If anyone thought the furor caused by the hand gesture Louisiana State University forward Angel Reese gave Iowa guard Caitlin Clark after beating her team in the NCAA championship was over, they weren’t ready for first lady Jill Biden to enter the fray.
When Biden suggested Clark’s University of Iowa team, against tradition, be invited along with LSU to a White House celebration, she further fueled the conversation over the role race played in the scrutiny of Reese when she waved her hand in front of her face, taunting Clark. Clark had made the same gesture to another player on another team in a previous game without criticism.
It’s a familiar conversation about how Black women are regarded in sports and other arenas, such as politics and corporate America, when they express themselves. The gesture, many say, is not as significant as the race of the person who did it, and the societal repercussions and backlash that came with it.
“A Black woman is gesturing to a white woman and that is not okay. Then, a Black woman is clearly standing in her talent and that’s a problem. A Black woman has the nerve to brag about how good she is and that’s a problem,” said Kaye Wise Whitehead, founder and executive director of the Karson Institute for Race, Peace & Social Justice.
Biden’s suggestion, which she backed away from Tuesday, was a “slap in the face” to the winners, Whitehead said. Biden’s press secretary, Vanessa Valdivia, eventually cleaned up the comment in a tweet saying that the first lady’s words “were intended to applaud the historic game and all women athletes. She looks forward to celebrating the LSU Tigers on their championship win at the White House.”
Reese called Biden’s suggestion “a joke.” Time will tell if she accepts the White House invitation.
For her part, Clark doesn’t think people should have come down on Reese at all, her comments underscoring the fact the unfair portrayal came from off the court. She told ESPN that “everybody knew there was going to be a little trash talk in the entire tournament.” She also added that only the Tigers should visit the White House. Trash talk, Whitehead said, is embedded in basketball culture. It happens in men’s basketball all the time, but “it doesn’t seem to work when women are doing it.”
Perhaps moreso for Black women. Athletes such as Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Sha’Carri Richardson have all been publicly scrutinized for their appearance or how they reacted or interacted with their sport. Former first lady Michelle Obama has also been criticized related to her looks and role in the White House.
In addition to waving her hand in front of Clark’s face, Reese also pointed to her ring finger, symbolizing that LSU was about to seal the deal for the championship. She addressed the scrutiny she faced after the 102-85 victory: “I don’t fit the narrative. I don’t fit in a box that y’all want me to be in. I’m ‘too hood.’ I’m ‘too ghetto.’ Y’all told me that all year,” Reese said. “When other people do it, y’all say nothing. So, this was for the girls that look like me, that’s going to speak up on what they believe in.”
When you call someone “ghetto” or “hood,” you are also talking about their perceived class level as well, Whitehead said.
It’s problematic the way people frame conversations around Black women and what they do, she said. It’s also an “exhausting” conversation that continues to have to be revisited.
Karenthia A. Barber, CEO of Professional Development Associates LLC, said Reese’s statement about the negative comments and not being able to be her authentic self are feelings Black women in countless office settings share. Black women cannot show up as their authentic selves because there are stereotypical expectations of acceptance that sectors of society push onto women of color.
“If we show up unapologetically Black then we are expected to change, shift, alter and mimic the general population of that institution,” Barber said.
Jermaine Woods, head coach of the Coppin State women’s basketball program, said Reese and Clark both deserve to be treated and recognized as exceptional players and for what they contribute to women’s basketball. He didn’t see a problem with either of the gestures or the trash talk, but there’s no ignoring that Clark “was able to show emotion and Reese was called classless.” He’d like to see more coaches use their platform to call out inequities like this and not run away from the fact that race is a part of the conversation.
“We did see a young Black woman get vilified and we have the platform to step up and take care of her and make sure she knows she’s a part of women’s basketball,” Woods said.
Woods added that it’s not the athletes that are the problem, but the people who are not playing that are. He considers it his job to empower his players because they’re gonna get criticism from people who don’t have a clue who they are. In addition to coaches, Woods said, commentators and other gatekeepers of the sport have a responsibility to make sure all women are treated fairly, and to continue to identify problems and talk about them.
Whitehead said the conversations about what happened with Reese and Clark are perhaps helping people understand what goes on in women’s sports, and helping people reframe the language that is used, especially among reporters in media. She’d also like to see this transcend into conversations about equity from a broader lens, considering WNBA players still get paid less than NBA players. And change — so that conversations about Black women in different arenas doesn’t have to keep being revisited — requires an individual approach.
“The work we’re doing is not work that is going to change people’s hearts and minds until they are willing to confront their microaggressions and confront their own internalized racism. They have to begin by confronting themselves.”