“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”
Unfortunately, this quote by Malcolm X still rings true, almost six decades after his famous speech on May 22, 1962, in Los Angeles. The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic games and other recent professional sporting events are perfect examples of how this speech remains so relevant today.
The International Swimming federation banned swim caps that are designed for afro hair, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned apparel and symbols that support Black liberation. This exemplifies the IOC’s — as well as society’s — complete disregard for the needs of the Black community, especially Black women. Due to these restrictions placed on the Black community, the oppression we constantly experience and the possibility of scrutiny that we are bound to face, Black women have once again had to fight for our well-being and the recognition of the struggles we go through on a daily basis.
Raven Saunders is a queer Black woman who dominated women’s shot put at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Despite winning a silver medal for Team USA, the public’s focus rapidly shifted to her activism in support of marginalized groups. While accepting her medal on the podium, Saunders put up an X to show the intersection of many oppressed groups. Saunders herself fits into multiple marginalized groups through her race, sexual orientation and mental health needs. Saunders competed in a Hulk mask and embraced the identity of the superhero as a way to combat the inner battles and pressures from her sport that she has fought through her life. The way she expresses herself is inspirational to see as a Black woman, especially with how she overcame numerous injuries during her journey to Tokyo. The International Olympic Committee has since suspended its investigation of her demonstration, following the passing of her mother just days after her win. But her personal fight towards liberation should have never been a condition that threatened her athletic accomplishments in the first place. Her fight towards ending marginalized oppression should be accepted. The oppression she experiences does not stop as soon as she leaves the track — it is unfortunately constantly at the forefront of her life. She deserves the chance to challenge oppression however she sees fit. Society should just appreciate and accept what she has done for marginalized liberation, while also celebrating and embracing the accomplishments she has earned through her sport.
Simone Biles had a difficult Olympic run after battling her mental health obstacles and dealing with the immense pressure of being an extraordinary athlete. Biles is a five-time world champion in gymnastics and a five-time world exercise champion. She has now tied the record for the most decorated American in Olympic gymnastics history after winning her seventh Olympic medal this year. These are just a few of her impressive accomplishments. Americans largely celebrated Biles and expected her to win big at the 2020 Olympics, but when she pulled out of the team final and the individual all-around competition to protect her declining mental health, the world quickly turned on the once-renowned athlete. Biles won bronze in the balance beam finals, and silver in the artistic team all-around, but many still questioned why she decided to drop out of some events. Piers Morgan was once again at the forefront of doubting the mental health struggles by Black women, like when Meghan Markle expressed her difficulties during her time in the Royal Family earlier this year, and more recently, Biles’s claims during the Olympics. The constant interrogation of our mental states is a big reason why many Black women silently battle through their mental challenges rather than speaking out. As if these obstacles alone are not enough, Simone Biles has to experience them under the scrutiny of the whole world. Just because the world perceives Biles as superhuman doesn’t mean she can actually avoid human struggles. She should be given the space to deal with her own battles without losing the conditional support she once had from the community when it was benefiting from her.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka has also confronted her share of mental health challenges this year. Osaka declined to be interviewed by the media after her tennis match at the French Open because of the nerves that come with talking to the world about her successes and failures. She battles anxiety and depression and has a hard time answering invasive and inconsiderate questions from some in the media. Because of tennis officials’ refusal to comply with her mental health needs, Osaka pulled out of the French Open. Since then, she has pulled out of the Wimbledon tournament this past June and has announced an indefinite break from tennis due to the pressure to excel at her sport, while struggling with mental health challenges. Now that Osaka has begun to publicly vocalize her inner struggles, the world has quickly turned on her and doubted her claims of mental health issues instead of respecting her and appreciating what she has done in tennis. Biles and Osaka are amazingly talented athletes, and they are more than just athletes — they are humans who deserve the space to take breaks and grow without being attacked verbally and on social media and losing public support.
Track star Sha’Carri Richardson made headlines at the 2020 Olympic Trials after an impressive race while sporting her fiery red hair and long nails. She radiated confidence in herself and her track abilities. However, after failing a drug test because of her decision to consume marijuana after learning of her mother’s death from a reporter, Richardson was disqualified from the Olympics. The world quickly turned on her and started perceiving her once-admired confidence as cockiness and inappropriate, despite her owning up to the mistake she made. When she came in last place at her next competition, the world doubted and scrutinized her even more. Despite what she has already proven, people are ostracizing her and ignoring the immense potential she has to be great. As Black women our talent and presence are only recognized when we contribute to the greater good of the country. Once we make one wrong move or a perceived mistake, the system’s underlying racism, thinly-veiled by conditional support and acceptance, is brought to the surface. Richardson took the punishment without fighting back. She had a bad race but is confident that she can bounce back and continue to build her legacy. But all it took was one mistake for people to count her out.
Simone Biles, Raven Saunders and Sha’Carri Richardson are just a few of the Black women who were wronged during the Olympics. These patterns have been shown in other sporting events, like in Naomi Osaka’s repeated obstacles and the racist backlash tennis player Sloane Stephens received on social media after the most recent U.S. Open.
Black women are only appreciated when we appear as flawless beings to a larger white society. Black women are expected to push ourselves to our limits and show no pain, or else we are deemed unworthy of public support. We aren’t allowed to express ourselves, what we believe in or try to create the change we desperately need to survive in this world. We are forced to be strong and “perfect” in spite of our internal battles. Black women aren’t allowed to breathe, mess up or take breaks without public scrutiny and being stripped of our conditional praise. But we continue to fight, and hope for the day when we are finally respected, protected and cherished by the country we have created.
MiC Columnist Maria Patton can be reached at email@example.com.