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Ellen DeGeneres’ Usain Bolt Tweet Has a Greater Context

Aug. 17, 2016

'You don't have to be racist to be wrong'

Ellen DeGeneres has been defending herself against people on Twitter who called her “racist” after she posted a Photoshopped image of herself riding Usain Bolt with the caption “This is how I’m running errands from now on. #Rio2016.”

“I am highly aware of the racism that exists in our country,” DeGeneres tweeted on Tuesday. “It is the furthest thing from who I am.”

You don’t have to be racist to be wrong. What the beloved DeGeneres doesn’t seem to understand is that stereotypical racist undertones can speak louder than whatever you say—even when giving a compliment.

Here’s why stereotypes should never be a compliment: They do a wonderful job of re-marginalizing people and perpetuating dehumanizing norms. These tropes can lead to dangerous stigmas and even discrimination.

Though she may not have thought about it when she tweeted, DeGeneres’ tweet is steeped in the tradition of slavery. In the Antebellum South, slave owners were once carried on the backs of slaves, called carrying the Sedan Chair. While DeGeneres’ tweet implies Bolt’s speed, it also signals attention to his body and ability in relation to servicing her everyday needs, like picking up groceries or running an errand. What underpins her joke is the devalue of labor involved in preparing for an Olympic race, which is sustained by a failure to humanize and see Bolt as a full participant in the Games alongside his counterparts.

DeGeneres’ tweet triggers this imagery, while also reminding us that race and sports cannot be disentangled on the world stage of the Olympics—and they never have been.

For decades, Olympic athletes have competed amidst racial tensions and continue to dispel myths and protest. African-American Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos demonstrated this by raising a black power fist on the podium in 1968. This year, Gabby Douglas has been challenged by both gender- and race-related criticism of her hair. Gold-medalist swimmer Simone Manuel denounced police brutality against African Americans following her victory.

Her delightful love of dancing aside, DeGeneres has a habit of cultural insensitivity that extends beyond her relationship to the Olympics. This comes after dressing as Nicki Minaj for Halloween and costuming herself as Colombian actress Sofia Vergara, mocking accents and wearing a prosthetic buttocks for the respective women.

DeGeneres surely is not the only comedian who uses culture and stereotypes as a comic platform. But the theatrics of the Olympics Games combined with the spectacle of national pride makes it so that such comments merit critique. Her actions are not without context, and when it comes to racialized issues, she should pass the baton to more equipped social players.

Sevonna M. Brown is the human rights project manager at Black Women’s Blueprint in Brooklyn and a Ms. Foundation Public Voices Fellow.