Young Black Women Are Making History at the Olympics but Still Have to Put Up with Racist Trolls
The performances of Simone Biles and Simone Manuel were a huge moment for black women in a year desperately in need of positivity.
Photo by Marcos de Paula/AGIF/REX/Shutterstock.
Two young black Simones crushed it at the Olympics yesterday. Simone Biles, the daughter I never had, but wish I did, won the all-around Olympic Gold medal in gymnastics. And Simone Manuel made history by becoming the first-ever black American woman to win an individual gold in a swimming event at the Olympics. This is huge! It's a great moment for the United States, but it's an even bigger moment for young black girls everywhere, especially in a year when being a young black woman hasn't felt all that rewarding. For a whole new generation of girls who don't frequently see themselves reflected in television, magazines, and politics, seeing young black women achieve Olympic excellence is inspiring. This is why when Serena and Venus Williams, and Surya Bonaly excelled in sports not typically dominated by black women, black parents were the first to celebrate. You need these moments to counteract all of the negative garbage being subliminally fed to your children.
I remember being 12 years old and having a dream come alive and die all at the same time. The year was 1992, and because the internet was not a thing, people actually watched the Olympics obsessively. I was no exception. That was the first time I saw Dominique Dawes, a black gymnast! The Scary Spice* of the US Olympic gymnastic team (Or perhaps Mel B was the Dominique Dawes of the Spice Girls). Awesome-Dawsome (official nickname) was so gifted and cool that she back flipped her way into a Prince video.
I immediately identified with Dominique's hair bun and scrunchies, but my own gymnastics dream bubble was burst when I found out that to be an Olympic level gymnast, you needed to A.) have been training since birth; and B.) if you were 12 and already taller than your mom with size nine feet, you'd be better off in a career that let's you wear comically large shoes while loading yourself into a tiny car.
I cannot tell you how empowering it is for little black girls to see themselves reflected in pop culture. So I have an especially low tolerance for people who cast shade on the brilliance of these young women. NBC didn't air Manuel's medal ceremony, but if they had they would have seen a girl in tears, heavy with the burden of representing not just herself but giving hope in these tense times to every black person in America. "This medal is not just for me, it's for the African-Americans who have been before me and been inspirations," she said at the end of her race.
Without taking away from their athletic achievements, what these women have done is even greater considering the bullshit they've had to face just coming up in a world that's been historically prejudiced against them. Yes, Simone Biles is part of the US gymnastics team cleaning up in Rio like 1999 Lauryn Hill. But back in 2013, when Biles became the new all-round world champion at 16 years old, 18-year-old Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito, said in an interview, "Next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win too." Now in fairness to Carlotta, she's a fucking idiot. And she did apologize when she realized that being openly racist is not a good look on the world's stage. No amount of black skin paint will cover how green with envy Carlotta Ferlito was. Thank goodness Italian Gymnastics Federation official, David Ciaralli was able to clarify what she meant, "Carlotta was referring to a trend in gymnastics at this moment, which is going towards a technique that opens up new chances to athletes of colour (well-known for power) while penalising the more artistic Eastern European style that allowed Russians and Romanians to dominate the sport for years."
Of course Carlotta felt as though some sort of gymnastics affirmative action had taken place. Her own overinflated sense of self and lifetime of white privilege has led her to believe that she couldn't possibly be less entitled to a gold medal than anybody else, let alone a little black girl from America. Plus, an Italian gymnastics official backed up what she said as though it was the most normal thing in the world. Ciaralli's comment betrays what he really feels about black people. We're unsophisticated animals who possess power without grace or intelligence.
More recently, another US gymnastics Olympian faced undue criticism, this time it was Gabby Douglas taking flack on Twitter for not putting her hand over her heart during the US national anthem—after WINNING A GOLD MEDAL. She was sweet about it and apologized for being overwhelmed at achieving more at 20 years old, than any of her critics. I don't work in PR, but I personally would have been happy if, instead of apologizing for forgetting to place her hand over her heart after defying physics, she had put up two middle fingers and said "You're welcome America."
What's more troubling, however, is how Douglas is also the frequent subject of hair criticism. Because it's not enough for her to work her body so hard that she'll likely need a hip replacement by the time she's 30. We should also make this young black woman, who is a world class athlete, feel ashamed about not conforming to European beauty standards. Gabby thanks for vaulting your tiny body through the air, and making it look graceful, but we're gonna take back your medal because your naturally curly hair wasn't straight and slicked back like a chick in a Robert Palmer video.
Whenever a person of colour achieves anything, there will be a group of people (racists) who are extremely eager to give reasons as to why their skin colour should be used to discount their accomplishment. I know that whenever I achieve anything in stand-up comedy, there are people who believe it's because I represent an underrepresented demographic, and not because I am talented or because I work hard. And I have let that feeling humble me out of celebrating my accomplishments. I hate that.
The entire US women's Olympic gymnastics team should be celebrated. They're phenomenal. But as a black woman who is way too old and large to be a gymnast, I am particularly proud of the grace and poise that Gabby and Simone have displayed in their determination and success in the face of ignorance. Because they do it not just for themselves but for all little black girls.
Follow Aisha Brown on Twitter.