After the Washington Nationals’ sensational win in the 2019 World Series, the team’s diversity was hailed as one of the reasons the team was so successful in claiming the title. The multitude of cultures represented by each player brought different styles of play that helped the Nationals get a hand on the coveted trophy.
Getting into the fervor around the team, before the World Series started, The Washington Post circulated an article that controversially depicted the Nationals’ players in a manner that did not reflect this diversity. Players of color were made to look whitewashed, draining their melanin. The history of whitewashing is a manifestation of larger social issues that stem from our country’s dark history of slavery and condemnation of marginalized groups.
The illustration depicts the last names on the jerseys of Víctor Robles and Adrián Sánchez, both of whom are not white but whose skin color was made to look white. The discoloring of their skin leaves too much room for the average viewer to discount their diversity. This whitewashing is unacceptable because culture shapes identity, both inwardly and externally.
Despite the negative impacts, the media tends to whitewash its subjects. Black women in the beauty industry are constantly made to pass the paper bag test: an oral tradition in which you only pass if your skin is lighter than the bag. This trend of making marginalized groups with darker skin colors morph into the white standard is evident in the cartoon. Anyone who views this picture without much understanding of the team’s history will be surprised to learn of the team’s diversity.
From Max Scherzer to Juan Soto, the team has plenty of members representing many backgrounds. To make players of black or Hispanic descent look more like their white counterparts does a disservice to what their backgrounds bring to their playing style and team camaraderie. Soto, a left fielder for the Nationals from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, employs the “Soto Shuffle” as one of his many strategies to deter the pitcher’s confidence.
These images have a larger impact on the representation of sports figures of color and what we remember. Instead of creating an illustration that is true to the actual makeup of the team, the artist chose to depict the team that would have existed when Major League Baseball was established in 1869.
Baseball had some of the most stringent segregationist laws against black athletes. Although popular history cites that baseball moved past its discriminatory practices when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, many black and Hispanic players, like Larry Doby and Hank Thompson, faced struggles well into the succeeding decades.
Baseball in Washington, D.C., would not have been able to cultivate the environment in which the Nationals thrived today without the history of the Negro league teams in the city. The Negro league was the single place black athletes could play and opened the door later on for players of color to break into MLB. If these leagues had not pushed to create an outlet for black players, many would not be playing today.
Not only did the illustration whitewash players of color, but it also failed to mention that the work that went into winning this latest World Series was not the first time a team brought a championship home to the city. Before the Washington Nationals arrived in 2005, there was a Negro league team here in 1946, the Homestead Grays, that won the Negro World Series title in 1948. The last time an all-white team won a baseball title in the city was in 1924. In failing to recognize the history of players of color, that history is erased, especially since that group does not always have the power to cement its place within greater society.
With this history in mind, it is crucial to see why this illustration carries so much weight when it takes away players’ cultural identity. Marginalized groups in sports have always dealt with being dehumanized and having their agency taken away — and such depictions should stop.
American history tends to be very selective in what is remembered and what is considered mainstream. The mainstream, dominated by white norms and perceptions, usually overpowers the important roles that people of color play in creating new histories in an ever-changing American context. Influencers, who can be complicit in acts of whitewashing, have to be more aware of the impact of their work. Continuing this practice means marginalized groups will continue to have their history written for them.
Alexis Smith is a sophomore in the College.