Olympians swim upstream against black hair prejudice just like the rest of us on a daily basis

Olympian Alice Dearing of Great Britain partnered with Soul Cap before the equipment was banned from competition. (Photo: Soul Cap)

The Olympics begin Friday in Japan. There is a lot about the role of the International Olympic Committee to be concerned about this pandemic: 83 percent of Japanese citizens are against it; its population is about 10 percent vaccinated in May; athletes are not required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, although they are encouraged; Delta variant of virus poses new public safety challenge; and the New England Journal of Medicine categorically condemns the IOC’s security protocols.

The least of the concerns of the Olympics should be bathing caps for black hair. But the IOC’s International Swimming Federation said the design of the swim caps did not match “the natural shape of the head,” a statement eerily reminiscent of the eugenics movement’s propaganda to justify the anatomical and intellectual inferiority of blacks. .

Wanting to encourage swimming across the global black diaspora – an under-represented demographic in water sports – Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed founded Soul Cap, a British brand specializing in swim caps for textured and dark hair. They submitted their request to FINA for caps to wear at the Olympics to match the texture of black hair, especially black hairstyles such as Senegalese braids, locks, extensions or twists which are rare on white competitors in sports. The governing body of the water sports world outright turned Soul Cap down, saying no athlete needed “cups of this size and configuration.”

FINA’s rejection of the caps has cast a veil over its supposed welcome of diversity. This, sadly, sends a worldwide message of rejection to black and brown athletes with textured hair who wish to compete at an Olympic level.

Growing up, I was bombarded with stereotypes about why black Americans can’t swim, such as “dense body mass”; “Urban cities do not have municipal swimming pools”; “Swimming is a white sport”; and “Black girls don’t like their hair to be treated and straightened”.

Fifty-eight percent of African American children cannot swim. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black children aged 10 to 14 drown at rates 7.6 times higher than white children. After a deeper dive below the surface, the answers are revealed why.

Master slaves forbid blacks from learning to swim. They saw swimming as a way to escape slavery. During Jim Crow’s time, municipal swimming pools were racially segregated. Swimming pools that have become the target of anti-segregation protests have often been emptied or sprayed with acid. For example, civil rights activist Mimi Jones, a Roxbury resident who died last year at age 73, was part of the St. Augustine pool in 1964 – but when she and other protest swimmers jumped into the Monson Motor Lodge ‘only white’ pool, hotel owner poured muriatic acid. The photo of the incident is one of the iconic images of the time.

The criminalization of dark hair starts early. Unfortunately, the sports arena is no exception. In 2019, a 16-year-old black high school wrestler had to make a split-second decision about his hair before his match when a white referee gave him an ultimatum: “Your hairstyle is not up to the rules, so cut your dreadlocks or package. The viral video of a white female trainer cutting the athlete’s locks sent shockwaves.

African American women and girls face some of the harshest hair punishments, allowing racist workplaces, institutions and educators to discriminate against us without repercussions. In 2017, the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden banned black twins Deanna and Mya Cook from playing extracurricular sports and attending prom because they wore hair extensions at school, violating the law. school policy. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey intervened on behalf of the twins. Healey sent a letter to the school categorically stating that its policy “includes a number of prohibitions which are either unreasonably subjective or appear to effectively distinguish students of color.”

Of the 26 swimmers competing in the Olympics, only two are black: Simone Manuel of the United States and Alice Dearing of Great Britain. Manuel is the co-captain of the US Olympic swimming team. Dearing initially associated with Soul Caps, until the headgear was rejected.

Representation is essential in dismantling traditionally “all-white” sports.

FINA will not remove its universal swim cap directive that “one size fits all” for these Olympics. For the sport to flourish, I suggest that by the next Olympic Games, it pass the Crown Act (to “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 fulfill its mission: “to provide a framework for increased participation, improved promotion and global competitive success in the sport “.


Reverend Irene Monroe is a union speaker, theologian and columnist. She’s doing a segment called “All Revved Up!” on WGBH (89.7 FM) on Boston Public Radio and a segment titled “What’s Up?” Fridays on New England Channel News.

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