Congratulations to Simone Manuel on becoming the first African American to win an Olympic Gold Medal in an individual swimming event! Manuel won gold in the 100m freestyle competition on Thursday, August 11th.
With all the racial controversy that’s been in the news over the past few years, many (typically whites) will say, “I don’t see color,” “I’m color blind,” or “there’s only one race,” followed with a statement about “stop being divisive.”
While yes, biologically we are all one race, and there’s a lot of unity that needs to be found in that fact, somehow Jackie Robinson’s experience in baseball was a quite different than Joe DiMaggio’s. To be “color blind” not only disrespects Jackie by minimizing all the oppression he had to go through, it disrespects all people of color who go through micro and macro oppression on a regular basis. By “disrespect”, I mean that it ignores it, it acts like it’s not there, when it is very “there” for people of color. If I convince myself people of color get treated exactly like white people, then I don’t have to deal with all the ways they are mistreated. I don’t need to advocate, protest or bring justice because I’m convinced everyone is treated the same. A very convenient position for a white person who doesn’t face oppression and who isn’t in close relationship with people of color who do.
If everyone were treated the same, it wouldn’t be a big deal that in 2016, Simone Manuel became the first African American to win an individual Olympic gold medal.
Manuel said in an interview with NBC. “It means a lot. This medal is not just for me, it’s for a whole bunch of people who have came before me and been an inspiration to me,” she said. “It’s for all the people who come after me who believe they can’t do it. And I just want to be inspiration to others that you can do it.”
Who are all these “other people” who came before her and who will come after her, people who might not think they can do it?
Did you know the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 70 percent of black children and 60 percent of Latino children don’t know how to swim? Compared to 31 percent of white children.
Did know for most of the 1900’s, black kids were not allowed in white pools or on white beaches? (So that’s pretty much every pool and beach in existence)
Jeff Wiltse says in his Journal of Sport and Social Issues article (Vol. 38(4), 2014) entitled, “The Black-White Swimming Disparity in America: A Deadly Legacy of Swimming Pool Discrimination,”
During much of the 20th century, Black Americans faced widespread discrimination that severely limited their access to swimming pools and swim lessons. The most consequential discrimination occurred at public swimming pools and took three basic forms. Public officials and White swimmers denied Black Americans access to pools earmarked for Whites. Cities provided relatively few pools for Black residents, and the pools they did provide were typically small and dilapidated. And, third, cities closed
many public pools in the wake of desegregation, just as they became accessible to Black Americans. Black Americans also faced restricted access to Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) pools and YMCA swim lessons—especially during the critical period of 1920 to 1940, when swimming first became popularized in the United States. Finally, Black Americans were systematically denied access to the tens of thousands of suburban swim clubs opened during the 1950s and 1960s. These pools
spurred a second great leap forward in the popularity of swimming, but only for the millions of White families that were able to join.
This past discrimination casts a long shadow.
So when Simone Manuel stands on the podium receiving her Olympic gold medal, we must see color. We must see color so we can celebrate and congratulate Simone on the incredible accomplishment of overcoming generations of discrimination that have kept black people away from swimming pools. We must also see color because it forces us to see discrimination and oppression. It forces us too look at its ugly face and decide what we are going to do about it. To choose to be “color blind” or to say “we’re all one race, so let’s stop talking about race” is to allow the ugly beast of discrimination and oppression to continue. We are better than this. Love and unity are better than this. We must acknowledge what people of color have had to go through and what they continue to go through so that we can truly love and be in community, and so we can get on the front lines of stopping the injustices people of color face.