American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Competing Identities: Representations of the Black Female Sporting Body from 1960 to the Present

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/Ethnic Studies

First Advisor

Eithne Luibhid (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Ellen Berry (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Halifu Osumare (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Peggy Giordano (Committee Member)


The bodies of African American women athletes have historically constituted a site where the vast, and largely problematic, complexities of gender and race are revealed and contested. I approach this study through an interpretive textual analysis that examines how representations of black female sporting bodies – Wilma Rudolph in the early 1960s, Debi Thomas in the late 1980s, and last, Serena Williams in the late 1990s signify cultural messages. Specifically, I turn to mainstream media such as magazines, newspapers, and commercial advertisements to unpack the meanings constructed around their bodies and to interrogate dominant discourses about race and gender. Ultimately, this project argues that representations of Black female sporting bodies are sites of ideological conflict over the construction of social identities between dominant and historically marginalized groups: African American women. The significance of this study lies in how perceptions of the bodies of African American women athletes allow the therorizing of citizenship, race, gender and nation. By turning to representations of black female athletes, I examine how the intersection of race, gender, class, nation, and sexuality frames the black female subject and how these women constantly negotiate and navigate these discursive boundaries to make rightful claims to society resources. In negotiating space in American society, Black women have had to employ various strategies such as the politics of race and respectability. Individual Black women understood respectability in different ways depending on their social, political, and cultural context. The reconfiguration of the discourse of respectability speaks to the ways in which race and gender are rearticulated around the Black female sporting body throughout different historical moments. The two themes that have emerged and remained constant are the persistence of racism – blatant racism in the 1960s, color-blind racism in the 1980s, and commodity racism in the 1990s and early twenty-first century, and secondly, the struggle by African American women to carve out their own self-defined space within a racist and sexist culture.