Last week, 16-year-old Simone Biles won the women’s all-around gold medal at the gymnastic world championships. This marked the second major victory for an American female gymnast on the world stage in as many years, following up on Gabby Douglas’s all-around gold at the London Olympics. Both gymnasts are black and represent the first black women to accomplish either of their feats.
Obviously, this is emphasis of rampant institutional racism within the world of gymnastics. The sort of racism that is going to discourage white girls and white women from pursuing their dreams of excellence and gymnastics.
Yes, you read that right: the success of these two black women demonstrate just how unfair gymnastics is for white folks.
Well, at least according to Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito. She had this to say about Biles’s win: “I told [teammate Vanessa Ferrari] that next time we’ll have our skin black also so we can win, too.”
Believe it or not, I’m going to cut Ferlito some slack here. She is rather young herself, having turned 18 earlier this year, and likely was in a highly emotionally charged state after competing at a high pressured event in a high pressured sport and failing to achieve her ultimate goal. I also recognize that Italy has it’s own struggles with race and racism, particularly towards blacks.
But I’m not going to cut the mindset that likely motivated her comment any slack. The mindset that leads white people to think that any success garnered by people of color is somehow unfair. The mindset that tells them their rightful place is at the top of the podium, or top of the class, or head of the line, or where ever it is they want to be at that particular moment. The mindset that leads them to a state of disbelief when they see successful people of color, because those two concepts — “success” and “people of color” — seem mutually exclusive. The mindset that says these people are the ones who are supposed to win and those people are not.
If anyone pointed towards the lack of achievement of black women in gymnastics before the summer of 2012 as evidence of some sort of anti- black and/or pro-white racism, they most surely would have been rebuffed. Yet because two — yes, two — black women achieve great heights through hard work, determination, perseverance, and remarkable talent… well, clearly something must be wrong. Clearly these women were awarded victory because of something nefarious. Clearly those gold medals were supposed to go to white folks.
I’m sure Ferlito will receive much flack for her statements. The president of the Italian federation has denounced the comments and Ferlito has already issued a public apology via Twitter. But what likely won’t receive much pushback are the broader societal messages that Ferlito received that led her to make her statement. That led her to blame race. That led her to feel the victim of racism. Messages that she likely received in her home country but which are very much present in our own American society. I doubt she will be criticized for playing the “race card”, a phrase I would be shocked to seen mentioned in any major discussions of this situation. I doubt there will be conversations about white victimhood and the real source of white people’s recent struggles in gymnastics. Instead, we’re likely to demonize a young white person, a young white person who said something demonstrably racist, instead of having a real conversation about race, racism, and how those feelings arise in people and groups that stretch well beyond Ferlito, Italians, or the gymnastics community. And that is why it is so hard for us to truly move forward on race relations.
We should be celebrating Biles. And Douglas. We should celebrate their individual accomplishments, which cannot be understated. We should also celebrate what they mean with regards to their race — what it means to succeed as a black woman in gymnastics. Instead, we’ve got at least one competitor insinuating that their accomplishments are suspect, the result of racism, and are unworthy of celebrating. Ugh.
I should also note that any attempt to construe this as, “Well, you know how Italians can be… they’re just a bunch of backwards racists,” is little better than what Ferlito said.