As a Black woman, we just have to be greater. Because even when we break records and stuff, they almost dim it down, as if it’s just normal.Simone Biles
These were some of the thoughts that Simone Biles shared for a story recently published by the New York Magazine about her journey to becoming the greatest athlete of all time. Simone shares the serious challenges she faced navigating a United States Women’s Gymnastics program that had completely abandoned its duties to protect and support the young ladies that our nation had entrusted them with.
Throughout the story, you can feel the burden, stress, and fear that Simone carried throughout her Olympic competitions. She expressed how she should have quit gymnastics well before the Tokyo games, yet she persevered and pursued her dreams. And, in spite of the trauma she has endured, she finished this most recent chapter in her life by once again standing strong, owning her actions and controlling her journey when recently testifying before the United States Senate’s Judiciary Committee about being a survivor of sexual abuse.
Throughout Simone’s journey, Black girls and young women, especially those in Generation Z, have watched her progress. We cheered her on and have and will continue to defiantly defend her status as the GOAT. We recognize that her greatness extends well beyond the gym. We see in her journey many similarities to our own journeys navigating an America that has never valued us for our own humanity.
As the nation focused on the sexual abuse scandal in USA Women’s Gymnastics and Simone’s Tokyo Olympic decisions, Generation Z Black Girls connected to Simone’s story in the growing realities of the hostile environment many of us face each day in our nation’s school system.
As with everything going on in our nation since 2016, Generation Z Black girls are very aware of the realities of growing microaggressions and open racism we are facing in our lives. Well before Simone’s heroic actions, there was overwhelming data that Black girls were facing serious and threatening issues in our society.
In 2017, Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality published the groundbreaking study, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.” The study provided data that clearly demonstrated “that adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, especially in the age range of 5-14”. This projection of adultification by teachers and school administrators onto Black girls ties directly to the disproportionate school discipline rates that Black girls face in our education system. Their survey of adults showed that many adults felt that Black girls need less nurturing, protection and support.
In 2019, Georgetown Law followed up their original study with a new report. “Listening to Black Women and Girls: Lived Experiences of Adultification Bias.” This study was based on interviews with Black women and girls to understand their real-life experiences. The interviews and focus groups found that Black girls routinely experienced adultification bias in their daily lives and that “adults attempt to change black girls’ behavior to be more passive.” The new study also found that “negative stereotypes of Black women as angry, aggressive and hypersexualized are projected onto black girls.”
The work by Georgetown Law was groundbreaking because the reality is no one with authority, such as one of the nation’s top law schools, had ever cared to ask Black women and girls about their experiences navigating a society that was designed to see us as subhuman and problematic. The experience that Simone Biles shared in the New York Magazine interview resonated deeply with us because we understood that her experience was our own experience.
When Simone decided to withdraw from competing in the Tokyo Olympics out of concern for her own mental and physical wellness, a quick visit to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook demonstrated the realities of being a Black woman and girl in our society. The clearest example of the deeper message of hate and adultification came from a Texas deputy attorney general who tweeted that Simone was a “selfish, childish national embarrassment”.
I share this because every Generation Z Black girl in our nation knew that when Simone made the decision to protect her physical and mental health, that the attacks would be vile and an attempt would be made to dehumanize her. We understood this deep in our hearts because what was being done to Simone on social media and by America was also our collective reality. We are living at a time where it is becoming far too common to find news stories about our peers feeding racism by hosting virtual slave trade games or white parents storming school board meetings to fight educators teaching the truth about the deep roots of racism in our nation.
Black Girls Continue to Face Significant Health Challenges
A recent study published by the JAMA Network Open focused on bullying in Pittsburgh Public Schools. The authors conducted anonymous surveys of 4207 students in grades 9 through 12. They found that students “with multiple stigmatized identities experienced even higher rates of experiences of identity-based bullying and identity-based perpetration.” In other words, being Black and a girl made you more likely to experience bullying.
At the same time, these discussions have been happening across our nation, there is also another related story that many are not paying attention to at all — the rise of suicide rates for Black girls in our nation. A CDC study published in 2019 found that 15% of Black female high school students in our nation attempted suicide that year. Another study published in 2019 by the Journal of Community Health found that the rate of suicides for Black females increased 182% from 2001 to 2017.
Simone’s story and her journey should remind us that Black girls and women continue to face significant physical and mental health challenges navigating our society. For Generation Z Black girls, the reality is that the issues that challenge our mental health and wellbeing are constantly around us. Our schools, and the adults who are entrusted with the wellbeing of all students, should stop ignoring these issues and stand up against those who want to ensure that this reality continues — even if it kills us.