FINA, the international federation that makes the rules for competitive swimming, was recently given the chance to approve a swim cap specifically designed for natural Black hair. It’s a move that would have shown the organization wants to demonstrate that the sport—long-standing bastion of whiteness and racial exclusion—was making an effort to be more hospitable and welcoming to Black swimmers. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, FINA turned down that opportunity. Instead, the federation denied an application submitted by Soul Cap, a company that manufactures caps for swimmers who have “thick, curly, and voluminous hair,” to have its gear officially approved for Black competitive swimmers at every level. In its rejection, the governing body declared the caps do not “follow the natural form of the head.”
The phrenology vibes in FINA’s phrasing are unintentionally fitting for a statement that, make no mistake, not only bans a swimming cap tailored to fit nonwhite hair, but dismisses every Black athlete who might finally make use of a cap that helps them best compete. Just weeks ago, Simone Manuel, the first Black woman to win an individual gold medal for the U.S. for swimming, again outshone competitors to nail a spot at the Tokyo Olympics, and FINA itself announced that Alice Dearing will be the first Black woman swimmer to represent Great Britain at the upcoming games.
With its rejection of a swim cap that provides no advantage to its wearer, FINA admits its lack of interest in racial inclusion and attempts to reassert the normalcy of the white form—and seems hellbent on erasing these elite Black athletes while deeming their existence in an historically white “prestige sport” as somehow unnatural. It’s a perfect demonstration of how racism renders Black folks—especially those “firsts” who are already targeted with various forms of racist retribution for invading spaces they’ve been locked out of by pervasive anti-Blackness—both invisible and hypervisible at once. There’s no racism in how we do things here or I would’ve seen it, is precisely the thing racist white people defensively claim while fighting against changes that threaten to mitigate the racism that has always kept Black folks out.
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