If Gabby Douglas Was Bullied, What About Our Kids?

Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas recently revealed that she was once bullied by other children. She believes that some of it was because she is African-American. For more on this story and how parents can talk to their children about race, host Michel Martin is joined by regular moms contributors Leslie Morgan Steiner, Jolene Ivey and Dani Tucker.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we are heading to South Africa for the final chapter in our summer reading series. We'll hear from the author of a provocative novel about life in that nation after the end of apartheid, the so-called Born Free generation. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Today, we want to talk about an issue that Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas has brought into the open recently, and no, it is not the nonsense about whether her hair was cute enough for the international spotlight. No. This is something you may have faced in your own life or your child's life. It's about being bullied because of your race.

Here's what Gabby Douglas told Oprah Winfrey in a recent interview.

GABBY DOUGLAS: One of my teammates was like, can you scrape the bar? And they were like, well, why doesn't Gabby do it? She's our slave. So it was just very offensive and I really think that it should not have been said.

MARTIN: Now, I want to emphasize here that Gabby Douglas is not talking about her Olympic teammates. She's talking about early in her training, but she said she felt bullied and isolated by other young gymnasts, in part because of her race.

And with children back in school, it's something parents of all races may be confronting, so we decided to ask our moms how they would handle, or have handled bullying, especially where there's a racial aspect to it.

With us now are Dani Tucker. She's the mom of two, a daughter and a son. She's also an office administrator. Jolene Ivey is the mom of five boys. She's a Maryland state lawmaker. And Leslie Morgan Steiner is the mom of three, a boy and two girls, and the author most recently of the memoir "Crazy Love."

Ladies, moms, thanks for joining us once again.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Thanks, Michel.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Leslie, I'm going to start with you because you felt very strongly about this story. You wanted to talk about it. What brought it to - what made it so important to you to talk about?

STEINER: Because I think Gabby Douglas is telling the truth and I think that a lot of us white people don't want to hear it and I think that she is really brave to do so and that she shouldn't be ostracized or even questioned. You know, of course, race is a part of everything that's happened in her life. And I think the problem about a lot of today's racial bullying is that it's very subtle and unconscious.

And my belief is that many white adults and kids are not necessarily aware we're doing it and that it's important to talk about it so that we can develop a greater muscle in ourselves and our kids in terms of awareness of racial bullying and empathy for people who we inadvertently do it to.

MARTIN: I want to play a little bit more from the interview. This is with Natalie Hawkins, who's Gabby Douglas' mom. This is what she said, also in that interview with Oprah Winfrey.

NATALIE HAWKINS: When she was 14, she said if I can't move and train and get another coach I'd rather quit the sport. There were some things that were going on that she was sharing with me and some things she wasn't because she knew how I would react.

MARTIN: And, Dani, you know I want to ask how you would react. Before I do, though, I want to say here that the owners of the gym vehemently deny any knowledge of the incidents that Gabrielle Douglas described. I think that's part of what Leslie was talking about when she said that, you know, it's important not to be in denial about this. They deny that this occurred. They say that - and other gymnasts - white gymnasts, I have to say - have all said that this never happened. How many of them would know I don't know since they weren't training there at the same time she was.

But, Dani, what do you think Natalie's talking about here and how do you think you would react? And you know I want to know if this has ever happened to your kids.

TUCKER: I feel like Gabby's mom - I'm sure we, especially as single moms, because you fight to protect your kids, probably double hard as others because you feel like you're playing two roles and, of course, she probably would have went off because I probably would have went off, you know, because you want to protect your kids in things like this, especially.

But I think she handled it the right way. I mean, there is no textbook that comes with how you handle this. You just have to talk to your kids. You know, I've talked to my kids. They've been fortunate, like I've told them, to be raised in what we call the chocolate city type area, so you've always been around blacks and you've always been around white folks, as well as Spanish, who are used to you.

But, like I told, you know, Davon(ph) when he was going in the Navy, you're going to a place where they're not used to seeing you and they're not used to seeing your color, not used to interacting and you're not used to that reaction. So, you know, I just wanted to make them aware of it, that, you know, it does exist when you step outside of this area. And how do you deal with it? You have to learn that some people may just be ignorant and you can't respond in your feelings and your emotions. You've got to let it go.

MARTIN: Jolene, what about you? Do you think that your kids have ever experienced this? I mean, Dani was saying, in part, this for her has not been as much of an issue recently because she's been - her kids have been in a less diverse environment until relatively recently. What about you?

IVEY: Well, and like Dani, my kids are being raised in a majority minority area, Prince Georges County, Maryland, so the white people who live there have chosen to live there and they're fine with black people. So, you know, the occasional thing comes up.

I think that what we need to look at, though, is Gabby did more than be black. She was better than them and that was the problem. If she hadn't been such a great athlete, they would have loved her, but you know, a lot of times, there are certain white people who just can't stand it that the black person is better than they are at something.

I think we see that with the presidency right now. The problems that we're having in the white community come from white people who don't like black people to excel and that's why they're trying to pull the black people down who they do do that to - I'm not saying all white people do that. Let me be clear.

MARTIN: Well, that couldn't be possible because the president wouldn't be president without significant white support, white voters.

IVEY: Right. But look at the white Congress that the Republicans who are trying to do all they can to keep him from being successful.

MARTIN: Well, I just have to say that there are those who would argue that it's his policies, not his race. I just feel that that is important to say, that...

IVEY: It's nice for you to say that, Michel.

MARTIN: OK. Well, all right. Leslie Morgan Stein, let me ask you about this. Though this is a very diverse area, I wonder if - this happens to white people, too. There are white students, kids participating in sports that are largely minority in some areas and I wonder if your - if that's ever happened to any of your kids, if they've been participating in sports that are more commonly in this - in the area in which you live...

STEINER: Right.

MARTIN: ...African-Americans play more or they're the minority. They're the minority.

STEINER: Well, my 15-year-old son is an intensely competitive basketball player and he has been the only white child on many, many, many basketball teams and I've been the only white mom in a lot of basketball gyms. So I've experienced it, but I've got to say, it's - I don't have the history of racism and slavery and so, in some ways, it's more amusing and sort of shocking than deeply hurtful and painful when it happens to us, but it gives us a little bit of a taste of what it must be like.

But I also - I think that it's made me more aware and it's made my kids more aware of all the assumptions we make and I think that, you know, it's terrible to think of yourself as a racist or to hear somebody call you a racist.

But there are things that we do all the time, like my kids go to a private school that's very diverse, but still white kids are the majority and, all the time, you hear people making assumptions that the black children are on financial aid, that the black boys are playing basketball, that the black kids are so lucky to be at this school. And I don't think we're being mean-spirited, but you've got to step back and look and think about what it's like to hear that your whole life, about how lucky you are and, you know, to have everybody ask you if you can dunk.

And it just - you know, I think we've all got to think about it and I try to get my kids to think about it, too, because it's an important part of the world we live in, going forward, especially.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our moms are here, our regular panel of moms. We're talking about bullying, especially where there's a racial element. It's something that Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas talked about in an interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Interestingly enough, after she was asked about this quite a bit at the Olympics and initially denied that there was any racial, you know, aspect to her training experience, which is something that - it was interesting that, you know, a lot of pundits talked about how - oh, she doesn't see color. I want to note that Sally Jenkins, the Washington Post - very well known Washington Post columnist wrote this long column excoriating the other journalists for asking her about this and then, later, in this interview with Oprah Winfrey, she talked about this experience. And, once again, we have to say that the owners of the gym she was talking about, her first gym, not the gym she was training at in preparation for the Olympics, deny that any of this occurred.

And, you know, that's another thing I want to ask you about because there's been a national conversation about bullying in the past few years, sparked in part by the suicides of gay students and teenagers. And I want to ask if you think that the response would have been different if Gabby had said, I'd been bullied because - she's not gay, but I'm just saying - if she'd said, this is because I'm gay or because she's a committed Christian, for example. If there had been some other element of identity that was the focus of the bullying, whether people would have been more interested in hearing it.

Does anybody have an opinion? Leslie, do you have an opinion about that?

STEINER: I think it would have been awkward in its own way. It would have been slightly different. It would have sparked a different kind of debate, but I wish people were talking about this even more and acknowledging that it's - that I think it's normal that the people at her gym in Virginia are denying it because maybe they didn't see it.

You know, I think it's really hard when you live your whole life in the majority to even see what - you know, the minority complaints and really to become aware of what you're inadvertently doing on a daily basis to other people who are of a different color than you are.

MARTIN: Dani Tucker?

TUCKER: I also think it's significant and I think Gabby knows - and I know her mother knows - because Gabby's the first. She's the first to actually - I mean, even when you had the Dominique Daweses and I can't think of the other young lady's name. They were not as successful as Gabby was. Everybody knew that Gabby was going to go in there and kick butt. She was going to win it all. And they've never experienced that.

You know, and I remember the little jokes about Dominique Dawes or how long she's going to do this because her behind's going to get too big. You know, that was a black and a racial remark, but they're - we're used to that. And that's one thing I like about Gabby's mom. You can tell because, when she made that comment to Oprah, Gabby kept rolling with it. You have to. We prepare our kids for that. It's a stepping stone for them.

I'm sure that her mother pushed her right off that stepping stone and, if it hadn't happened to her and if she hadn't have done it that way, she wouldn't be the gold medalist that she is.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things that I found very interesting about her and for people who want to deny that this occurred to her is that, when she moved to Iowa, which is not a terribly diverse state, for her training and lived with a white foster family and seems to have been very much embraced by them and she embracing them. So she seems to have had a very positive experience, so this is not a matter of, like, all white people doing this.

And her Chinese-American coach, very supportive, you know, of her. They clearly have a very respectful relationship and she's learned a tremendous amount from him. So, you know, again, I have to ask whether people might have taken it seriously in the gym that she was initially - if there had been a different element involved. Jolene?

IVEY: Well, I don't know if it had been a different element. I can tell you, though, that when - people just generally don't like confrontation. People like everybody just to get along and so her other gym - they probably - the adults in charge - they just didn't want to see it because they didn't want to have to deal with it and they liked the other kids, too, and they didn't want to see it. They didn't want to know about it. They may not have known about it. I bet those little girls knew about it, but you know, little girls can be kind of mean.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about, then, going forward or what advice you would share for others who have perhaps been in this situation, who've been on either end of this dynamic because there is a philosophy that perhaps we shouldn't talk about this so much, that this is constantly ripping open a new wound. There are many people who believe philosophically that it's not productive to talk about things like this, so Jolene, what's your thought about this?

IVEY: Well, one of my kids did, for a while, go to a majority white school and he did have a situation where a kid called him a name that wasn't nice and was racial. It was not the N word. And I called up the principal and I talked to her about it. It's a small school, so it was easy to do. Just called the principal, talked to her about it and she, of course, told me that oh, no. That kid's such a nice kid. He didn't mean anything and etc., etc.

But I did push through and made sure that the parents were aware and made sure the kid apologized. It was a few years ago. My kid's in college now and I called him up yesterday to ask him about it and he said, you know, I have a vague memory of it, but I don't really remember it anymore.

MARTIN: So what's the takeaway here? Do you think maybe...

IVEY: I think...

MARTIN: ...you made too much of it or do you think...

IVEY: No.

MARTIN: ...you did the right thing?

IVEY: I talked to him about it when it happened and then I talked to the adults about it and I made sure that the kid apologized and then I dropped it. And I kept an eye on that kid and I never knew him to do another thing and I don't think he's any, you know, future member of the Ku Klux Klan. He was just a stupid kid who hadn't been disciplined well, perhaps, and didn't know how his words affected people, but I think he knows now.

MARTIN: Leslie, what - going forward, what do you think? What advice would you offer about addressing this or either - any of this interaction?

STEINER: I - you know, I don't see how you can raise kids in this country without talking to them about race. It's sort of like trying to raise kids with never talking to them about sex. You know, it's pretty obvious what is going to happen. If you don't talk to them about them, they're going to do and say racist things.

And I had an incident a couple of years ago where my son - on the playground, he told one of his friends who was black that the only role he could try out for in their little high school musical game was the black role. And it was really interesting because the boy got really mad and he ended up shoving my son and, of course, the black kid is the one who got in trouble because he was the one who threw the first punch.

But I remember talking to my son and saying, no, no, no. You were the one who was wrong because who are you to say that he can only try out for the black role or only sing the black songs or only play basketball? You know, he can't play lacrosse. And I think that's what Gabby Douglas is doing. In some ways, she's throwing the first punch. She's being truthful and it's tempting to just blame her or maybe tempting to say, we're not going to talk about it, but I don't see that doing any good. I think we've got to talk about it and maybe bumble our way through, but try to get to the other side.

MARTIN: Dani, what do you think?

TUCKER: I agree. I mean, you have to talk about it, but one thing I say to the parents, especially the minority moms and especially the single minority moms is prepare your kids for it. You're not going to change the world.

MARTIN: How? Prepare them how?

TUCKER: Much like Gabby Douglas' mother does and much like I does, you keep them centered in faith in who they are. Gabby Douglas has a strong sense of faith. I love her sense of faith and I love the fact that she's willing to share it and how that holds her into doing what she has to do, no matter what is going on around her or what's coming her way. You have to do that and I totally - I love that about her mother.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Dani, just very briefly, you know, hazing in the military is also something that has come to the fore recently. We're going to be talking about that in the next couple of days on this program. And here, again, this is a situation where it seems that Asian-American soldiers, Marines, seem to have been, you know, singled out in an environment where there are not as many of them.

And I wanted to ask. Given that your son is in the majority - not in the majority, but he's more of a group where there are more people like him in this group. Is there - do you have any advice to him about what he should do if he sees someone else being bullied?

TUCKER: Oh, I told him to speak up, but he knows that. I'm not worried about him not doing that because he loves people first and he loves fairness. He's already actually had a situation in the Navy - maybe we'll share it at that conversation - that he did see and he did speak up and I'm very proud of him. He actually spoke up and stepped to the person, you know, like, not in front of me. You're not going to do that. You know, we're not here for that. So I'm proud of him for that because he is a leader in that aspect and he gets that from our family. We all were and I'm proud of him for that.

MARTIN: Jolene, I'm going to give you the final word here. What are there - do you tell your kids to confront? What do you tell them to do in a situation where they see something going on?

IVEY: My kids are pretty good about not torturing other children and at also, you know, stepping in when necessary. You know, one of my kids, in particular, was really good about looking out for other kids. Whenever he would see somebody being treated unfairly he would go to the office if he needed to, if it got to that level, and talk to the principal and say, you need to do something because not all the teachers were so good about it.

At the same time, though, I have to tell you, he is the kid who tried to wear a t-shirt to school the day after the election to kind of put it in one of his classmate's face that her dad lost the election to my candidate and I would not let him wear the t-shirt.

MARTIN: OK.

IVEY: He had not thought about how she would really feel about it and I said, that's just not nice. Don't do that. And then the kid didn't even go to school that day. I think they were all home licking their wounds.

MARTIN: OK.

IVEY: But you can't be mean to people.

MARTIN: Well, yeah. That what goes around comes around.

IVEY: I don't like mean people.

MARTIN: All right. That's good advice. Don't like...

IVEY: Don't be mean.

MARTIN: We don't like mean people.

IVEY: No.

MARTIN: Don't be mean. OK. Jolene Ivey is the mom of five boys and a Maryland state lawmaker. She's also the cofounder of a parenting support group. Dani Tucker is the mom of two, an office administrator and a freelance fitness instructor. Leslie Morgan Stein is the mom of three. Her most recent book is "Crazy Love," the memoir. They were all here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Moms, thank you so much for joining us.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

TUCKER: Thank you.

STEINER: Thanks, everyone.

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