Olympic fencing medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad came to Morgan State University on Tuesday carrying the same message she delivered in Rio de Janeiro after becoming the first Muslim-American woman to compete and medal at the Olympic Games wearing a hijab — the traditional Muslim head scarf.
"I remember being a kid and being told that I didn't belong in my sport,'' she said, "and for me it has always been really important to try to reach our youth, specifically to let them know there is no limit to what you can do as long as you're willing to work hard for it…even if you are in a sport like fencing like I was as a kid where there weren't very many people doing it who looked like me."
Muhammad, who grew up in New Jersey and won a bronze medal in Rio as a member of the U.S. Saber Fencing team, traveled to Morgan State to take part in a symposium entitled "The Impact of Negative Images on Black Women Athletes." The event introduced the School of Global Journalism and Communications' new Center For Study of Race in Sports and Culture, which has been partially funded by a grant from The Undefeated, ESPN's multiplatform content initiative that explores sports, race and culture.
The panel discussion also featured ESPN's Jemele Hill, former WNBA All-Star and ESPN basketball analyst Kara Lawson and former Washington Post columnist Lonnae O'Neal, who currently is a senior writer with The Undefeated.
The discussion centered largely on the cultural obstacles facing African-American female athletes, a subject that seemed to be tailor-made for Muhammad, whose religion added an extra dimension to her emergence as a world-class athlete and, with it, greater responsibility to be a role model for both African-American and Muslim-American youth.
"When I qualified [for the Olympics], my life kind of changed because all of the sudden I became the first person in hijab to qualify for the United States Olympic Team," Muhammad said. "And, immediately, my life and my experiences in sport just kind of felt bigger than me. I feel the same way when we think of firsts in swimming, for example, with Simone Manuel being the first African-American woman to medal in an Olympic swimming event. I feel like those moments in our history are so much bigger than we are, because we've changed the dynamic in our communities."
Though each of the panelists delivered a positive message about the importance of striving to overcome any societal impediments to their dreams, the conversation also focused on the different standards that African-American women feel they are judged by both in sports and other professions.
One of the first examples was the reaction during the Olympics when gymnast Gabby Douglas failed — or more likely forgot — to place her hand over her heart while the Star-Spangled Banner was played during the gold medal ceremony for the winning U.S. team. Douglas was taken to task on social media for being "disrespectful" while a similar oversight by two American shot put medalists went all but unnoticed. She also was subjected to petty criticism for everything from her appearance to her attitude.
"In my experience as an athlete, especially one that has come into the public eye fairly recently, I feel there are trolls out there; they're going to find a reason not to like you,'' Muhammad said. "Especially as a black woman and as an African-American Muslim woman, they were just looking for something.
The panelists went on to discuss the differing perceptions of black female athletes and their white counterparts, at one point during the question-and-answer session trying to make sense of the fact that African-American tennis superstar Serena Williams has been criticized for being both too masculine and too sexy.
The problem is easy enough to identify, but fixing it is another story. O'Neal says that the answer might be to take control of the narrative instead of allowing the narrative to continually replicate itself.
"I'm a big believer in force multipliers…in us having conversations with us about us and borrowing some of that white male entitlement,'' she said. "How about, I'm going to put my story forth and my narrative and my sensibilities and I'm going to do it with the same kind of expectation that this is valid, and if you don't know, you better ask somebody. You can look it up in the urban dictionary. I'm going to do it in my language. I'm going to frame it the way I want to and I'm going to ask you to stretch."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and follow him @Schmuckstop on Twitter.