The 2021 Tokyo Olympics has turned into a case study of anti-Blackness, specifically against Black women. From Black female swimmers being banned from wearing swim caps that protect their natural hair; to Sha’Carri Richardson’s disqualification—sitting diametrically opposed to Megan Rapinoe’s being celebrated for “bringing cannabis to the world stage” while promoting her sister’s CBD brand at the games; to the scoring machinations against Simone Biles—who recently made the tough yet necessary decision to step down for the good of her team and her well being, after her mental focus was compromised. It seems this ol’ bootleg, busted, no audience having, $15 billion-dollar-possible-coronavirus-incubator has shown its whole, entire ASS where Black women athletes are concerned.
When it comes to a sport like swimming, the long recorded history of Black people being purposefully discouraged and excluded is easily accessible. Racism throughout the world has often been one of the biggest barriers between Black people and a pool. A 2008 study reported that 58% of Black children in America could not swim, almost double the number of white children in the country. That number moves to 79% among children in households making less than $50,000. In 2019, it was reported to the BBC by Swim England that 0.92%—that’s less than ONE percent—of the country’s registered competitive swimmers identified as Black or mixed race.
Despite countless hurdles, Black people have found their way to the sport and excelled. Alice Dearing is one example; She is the first Black female swimmer to represent Britain at the Olympic games, and only the third Black British swimmer to ever compete in the games. Whether by luck, fortune, or synchronicity, two Black British men had already been in the lab since 2017, formulating a fix for Black people who struggle to fit traditional swimming caps over their voluminous hair that reaches toward the sun. In 2020, Soul Cap founders Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed partnered with Dearing to advocate for diversity in swimming, bringing the conversation to national attention with the stories behind the hashtag #BlackGirlsDontSwim.
The trio thought a more inclusive future in the games was on the horizon, and that Dearing would be able to use their cap in competition (instead of having to braid her hair down to fit into the traditional caps as she was usually forced to do) but FINA—the international federation that oversees competitive swimming guidelines—denied Soul Cap’s application for approval. The rationale they offered is that, to their “best knowledge, the athletes competing at the International events never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration.”
They also stated that the caps do not follow “the natural form of the head.” That explanation sounds a little too close to the racist, discriminatory, unfounded pseudoscience of phrenology—where people would measure the size and shape of the head to determine mental and psychological acuity. It implies that the NATURAL way BLACK people’s heads and hair grow are UNNATURAL when compared to others. It also reeks of “Well, I don’t need it, so why should they?”
Black people have long conformed to the gatekeeping standards white and other non-Black races have set, just to have a seat at the table or a chance to compete. The goalposts are moved every time a solution is found, and new hurdles are built with lightning speed by governing authorities, seemingly with hopes that we are too tired to clear them. These authorities are apparently unfamiliar with the tenacity of Black women.
The CROWN Act, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” is state-level legislation written and introduced by Black women to protect the educational and employment opportunities of Black people in America who proudly wear natural hairstyles. It was co-authored by someone personally known to this writer: my Xavier University college classmate and sorority sister Professor D. Wendy Greene, the first African American woman tenured law professor at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law, and founder of the #FreeTheHair movement.
The CROWN Act works to give Black people a freedom long denied them since slavery: the right to wear their hair as it grows out of their heads, without fear of rejection or unsubstantiated consequence from their employers or educational institutions. From the time of Tignon laws to the present, non-Black people used the natural hairstyles of Black people as yet another weapon to wield against their equity and inclusion.
In an effort to right these wrongs, creators of the CROWN Act have partnered with global beauty brand Dove (Unilever) since 2019 to form The CROWN Coalition, which consists of lawmakers working to have the act signed into law across the country. Presently, the act has only been passed statewide in 10 states; passed partially (on the city or county level) in 13 others. Legislation has been filed, yet did not pass in 22 states, and decisions are pending in seven others.
As stated on the CROWN act website:
People should not be forced to divest themselves of their racial-cultural identity by changing their natural hair in order to adapt to predominantly white spaces in the workplace or in school.
This is also true for the sports arena. If swim caps that specifically protect Black hair and provide NO physical advantage to the swimmer are rejected out of hand so easily, what does that say about how the sport sees Black swimmers? Are they inconsequential? Unwanted? Unimportant?
The American, four-time Olympic medalist swimmer Simone Manuel, the first Black woman to win the individual Gold and the ONLY woman who has ever won SEVEN medals in a single world championship PERIOD, says that the sport makes her feel excluded as a Black woman many times because, “Sadly, there is still racism that exists.” One wonders if the racism stems from a fear of Black participants displaying physical dominance in an additional athletic arena, thereby providing more receipts to dispel the lie of white supremacy. Between football, basketball, tennis, golf, gymnastics, and now swimming, when an even playing field is provided, Black people have risen to the top, raised the stakes, and widened the lead between second and first place.
If you scared, say you scared. But don’t make rulings to purposefully exclude Black people or make their participation contingent upon how well they morph, bend, shape-shift and conform to white standards. By doing so, you only force us to work harder, get better, go faster, and be stronger. That’s called working against your own self-interests, is it not? Hmph. Oh well … your bad.