Appearances are Everything: Nagasu, Wagner, and Cluelessness

By Maureen Boyd and Pattie Gillett

Over the last few days, the selection of Ashley Wagner over Mirai Nagasu has occupied casual and avid skating fans alike with charges of racism tainting the US Figure Skating Association’s Women’s Olympic Figure Skating team selection.

If you only watched last week’s competition, you saw two-time champion Ashley Wagner fall twice and finish her long program tentatively following her mediocre short program. She did not receive a standing ovation and the crowd seemed to clap out of sympathy, more than anything else.

Fans then saw 2008 champion and 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu skate with few, if any, visible mistakes and receive a standing ovation from the crowd.

The evening ended with Gracie Gold taking the gold medal, Polina Edmunds the silver, Nagasu the bronze, and Wagner the pewter (a fourth place medal that is only issued at US Nationals).

At a press conference shortly after noon on the following day, Pat St. Peter, the head of USFSA, announced that Gold, Edmunds, and Ashley Wagner would be competing in the Sochi Olympics. Mirai Nagasu, despite her superior performance, would not be representing Women’s Figure Skating at Sochi.

Fans in the Twitterverse exploded with the hashtag #MiraiEarnedIt. WSJ writer Jeff Yang wrote a scathing commentary that seemed to capture the widespread and quite understandable perception that “with Wagner, silver winner Polina Edmunds and gold medalist Gracie Gold (talk about central casting fantasies!), the U.S.A. will be taking to the ice with a porcelain-skinned, blond-tressed triple-threat, any of whom will unleash a geyser of sponsorship money.”

While USFSA has almost always picked the top skaters at Nationals to make up the US Olympic team they are not required to do so. USFSA bylaws state that the skater’s “body of work” – including performance in events in the previous year – will also be factors in determining selection to the team. Defenders of USFSA’s decision point out that Wagner’s performance in all of these previous competitions surpassed Nagasu’s.

Yet, even this argument seems specious: as one fan pointed out, if one applies the body of work criteria to the entirety of the team, Polina Edmunds should have been bumped by Nagasu, whose body of work was superior to hers.

The decision and circumstances were also unprecedented in the entire history of US Olympic skating. Only four other times have the top finishers at Nationals not been named to the Olympic team: Todd Eldredge in 1992, Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, pairs Jenni Meno and Todd Sand in 1998 and Michelle Kwan in 2006. All failed to perform in Nationals because of various injuries, yet were awarded spots on the Olympic teams.

And the leadership of the USFSA, Pat St. Peter and her advisors, clearly anticipated how fans might respond to their radical break with tradition. St. Peter was armed with defensive, tone-deaf talking points that appeared in an even more tone-deaf press release posing as an article on the Team USA website: “We have selection guidelines in place, that are vetted through the athlete’s committee and vetted through the USOC,… This competition is not the only event U.S. Figure Skating considers in selecting the team” and “If you look over the course of the last year plus at Ashley Wagner’s credentials, she has the top credentials of any of our female [single skater] athletes…That is why we made the decision we did, and our guidelines are posted on the USOC site.” St. Peter’s last line, “our guidelines are posted on the USOC site,” reeks of a disdain for public perception that gets to the heart of the matter:

It doesn’t matter what the bylaws say, if Nagasu’s performance was superior to Wagner’s, or if Wagner’s body of work was superior to Nagasu’s. What matters is that it did not even occur to USFSA officials to consider the obvious appearance of racism that would result from their decision to pass over a woman of color for a blonde haired, blue eyed woman. Or, if it did occur to them, they simply didn’t care. In either case, USFSA leadership displayed an astounding level of cluelessness that looks a lot like white privilege.

It’s hard to know what Pat St. Peter’s experience with people of color is, or whether or not she knows what white privilege is. People who unconsciously possess white privilege operate with a blithe certainty in and about the world: they do not experience being passed over for promotion because of the color of their skin, and thus do not concern themselves with what being passed over on the basis of skin color might look, feel or sound like. Because racism is not a daily lived reality for the person of unconscious white privilege (PUWP), the PUWP doesn’t factor in even the possibility of racism into her decision-making process, or if she does, she dismisses it, at some level, as a trivial concern.

Pat St. Peter’s dismissive comments, NBC Winter Olympics television ads already featuring Ashley Wagner prior to the decision, and the USFSA’s ongoing silence about the specter of racism* all suggest that a whole lotta PUWPs are making the decisions at the USFSA. And while the intentions of the USFSA officials may actually be purely based on a calculus of who will win the most medals at Sochi, the effect has been to create a perception, and thus a climate, that can only be perceived as racist by any person of color. When any set of decision-makers acts from a place of unconscious white privilege they necessarily re-create the climate of white privilege they hail from. That’s a climate that will be constitutionally defined by ignorance of, and insensitivity to, the concerns of people of color—concerns intertwined with experiences of racist bias. Perhaps this is why even devoted fans of US figure skating would be hard pressed to name more than two or three African American and Latino skaters to make it into the sport’s top ranks over the past thirty years.

And how does this climate of white privilege in U.S. women’s figure skating impact the women’s community that skaters, their devoted fans, the judges and other women in the sport have come to embody?

In the male dominated sports media the discourse around figure-skating and it’s spangled, make-up wearing athletes is that they and their “crazy” (read: female and feminine) sport have never been legit. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan fiasco, a“crazy” women’s figure-skating conflict that occurred between two white women of very different class positions. Some media outlets are gleefully representing the Nagasu/Wagner controversy as another example of Harding/Kerrigan-style antics that epitomizes the “hysterics” of the sport.

The only way female athletes can successfully combat the sexism that continues to exist in the world of professional sports is through solidarity between white women and women of color. All female figure-skaters– white women and women of color alike– are damaged by the insulting and derisive reduction of this sport to a series of hysterical and dramatic episodes. The clueless decisions of a few PUWPs in the USFSA are perpetuating this stereotype of women’s figure skating and sowing divisiveness in a sport that needs to remember that there are young girls of color out there, dreaming of one day becoming another Nagasu.

*The USFSA has posted a response to Jeff Yang’s story.  While some acknowledgement of fan concerns about racial bias is an improvement, we find the statement defensive in tone. We also think the fact that the Olympics team is 25% Asian American does not negate the fact that the sport as a whole lacks racial diversity.   Jeff Yang posted has also posted a rebuttal.  His rebuttal states that he did not accuse the USFSA of discrimination on the basis of race, but rather made a decision based on marketability that is embedded in racialized ideals of American-ness.