“BE PHYSICAL, DON’T TALK, DON’T HAVE A PERSONALITY”
’m not starstruck.
In a press conference before the 2021 Prefontaine Classic, Sha’Carri Richardson sandwiched her self-assuredness between pleasantries. Seated next to Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Elaine Thompson-Herah, each in their own Olympic afterglow, the 21-year-old U.S. sprinter was on the brink of her 100-metre advent. The race marked her first time competing since her infamously ill-fated bid to represent Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics. And while she prepared to return to the track, she settled back into the unflinching bravado that had polarized fellow athletes and onlookers. In a since-deleted Instagram video shared days before the race, she mouthed along to a clip of Nicki Minaj saying, “It’s game time, bitches.” In the caption, she warned competitors of her imminent return: “August 21 and I’m not playing nice.”
When she came in last place at the Prefontaine, this preamble was brought back to light — but Richardson doubled down: Immediately after the race, she told reporters, “Talk all the shit you want ‘cause I’m here to stay. I’m not done. I’m the sixth-fastest woman in this game ever, and can’t nobody ever take that from me,” she said, referencing her April PB of 10.72 seconds. In another post-race Q&A session, she apologized for her swearing, but not her sentiment. “Right now it wasn’t time to do it and that’s okay,” she said. “But when it is time to do it, y’all [are going to]know. And what will you say then? Nothing.”
Richardson hadn’t directly disparaged her competitors. But just as quickly as the race ended, the discourse around Richardson picked up steam among the masses. Talk shows and Twitter feeds flooded with debates on whether Richardson’s “attitude” was excusable or unsportsmanlike. Usain Bolt even weighed in. Though the eight-time Olympic gold medallist acknowledged the semblance of a rivalry between sprinters can draw attention to the sport (he compared it to his own relationship with Team USA’s Justin Gatlin), he warned Richardson to “train hard, be focused and [don’t] say too much.”
Bolt may have meant well, but the insinuation has harmful undertones — even coming from another athlete. “The idea that you should just show it through your actions is insulting. It’s basically taking away an athlete’s voice, telling them to just be a body and not to express themselves,” says University of Connecticut’s Dr. Karen C.P. McDermott, whose 2019 Ph.D. dissertation studied the effects of trash talk on a player’s performance. “That in itself is a concerning message to send to Black female athletes: Be physical, don’t talk, don’t have a personality — that’s a problem.”
To suggest that Black women forgo trash talk and only communicate through their performance is to disregard elements that are inherently part of an athlete’s game, says Dr. Janelle Joseph, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and founder of the Indigeneity, Diaspora, Equity and Anti-Racism in Sport (IDEAS) Research Lab. “There’s this idea that sport is neutral and that you can just show it through your game, but your ponytail is part of the game and the way you wear your uniform is part of the game. There are all these sociocultural aspects to the game, [and]I would argue that trash talking is absolutely one of those aspects. To suggest that someone should circumscribe their words but not other aspects is naive.”
Whether it’s harmless or hardcore, trash talk is part of the soundtrack of sport. The cacophony of player-to-player insults ups the stakes, adding a layer of liveliness to games and extra motivation for the participants. Most athletes jumping into this back-and-forth are given a pass, their chirps and barbs shrugged off as part of the game or, at worst, something to be written off because it was said in the heat of the moment. But when Black women use their voices, the lightheartedness tends to disappear and the professional consequences and impact to their reputations can be significant. So who is actually allowed to engage?
“When you’re looking at Black women, you’re taking all of the gender expectations associated with women and you’re taking all of the racial and racist undertones that Black men deal with,” McDermott says. “The intersectionality of these forces affects how we see Black women, their agency, and how they interact. You run into the stereotypes of the loud Black woman who is always angry. So rather than just seeing an athlete trash-talking, it suddenly becomes that caricature, that stereotype that’s [believed to be]embodied in this person.”
Drawing from the research that IDEAS led with Ontario University Athletics, Dr. Joseph says that Black women in sports face a double-edged sword. “On one hand, racialized athletes, particularly women, are penalized more harshly for everything that they do. On the other hand, they’re assumed to be tough and resilient, and they’re under-cared for,” she says. “Putting trash talk within that context, I would have to say that certainly they will be more harshly penalized when things go wrong. The assumption that they’re out of line is always there — it’s an underlying factor for everything that they do.”
Richardson’s heavily criticized pre- and post-Prefontaine comments were even relatively tame — for reference, Mike Tyson once said that he wanted to eat Lennox Lewis’s children. “There’s a sliding scale of appropriateness. With those who do condone it, it’s heavily caveated,” McDermott explains in a phone call. “’Yes, you should avoid misogyny. Yes, you should avoid racism. Yes, you should avoid personal attacks.’ There are boundaries that athletes who condone trash talk will distinguish as lines in the sand because [otherwise]it’s just plain old abuse.”
McDermott’s study tracked students playing video games to determine how trash-talking can throw off an opponent. “In general, trash talk is a hot-button moral and ethical issue,” she says. “For women, studies have found that, in general, they’re less likely to condone or tolerate it. So it’s not as prevalent in women’s sports.” But for Black women, she says, this intensifies. “Anything that’s true for women is magnified for Black women — that’s an unfortunate by-product of how we’ve developed socially.”
Whether subconscious or overt, having to deal with the looming threat of being labelled an “angry Black woman” is burdensome. “Thinking of what they might say is really a complicated decision-making process for athletes,” Joseph explains. “There’s the resisting the stereotype of being the angry Black or the unruly Black, as well as the wanting to please those in power so that all of the privileges of being a student athlete or a professional athlete will accrue.” Though this isn’t always top of mind, “if they do give it some thought, they have lots of reasons to hold their tongue,” she says.
In a 2020 interview with FightHype.com, boxer and MMA fighter Claressa Shields compared the way other fighters’ verbal jabs stacked up with her own. “I’m an African American female who’s on top of my game. The thing that I don’t get is that Tony Harrison and Jermell Charlo disrespected each other completely,” she said, referencing the lead up to their 2019 bout. “There was no respect between those guys, not even on a professional level. They called each other b—-es, hoes, [and]they were going to fight each other. I love both of [those]guys, but why can’t I do that? I’m not going to go that far, because that just ain’t what I do. I’m going to talk my trash, but I get in there and back up every single word that I say and I’ve accomplished more than both of those guys put together. So how can you tell me that, being a woman, I shouldn’t be able to talk about what I can and can’t do?”
Shields also pointed out that double-standards in trash talk aren’t limited to imbalances between men and women. “You guys can brag on me but when I talk about myself and spit facts, it’s a problem. It’s all because I’m a Black woman — that’s it,” she said. “But if I was Ronda Rousey, she talks more shit than a little bit [and]nobody ever said a f—ing word about it, did they? I wonder why.”
A tenet of the Black female experience is that we’re to be humbled, not hyped up. And though linking this back to slavery will prompt some eye-rolls, it’s easy to relate the fear of and friction with bold, Black confidence back to the historically subservient status that Black women have been forced into under white hegemony. Campaigns for Black female athletes to be humble are veiled calls for them to be docile. Hyping oneself up — at the expense of an opponent in trash-talking scenarios — subverts that docility in a way that society doesn’t condone.
“The idea that Black women are engaging in trash talk means that not only are they violating white respectability politics, but also the gender divide,” Dr. Joseph explains. “They’re doing a masculinized practice in a hypermasculine way by trash-talking. So to me, it seems the scrutiny is racialized and their violation of the normal feminine behavior would also be critiqued.”
Though trash-talking isn’t second nature to Team Canada boxer Tamm Thibeault (“Some days you’ll get the better of your opponent, but there are other days where you won’t,” she explains via Zoom) the double-standard on assertiveness isn’t lost on her. “When it’s women [trash talking], it’s seen as arrogant, cocky, out of place and emotional. But when men do it, it’s seen as masculine; it’s just a thing to do,” she says. “So we have to be poised, calm, collected and polite? It makes no sense.”
Thibeault signed into our Zoom interview shortly before leaving for a Colorado training camp. “You have to be better to get recognized, but the moment you fall out with a ref, it’s a big deal,” she explains. “Do you know how many times other players have trash-talked and people have forgotten about it? It’s really difficult to have to be a certain way. You have to do more than what other people would: you have to be more composed, more aware, more careful, more polite.”
Having spent her early years in Saskatchewan, Thibeault was familiar with this dynamic long before stepping into the ring. “Growing up in whiter communities, my mom would tell us that we have to be quieter than other people and that we can’t make a scene because people are going to label you as the angry Black lady,” she recalls. “It’s different when you’re a woman and it’s different when you’re Black. There’s all this stigma attached to trash-talking and how you express yourself. I feel like no matter how you do it, some people are going to like it and some people won’t.”
For McDermott, to understand the spirit of trash talk, you have to recognize its history: the earliest iteration of trash talk developed from the African American tradition of playing the dozens. “That practice of verbal sparring and verbal competition developed out of African American culture. Black men needed a cathartic way to express their frustrations that wasn’t going to get them in trouble,” she explains. “The cultural history of trash talk, especially in Black and African American cultures, is integral. In many cases, it’s also used pro-socially to create relationships and to develop a rapport. These hard-line attempts to say that trash talk is immoral aren’t considering the nuances of trash talk.” Meanwhile, the resistance to it, she says, “is a colonialist way of saying that you need to be civil.
“If you look at any oppressed groups — like with gay men and drag queens, there’s throwing shade and reading — all of these communities have some form of verbal sparring,” McDermott continues. “It’s part of the tradition.” With that history in mind, to police how Black people engage with trash talk would be overlooking its very purpose.
Richardson’s loss at the Prefontaine Classic will be a footnote in both her career and our recollections of her 2021 ascent, but it can be a benchmark for how we move forward because trash talk isn’t going anywhere and neither are the Black women who engage with it. “Trash talk is present wherever competition is present,” McDermott says. “I’m hoping that as women’s sports become more mainstream, [stereotyping]will eventually go away.
“But right now, we’re still very much in the weeds in terms of how we view women as athletes, and especially how we view Black women as athletes.”
Illustrations by Amber Williams-King