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How #BlackGirlMagic created a safe space for Black athletes to be rightfully worshipped

Alanis Thames
·6-min read

Taylor Townsend is reminded of her uniqueness when she hears the words “Black Girl Magic.”

The 24-year-old tennis player doesn’t look like most of the competitors in her sport. Black women, though many more in number today than in the past, make up just a small subset of professional tennis players.

Townsend embraces the uniqueness in her brown skin. She celebrates it by doing extraordinary things. Among them, her 2019 US Open upset of then-No. 4 seed Simona Halep in the second round, which was the biggest win of her professional career.

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For Black women like Townsend, the Black Girl Magic hashtag is an homage to their hard work. It isn’t a momentary social media movement. It’s an endearing title that’s almost synonymous with Black female success and positivity, and it’s now an avenue for Black female athletes to be celebrated and embraced by millions of people.

“I think it’s very cool that we can have that uniqueness already,” Townsend said, “but then being able to celebrate it in different ways of shining through athletics, through academics, through different platforms, social media and everything. I think that it’s just showing that ability to be different than others.”

That empowerment was CaShawn Thompson’s goal when she first declared Black girls are magic on Twitter. She wanted Black women to have pride in who they are.

“This is what I understand it as,” Thompson said of the phrase she coined, “Black women just being everything. Just being amazing in everything we do, touch, create, enhance, just Black Girl Magic.”

Every chance she gets, Thompson makes sure to clarify that #BlackGirlMagic isn’t something a woman has. It’s who she is. It’s not a conditional set of words, either. Black women don’t have to belong to an exclusive group or have a certain status to be magic.

“Whatever iteration of a Black woman you happen to be,” Thompson said. “Whether it be old, young, light-skinned, dark-skinned, [transgender], [cisgender], abled, disabled, poor, rich, somewhere in the middle ... it always will be about Black women.”

Thompson said she thinks it’s great that the hashtag is used to uplift Black female athletes on social media because that’s where it started for her. She first tweeted #BlackGirlsAreMagic in 2013 to defend Serena Williams, who has been open about the public scrutiny she’s faced throughout her career.

“I wasn’t just gonna sit there and let folks keep insulting my girl,” Thompson said. “I see her as that. Women are strong. Women are smart. And those are all things you have to be to be successful in sports.”

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After she tweeted it, Thompson put the hashtag on a T-shirt thinking that her small group of Twitter buddies might want to buy it. More than 300 people bought the shirt the first time she put it out to be sold, and Thompson soon realized that she’d created something more impactful than just some words on a shirt.

“My response was like, whoa, this really hit for folks,” she said. “They love it. They feel good about it. It makes them feel good about themselves. And if I were intentionally starting a movement, that’s all I would really have wanted. That it resonate with people.”

Williams and her sister, Venus, are two of the many athletes who have epitomized the hashtag in sports. And they’ve made room for a new group of tennis players to shine — including Townsend, 16-year-old Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka, who recently won the 2021 Australian Open for the fourth Grand Slam title of her career.

In 2016, Black Girl Magic was one of the most prominent stories of the Rio Summer Olympics as the world celebrated the historical triumphs of Black women, including gymnast Simone Biles, swimmer Simone Manuel, and shot putter Michelle Carter.

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“I love that [#BlackGirlMagic] really soared after the Olympics because it’s true about representation and really inspiring others,” Olympic champion sprinter Allyson Felix told Business Insider in 2018. “Whether it’s athletics or whatever it is, just knowing that they can go after their dreams. And it doesn’t matter where you come from, how you’re brought up, you can really reach your goals.”

Black women in sports haven’t always been so widely appreciated, though. Townsend can remember a time in her career when she didn’t feel magical. She felt scrutinized.

It was after she’d won the 2012 Australian Open Junior Championship and finished the year ranked No. 1 — the first time in 30 years that an American junior accomplished the feat.

Despite her being the highest-ranked junior girl in the world, the US Tennis Association told Townsend it would not pay for her future tournament appearances until she got into better shape, citing at the time concerns for her long-term health.

“I’m like, ‘I’m doing everything you want me to do,’” Townsend said. “And so that’s one of the times when I felt like I wasn’t appreciated or celebrated for the accomplishments that I had contributed that were on a large scale.”

Just as social media has played an important role in the celebration of Black female athletes, Townsend acknowledges its role in allowing her to create her own narrative of what people hear and see from her.

Townsend knows she’s different out there on the tennis court, and she represents many more Black girls who are different. The power in the Black Girl Magic hashtag is that they can be celebrated for being different, unapologetically.

“It’s very important that we break that mold of what people think you are,” Townsend said, “What they think you’re supposed to be like, and the more times that you can do that in the men and the women of our culture I think that it will allow us as a group to change the narrative. You never want to give them what they want, or what they think they want.”

Women's History Month on Yahoo Sports (Amber Matusmoto)
Women's History Month on Yahoo Sports (Amber Matusmoto)

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