as athletes (Hoberman, 1997). Because of the grand promises success of athleticism offers, it is difficult for black people to want to argue against their “natural talent.”
While black males hold a specific role within black athleticism, the role of black females within sports is disregarded (Vertinsky & Captain, 1998). Similar to history, black females are erased from the discussion of athleticism and sports. Deleting black women from their role in sports can harm outside perceptions. Also, they may have a difficult time defending their role as black women in sports. If their role and the problems that come with it are ignored, they will not know what problems they need to fix. Within sports, the black female body is perceived much differently from its male counterparts (Vertinsky & Captain, 1998). The black female body remains highly stigmatized as hypersexual and exotic (Vertinsky & Captain, 1998).
These common stereotypes behind black athleticism harm the perception of black people and reinforce the utilization of black bodies. Black athletes are perceived as physically superior and naturally talented compared to their white counterparts. The notion of race biology discriminates the ability for black athletes to work hard through pure skill rather than inherited luck. Also, black athleticism reiterates black masculinity and the fetishization of black females. Additionally, these stereotypes shape the way black people perceive their ability to succeed. Overall, these stereotypes are damaging to black people’s continual role as physical bodies.
Azzarito, L., & Harrison, L. (2008). “White Men Can’t Jump”: Race, Gender and Natural Athleticism. International Review for the Sociology of Sport , 347-364.
Harrison, L. (2001). Understanding the Influence of Stereotypes: Implications for the African American in Sport and Physical Activity. Quest , 97-114.
Hoberman, J. (1997). Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Hodge, S. R., Burden, J. W., Robinson, L. E., & III, R. A. (2008). Theorizing on the Stereotyping of Black Male Student-Athletes. Journal for the Study of Sports and Athletes in Education , 203-226.
Hodge, S. R., Kozub, F. M., Dixson, A. D., III, J. L., & Kambon, K. (2008). A Comparison of High School Students’ Stereotypic Beliefs about Intelligence and Athleticism. The Journal of Educational Foundations , 99-119.
Vertinsky, P., & Captain, G. (1998). More Myth than History: American Culture and Representations of the Black Female’s. Journal of Sport History , 532-561.