With the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) season underway, one storyline that made waves this offseason was the controversial trade of Chiney Ogwumike to the Los Angeles Sparks. The trade re-united Chiney with her sister, Nneka, in one of the biggest media markets in the United States. Through their success in sport, the sisters have built their social profiles in different ways, with Nneka finding more success on the court (WNBA MVP and champion in 2016) and Chiney in media working for ESPN.
As successful athletes and burgeoning media personalities, the Ogwumikes present themselves as figures of sociological interest, primarily because they exist at the intersection of an increasingly diverse Black America as second generation Nigerian immigrants.
As Black America has continued to diversify since the passage of the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act, larger populations of immigrants from Caribbean and African countries have complicated what it means to be “Black” in the U.S. Sociologists have observed that Black Americans with recent immigrant backgrounds face difficulties integrating into U.S. society. In the U.S., people often use the words “Black” and “African American” interchangeably. But this tendency frequently causes confusion, especially when we consider Blacks who immigrated to the U.S. since the beginning of the 20th Century compared to Blacks whose ethnic identities were shaped through the history of the slave trade. That is why it is important to make distinctions when talking about the experience of “being Black” in the U.S., because not all Black people are treated the same even if they still encounter systematic anti-black racism.
Another issue is that the idea of Black success in the U.S. is often tied to what U.S./Western norms and institutions define as success. So the very institutions that continue to perpetuate anti-Black ideas also define what success looks like, and, simultaneously, often work against the formation of anti-racist coalitions. An example of this problem would be how sport is engaged in the charitable/philanthropy-industrial complex, as it lends itself to overly-simplistic solutions to problems facing poor and marginalized peoples with the idea that sport “builds character”—as if it is a lack of character, or access to sport, that keeps poor people in poverty both in the U.S. and abroad.
Given the issues noted above, our research tries to better understand how the Ogwumikes fit into the changing demographics of Black America. In a recent study, we examined media coverage of the Ogwumikes from 2007 through 2017. In doing so, we considered not only how the Ogwumike sisters were portrayed, but also how their representations fit into the larger context of gender, race, and immigration in sport. Our findings indicate two prominent themes in media coverage of the Ogwumike sisters.
First, representations of the Ogwumikes as Black women are consistent with existing research on Black women in sport. Within these representations of Black women, what sociologists call gendered racism means that there are contradictions in how Black women are discussed compared to white women. For instance, although women’s sports are often devalued as “un-athletic” and not worthy of attention, Black women, including the Ogwumikes, are stereotypically portrayed in ways that explain their athleticism as “natural,” “aggressive,” and “imposing.” The contradiction that women are weak but Black women are physically strong and strike “fear” into their opponents tends to be the norm—Black women are seen and defined as un-feminine, or masculine, from the very start.
Second, the Ogwumikes are often portrayed as “model minorities” in the U.S. because they are second-generation Nigerian immigrants. In particular, White supremacy is maintained through the model minority stereotype because the “success” of some minority groups is coded as the result of adherence to social norms that include hard work, education, and, of course, ignoring issues of race and racism. In the case of the Ogwumikes, both sisters and their mother are quoted as saying the success of Nigerians is due to a “culture of hard work.” Considering that they are professional athletes and Stanford graduates, this seems like a reasonable statement. However, this explanation ignores the hard work that all immigrant groups do when they come to the U.S., regardless of educational or economic attainment. Moreover, while Nigerians, among other nationalities, are more highly educated than native-born white Americans, we must remember that U.S. immigration policy from 1965 has favored highly skilled/educated immigrants from developing countries. This policy means it is unlikely that poor and uneducated Nigerians would have the resources come to the U.S.
Ultimately, our research highlights some of the problems with how Black immigrants are portrayed in white media. Not only is it difficult for Black immigrants to escape stereotypes of blackness, but their immigrant status is also used to (re)marginalize native-born Blacks. By attributing the success of immigrants to their unique culture we simultaneously belittle those Black immigrants who do not succeed. White supremacy works to manipulate ideas of race in subtle and seemingly infinite ways—if we fail to be vigilant, it becomes too easy to buy into this ideology.
Munene Mwaniki is an assistant professor of sociology at Western Carolina University. He is the author of The Black Migrant Athlete: Media, Race, and the Diaspora in Sport (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). His work has appeared in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, Communication & Sport, Journal of Sport and Social Issues, and various op-eds. His research broadly focuses on the intersections of race, immigration, and sport.
Manuel Zenquis is an independent scholar whose areas of concern are situated in culture, politics, and inequality. He has recently graduated from Harvard University with a master’s degree in religious studies.