Here’s Why Simone Manuel Needed to Bring Up Race At the Olympics

It’s hard to celebrate our Olympic victories when our gold-medal triumphs get second billing and we’re being dehumanized in the media and on the streets.

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The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio have been triumphant for Black women athletes from around the world. From the Simones to Michelle Carter, from Tori Bowie and Elaine Thompson to Jennifer Abel and Ibtihaj Muhammad, these Olympics might as well be retitled #BlackGirlMagic.

Simone Biles took the world by storm, solidifying her status as the world’s best gymnast, winning three gold medals in Rio. Having already made history as the only woman to win three world championships in a row, this 19-year old dominated the first week of the games with a victory in the all-around and an individual gold in the vault.

Biles also anchored a women’s team, which included two women of color—Gabby Douglas and Laurie Hernandez—that practically made the competition look like a local tumbling squad. While the “nothing but bad coverage” network (NBC) has focused its coverage on Phelps, Ledecky, the women’s soccer squad, and the men’s basketball team, each with different levels of success, the gymnastics team and women’s basketball team has been the first class of the Olympics.

Not to be outdone, swimming star Simone Manuel parted the waters of American history when she emerged victorious, with two gold and two silver medals in Rio, becoming the first African-American woman to earn an individual Olympic gold in swimming. She set both Olympics and American records, and shattered centuries-old stereotypes that Black people do not and cannot swim, providing a poignant contrast to the long history of racial segregation in America’s swimming pools and beaches.

Manuel’s “joy and the importance of her victory cannot be understood outside of America’s bloodstained Jim Crow archives,” wrote David Leonard for The Root. “Manuel’s merely standing on the blocks and jumping into the water was a challenge in and of itself to ‘America’s most racist institution’: the swimming pool. And as she physically made history in Rio, she symbolically swam upstream against the longstanding history of exclusion and violence in America’s ‘contested waters.’”

As Leonard reminded us, Manuel’s victory was for generations of Black folks who have been denied access to pools; for legions of Black girls who’ve endured stereotypes and been mocked because of their hair; and for Dajerria Becton, who was tackled by a police officer at a pool party last summer in McKinney, Texas.

The 20-year-old Stanford student, who took at year off to dedicate herself to her Olympic dreams, tearfully accepted her milestone moment by saying that “It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.”

As I listened to her words, I couldn’t help but think about last week’s release of the Department of Justice’s horrendous report on policing in Baltimore City. The report noted that in BPD’s Eastern District, officers publicly strip-searched a woman following a routine traffic stop for a missing headlight. Officers ordered the woman to exit her vehicle, remove her clothes, and stand on the sidewalk to be searched. A male officer instructed a female officer to strip-search the woman; she put on latex gloves, pulled up the woman’s shirt and searched around her bra—and found nothing, so she pulled down the woman’s underwear and searched her anal cavity.

This is the kind of police brutality, the issues that are going on, the world today to which Simone Manuel refers—a world where we are regularly stopped by cops for “traffic violations” to be humiliated, gaslighted, and possibly murdered. A world that tears us down even when we have won and set new records while representing our country, while our media is criticizing our hair, our skin, the way we stand before our flag.

Like Gabby Douglas, whose hair was the subject of ridicule, and who wasn’t smiling or holding her hand over her heart during the national anthem—which is not the pledge of allegiance. Social media went after Manuel’s soft-spoken ode to equality and justice, accusing her of demeaning her victory, calling what she said “ugly,” and even “un-American.”

The fact that Douglas’s hand placement or muted smile elicited outrage, while Manuel had to fight a history of racism both inside and outside of the pool, shows the continuing barriers and petty scrutiny these Black women athletes have to overcome.

Add to that the American media’s relegating our victories to second billing—from the San Jose Mercury News offering this celebratory headline for Manuel, “Olympics: Michael Phelps shares historic night with African American”or its insistence on recounting narratives that perpetuate images of Black Americans as products of poverty, as they did with Biles’s story of being an “orphan” in foster care—and it brings into focus just how fiercely White America continues to deny #BlackGirlGreatness.

The sight of our happiness, achievements and success disrupt the entrenched dehumanization of black girls and women. The only thing more disconcerting than #BlackGirlJoy is #BlackGirlRage. It is no wonder that many are mad that Black women athletes are using their platform to speak truth to power.

“I feel unsafe all the time. I had someone follow me home from practice and try to report me to police,” noted Ibtihaj Muhammad, a Black Muslim American women and the first Olympian to wear a hijab. “I’m very vocal about these things because I want people to know I’m not a novelty, I’m not special in any way, I’m a woman who wears hijab and these are my experiences.”

Her comments sparked outrage on social media from the Trumpian corner of the nation, which described her comments as “shameful” and “insulting.”

The collective voices of Simone, Gabby, Muhammad, and others deepen the power in showcasing talent, skill and dominance, along with one’s political voice. In that spirit of resistance, Manuel, Muhammad, countless women on the USA basketball team, are using their athletic talents and voices to make clear that Black Lives Matter, that Black humanity must be seen, and Black genius is everywhere. 

In doing so, these Black women are carrying on a proud tradition of Black women at the Olympics who have not been afraid to speak up about racism at a time when much of America wishes they would pretend that their nation’s original sin of slavery and its racist legacies didn’t exist, especially when the eyes and ears of the world are upon them. Their work is reminiscent of the iconic moment when gold-medalist sprinter Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos raised black-gloved fists during the American national anthem at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City—a move that was heavily criticized at the time, but has now become a treasured moment in American sports and Civil Rights history.

Once again, Black women are giving the world language about protest, freedom and humanity. Only this time—unlike in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements—their voices and views are front and center. As with Black Lives Matter, and protests from Ferguson to Baltimore, from New York to Los Angeles, it is young Black women, who are visibly organizing for justice and change.

Manuel and others are demanding that WE see black women …. that we see their entire humanity … their body, their physical prowess, their emotions, and their voices. They are reminding us that Black Lives Matter, and Black Women Matter. They will not let us forget that Korryn Gaines was not seen, she was not heard before the days before her murder by Baltimore police, or in her death. They will not let us forget the police and the public that blamed her (and Sandra Bland) for her death, denying her humanity and emotions.

These world-class athletes don’t hesitate to remind us that if America is going to “LOVE” Gabby, Simone, and Simone, if they are going to celebrate their accomplishments as a new chapter, as game changers, as proof that we have fulfilled King’s dream, then we must reconcile that as we look at Gabby and the Simones we need to also think about Korryn and Sandra, Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Miriam Carey, Shelly Frey, Darnisha Harris, Malissa Williams, Shantel Davis, Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and countless mothers, children, daughters, citizens slain for the crime of living while Black.

Before Manuel even spoke about the racial issues tearing our nation apart, she shared the context in which she outswam racism and out-stroked an ugly history.

“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. She added, “The title of Black swimmer suggests that I am not supposed to win golds or break records, but that’s not true because I train hard and want to win just like everyone else.”

Just. Like. Everyone. Else.

Those four words sum up the entire quest of Black America for the past 400 years. When Simone Manuel claimed her golden moment, she articulated the yearning cries, prayers, hopes and dreams of millions. She encapsulated the African-American experience and shared her spotlight with those who came before, those whose bodies were felled by racist injustice, and those who swelled with pride at her accomplishments.

The idea of #BlackGirlMagic is multifaceted, a rhetorical protest against the longstanding denial of Black girl humanity and genius. While powerful, when combined with being woke, there ain’t no stopping us. 

During the first week of the Olympics, Black women have made something clear over and over again: We are as dominant as we are conscious as we are ambitious as we are determined to shine and win on countless platforms.

Simone Manuel and her fellow sista Olympic champions embody the highest levels of physical, mental and psychological discipline, focus, and determination. Those are the very same qualities that we embody as we face the ongoing quest to be human. Respected. Allowed to survive AND to thrive.

Just. Like. Everyone. Else.

And so buoyed by the dominance of brilliant Black women in the 2016 Olympics, we can celebrate these moments of glory and take that energy with us into the daily struggles we face, the hostility we must navigate, the terrors we must tame just to put one foot in front of the other no matter which arenas we find ourselves in. We can salute their greatness as well as the greatness of those women whose names we never learn until it is too late for us to celebrate their less famous but no less precious humanity. We know that winning in America is never one dimensional, and our success will always be attacked at every level. And yet, as Maya Angelou reminded us and our Olympic sheroes demonstrate: “And still we rise.”

Because we have no other choice, do we?

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