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An unfair decision about swim caps at the Olympics is taking an emotional toll on me | Elizabeth Wellington

The International Swimmers Federation’s decision to deny a Black swimmer a special swim cap is systemic racism operating in real time.

The International Swim Federation made a controversial decision, rooted in systemic racism, when it ruled that swim caps made for Black hair can't be worn at the Olympics. (Press Association via AP Images)
The International Swim Federation made a controversial decision, rooted in systemic racism, when it ruled that swim caps made for Black hair can't be worn at the Olympics. (Press Association via AP Images)Read moreAP

I didn’t start swimming laps until I was well over 30 and had grown out my natural hair into shoulder-length locs.

Stretching my Speedo swim caps over my hair was a workout unto itself. I wore two of them: one medium and an extra-large cap that was still too small. The caps were so tight they would crawl up, well above my natural hairline. When I emerged from the water, my hair would be soaking wet and my ears full of water.

These caps weren’t made for keeping the chlorine from drying out and damaging my porous hair. Why did I even bother?

That’s why I’m so dismayed and offended by the International Swim Federation’s (FINA) decision last week to deny British swimmer Alice Dearing from wearing a swim cap made to fit her beautifully voluminous hair during her Olympic event. The swim cap, aptly called Soul Cap, is made by a Black-owned company.

Notably, Dearing will be the first Black British woman to represent Britain in swimming in the Olympics.

FINA said Soul Cap does not fit the “natural form of the head” and to its “best knowledge, the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration.”

After this weekend’s public outcry, FINA is reconsidering, saying “it’s reviewing the situation” and it understands “the importance of inclusivity and representation.”

The fact that FINA needs to reconsider is just proof that systemic racism is operating in real-time.

White supremacists marching through Philadelphia threatening to reclaim America on the eve of Independence Day are undeniably racist. A white man yelling racial epithets at his neighbor, setting off a demonstration of more than 100 Black people in front of his house, is obviously racist, too.

But it’s the events that require Black people — especially Black women — to prove our existence that define systemic racism that are the most depleting.

Every time I turn around, something is happening in the zeitgeist that requires Black women to explain why we are deserving of the same treatment afforded white people. The New York Times recently reported that a white journalist at ESPN, Rachel Nichols, publicly said her colleague, a Black woman named Maria Taylor, was given the plum job of hosting coverage of the NBA Finals because she was Black. Nichols was insinuating that Taylor wasn’t qualified. Seriously?

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones announced Monday that she was accepting a tenured position at historically Black college Howard University after she was denied tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her alma mater. Her qualifications weren’t in question and she had already raised millions of dollars for the school. The problem was conservative donors who didn’t like her groundbreaking series The 1619 Project. Ironically, this series outlined how racial discrimination is knitted into the fabric of America.

» READ MORE: Nikole Hannah-Jones turns down UNC tenure position, will join Ta-Nehisi Coates at Howard University

A decision that shouldn’t have been political was politicized. And once again, the goalpost was moved.

This is how systemic racism works and why it’s so insidious, daunting, and exhausting.

When rubber swim caps were invented in the 1880s, Black people were barely allowed to swim in public pools, let alone participate in national and international swim competitions. You didn’t need good-fitting equipment for people who weren’t allowed to compete, did you?

As segregation ended, the majority of Black women were wearing their hair pressed and relaxed. So, at that point, nobody was trying to fit a swim cap over a twist-out and braids. Not to mention, because chlorine was so hard on the hair and it took so long to get their hair back into a style that was acceptable to white America, Black people — especially women — didn’t regularly engage in swimming.

It was like an evil circle. When you don’t have access, you don’t swim. When there’s no critical mass, no need for swim caps. Then, when there is a critical mass (or even a tiny mass), those swim caps aren’t regulation. Sorry.

Over the last decade, however, more Black women have started embracing our natural hair. The desire to work out regularly is why many Black women — including me — have eschewed chemical straighteners.

To meet the need, several Black entrepreneurs have introduced lines of roomy rubber swim caps, designed to fit over natural hair Black hair that is big, bouncy and flouncy, not straight and flat. They work. When I returned to swimming after the pandemic, I started wearing Happy Mane swim caps. I don’t have to wring out my locs when I’m done swimming laps. Bye-bye brittle ends.

Do the larger caps offer Dearing an unfair advantage? It doesn’t appear that way. A Washington Post story reported that Black swimmers said the larger swim caps are heavier and cause more drag in the water, ultimately slowing the swimmer.

The problem is that the needs of Black people — especially in competitive sports where they were once barred — are just afterthoughts.

This is why brown-skinned ballerinas didn’t have pointe shoes that matched their skin tones until 2018. It wasn’t until 2020 that Aurora introduced a line of tights for brown-skinned figure skaters and cheerleaders. Most competitive tights only came in two colors: light toast and sun tan. What was a Black girl to do?

Explaining the painfully obvious to white people is exhausting. Every explanation is a reminder that I am existing on someone else’s terms, that my humanity is up for debate, and that my right to be comfortable is optional. And that option is not up to me. It’s a fact that every day I must prove the right to exist.

It makes no sense that something as simple as a swim cap is taking up so much of my emotional energy, yet white supremacy’s impact on swimming and Black hair is seemingly never-ending.

To this day I have older Black relatives who are afraid to get into the water. Why? Because they never learned to swim. Those who went swimming in creeks and in open water often drowned because they didn’t have access to public pools where they could learn.

» READ MORE: We need city pools, and how to find a pool in Philly this summer | Elizabeth Wellington

A fear of water persists. A life skill has been denied. One of life’s greatest joys has been deferred. This is why I didn’t really learn how to swim until I was an adult.

And it’s part of the reason why we didn’t see a Black woman — Simone Manuel — win an individual swimming medal in the Olympics until 2016.

In order for Black people to get a fair shake, not just in the pool, but in life, decision-makers in sports, academics, and C-suites need to acknowledge the existence of uneven playing fields and listen to Black people when we tell you the goalposts — that weren’t created with us in mind — keep moving and moving.

Because every time we aren’t listened to, you’re telling us that while you don’t mind if we swim with you, you don’t care if we drown.