Olympians are swimming upstream against bias toward Black hair, and so are the rest of us daily
The Olympics begin Friday in Japan. There is a lot on the International Olympic Committee’s docket to be concerned about in this pandemic: 83 percent of the Japanese citizenry oppose holding it; Japan’s population is roughly 10 percent vaccinated as of May; athletes are not required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, though they are encouraged; the virus’ Delta variant poses a new challenge to public safety; and The New England Journal of Medicine flat-out condemns the IOC’s safety protocols.
The least of the Olympics’ concerns should be that of swim caps for Black hair. But the International Swimming Federation of the IOC said the design of the swim caps does not fit “the natural form of the head,” a statement eerily reminiscent of the eugenics movement’s propaganda to substantiate Black anatomical and intellectual inferiority.
In wanting to encourage swimming throughout the global Black diaspora – an underrepresented demographic in aquatic sports – Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed founded Soul Cap, a British specialist brand of swim caps for textured and Black hair. They submitted their application to FINA for the caps to be worn at the Olympics to accommodate Black hair texture, especially Black hairstyles such as braids, locks, extensions or Senegalese twists that are uncommon on white competitors in the sport. The water sports world’s governing body straight-out denied Soul Cap, stating no athletes need “caps of such size and configuration.”
FINA’s rejection of the caps cast a pall on its purported welcoming of diversity. It sends, regrettably, a global message of rejection to Black and brown and textured-hair athletes wanting to compete at an Olympic level.
Growing up, I was bombarded with stereotypes as to why Black Americans can’t swim, such as “dense body mass”; “urban cities don’t have municipal pools”; “swimming is a white sport”; and “Black girls do not like to get their processed, straightened hair nappy.”
Fifty-eight percent of African American children cannot swim. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black children from 10 to 14 years old drown at rates 7.6 times higher than white children. After a deeper dive below the surface, answers are revealed why.
Slave masters prohibited blacks from learning to swim. They saw swimming as a way to escape slavery. During the Jim Crow era, municipal pools were racially segregated. Pools that became the target of desegregation protests were frequently drained or doused with acid. For example, civil rights activist Mimi Jones, a Roxbury resident who died last year at 73, was part of the 1964 St. Augustine swim-in – but when she and fellow protest swimmers jumped into the “white-only” Monson Motor Lodge pool, the owner of the hotel poured in muriatic acid. The photo of the incident is one of the iconic images of the era.
The criminalization of Black hair starts early. Sadly, the sports arena is no exception. In 2019, a 16-year-old high school Black wrestler had to make a split-second decision about his hair before his match when a white referee gave him an ultimatum: “Your hair covering doesn’t conform to the rulebook, so cut your dreadlocks or forfeit.” The viral video of a white female trainer cutting off the athlete’s locks sent shockwaves.
African American women and girls endure some of the harshest punishments concerning hair; racist workplaces, institutions and educators discriminate against it without repercussions. In 2017, Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden banned Black twins Deanna and Mya Cook from playing after-school sports and attending prom because they wore hair extensions to school, violating school policy. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey stepped in on the twins’ behalf. Healey sent a letter to the school flatly stating that its policy “includes a number of prohibitions that are either unreasonably subjective or appear to effectively single out students of color.”
Of the 26 women swimmers traveling to the Olympics, only two are Black: Simone Manuel of the United States and Alice Dearing of Great Britain. Manuel is co-captain of the U.S. Olympic swim squad. Dearing had initially partnered with Soul Caps, until the headgear was rejected.
Representation is critical in dismantling traditionally “white-only” sports.
FINA will not remove its universal swim cap guideline that “one size fits all” for this Olympics. For the sport to flourish, I suggest that by the next Olympics it adopts the Crown Act (for “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”), a law prohibiting discrimination based on hairstyle and hair texture first adopted in California in 2019. Only then can the sports body begin to uphold its mission: “providing a framework for increased participation, enhanced promotion and global competitive success in the sport.”
The Rev. Irene Monroe is a speaker, theologian and syndicated columnist. She does a segment called “All Revved Up!” on WGBH (89.7 FM) on Boston Public Radio and a segment called “What’s Up?” Fridays on New England Channel News.