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The bias against black hair at the Olympics

Rev. Irene Monroe

The Olympics begins this week in Japan. There is a lot on the International Olympic Committee’s docket to be concerned about in this pandemic: 83% of the Japanese citizenry oppose holding it; its population is roughly 10% vaccinated as of May; athletes are not required to be vaccinated albeit encouraged; the 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. However, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) 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 propaganda to substantiate both 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. It’s 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 — braids, locks, extensions, or Senegalese twists — that are not commonly appropriated by white competitors in the sport. However, the water-sports world 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. Fifty-eight percent of African American children cannot swim. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black children, ages 10-14 years, drown at a rate 7.6 times higher than white children. However, after a deeper dive below the surface, answers are revealed.

Slave masters prohibited Blacks from learning to swim. They saw swimming as an alternative way to escape slavery. During the Jim Crow era, municipal pools were racially segregated. The late civil rights activist Mimi Jones, a former Roxbury resident who died last year, was part of the 1964 historic St. Augustine swim-in. Jones and her fellow protest swimmers jumped into the “White-only” Monson Motor Lodge pool. The owner of the hotel poured muriatic acid into the water. 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 quick decision about his hair before his match. A white referee had given him an ultimatum: “Your hair covering doesn’t conform to the rule book, 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 our hair, thereby permitting racist workplaces, institutions and educators to discriminate against us without repercussion. In 2017, Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden banned Black twins, Deanna and Maya Cook, from playing after-school sports and attending their 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 62 women swimmers traveling to the Olympics, only two are Black — Simone Manuel of U.S.A. and Alice Dearing of Great Britain. Simone Manuel is co-captain of the U.S. Olympic swim squad. Alice Dearing had initially partnered with Soul Caps until rejected.

Representation is critical in dismantling traditionally “white-only” sports.

FINA will not remove their universal swim cap guideline in this Olympics that “one size fits all.” However, for the sport to flourish, I suggest by the next Olympics, FINA adopts the CROWN ACT (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair). It’s a law prohibiting discrimination based on hairstyle and hair texture first adopted in California in 2019. Only then can FINA begin to uphold its mission: “providing a framework for increased participation.”

Irene Monroe is a theologian and news commentator.

Black hair, IOC, Olympic swim cap ban, Olympics and racism