Op-Ed: Simone Manuel And The Gift And Curse Of Black Excellence In White Spaces

GWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA - JULY 26: Simone Manuel of the United States reacts after the Women's 100m Freestyle Final on day six of the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships at Nambu International Aquatics Centre on July 26, 2019 in Gwangju, South Korea. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Op-Ed: Simone Manuel And The Gift And Curse Of Black Excellence In White Spaces

Will the record-breaking, history-making, Black swim star be the face of the 2020 Olympics?

Published 2 weeks ago

Written by Jarod Hector

“Strange faces” in familiar places. That’s the feeling many people have when watching athletes of color dominate sports that are viewed as white. Think Olympic sports like golf, gymnastics, swimming and tennis. 

There are of course reasons for these feelings. Three of the four are often called “country club” sports. That descriptor brings all types of baggage and connotations. Country clubs since their inception have social and economic barriers designed to keep certain people out, often framed as exclusivity. But we’ll focus specifically on the economics for the purpose of this endeavor. 

Golf, swimming and tennis are highly specialized individual sports that require access to facilities (costly) and the highest level of private or group coaching, also very costly. The other - gymnastics - also has a reputation for being quite expensive. On the conservative side the monthly fees for a competitive gymnast can range from $500-$700. 

Economics have long been a barrier for athletes of color to enter into these highly specialized sports. According to a report from the Aspen Institute, kids from low-income families participate in youth sports at almost half the rate of affluent families. Shocking, right?...

If we define a household income of $100,000 as affluent - though that math seems hard, particularly if you live in certain parts of the country - we are already limiting the population set. 

Look at any data set for household income in the United States and the reality is white households making $100,000 in annual income exceed those of Black households. Both in numbers and percentage. 

It’s difficult to find funds for these costly sports when the majority of your income goes to basic necessities like food and shelter. So by and large throughout history they have been dominated mainly by white athletes. Though, when given the chance, even with low overall participation numbers in comparison, Black athletes can come out on top. 

That is part of the baggage that comes with these specific sports and notions of identity and belonging. For some, when the star Olympic athletes in historically white sports stop looking like those from yesteryear it can conflict with their ideals of nationalism and pride in one’s country. How does the mainstream reconcile those feelings and beliefs that a sport belongs to “them,” with the reality of Black excellence?

The 2019 FINA Swimming World Championships concluded earlier this week, and Simone Manuel became the first American to sweep the 50 and 100 meter sprint freestyle events. You may remember Manuel as one of the breakout stars of the 2016 Olympics in Rio. She stunned the swimming world by winning gold in the 100 meter freestyle and following it up with a silver in the 50 meter freestyle. 

Since 2016, Manuel has finished no worse than third in the two sprint freestyle events at any major national or international competition. Considering the depth of talent in the sprint freestyle events, that’s a serious accomplishment. 

While she doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as the “Black swimmer,” she understands what she means and represents to so many girls and young women that look like her. In a piece in The Undefeated, Manuel said:

“Sometimes I feel like I’m alone on an island. Reporters ask me questions that other swimmers, white swimmers, are never asked. They want me to talk about social justice issues, Colin Kaepernick, athlete protests. I want to contribute to the conversation and lead, but I’m not the voice of Black America. And when people single me out like that, they’re reducing me to a label — 'the black swimmer' — when I know I am so much more.”

Indeed, that is her gift and curse, as it is with so many athletes of color that participate and excel in sports “we are not supposed to be good at.” Whether she knows it or not, and I suspect she does, she is “The Black Swimmer.” That’s not all she is, but it’s a part of her. 

Just like tennis legends Serena and Venus Williams, and Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, Manuel’s excellence means more and is a beacon of hope for countless others because of the various social and economic barriers still in place for people of color in 2019. 

It would be a welcomed day when a Black athlete or any other athlete of color or a female athlete or an LGBTQ athlete can be celebrated and discussed free from prejudices. But this is America. A country built on the abhorrent economic system of slavery. It permeates everything that is and will ever be birthed from this nation. So, that’s a pipe dream.

The numbers don’t lie, in swimming and the other country club sports mentioned, white people make up the majority of the athletes; for that matter, coaches, officials, administrators and executives too (a story for a different day). In an era where we tout diversity and the need for inclusion, what better way than to promote a Black athlete who happens to be one of the best and brightest as your sport’s face?

As she continues to train and prepare for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Manuel should be promoted as one of the faces, if not THE face, of USA Swimming. Yes, there is still Katie Ledecky and who knows what bright young star will emerge between now and the 2020 Olympic Trials. But the same Olympic machine that made household names out of Missy Franklin, Ledecky, Katie Hoff and many more should be working to make Manuel a household name. 

Maybe it’s because the mainstream is still not comfortable with seeing Black faces in predominantly white spaces. But, as we know, if Manuel continues to win and rack up accolades, those in control will have to make room for her willingly or otherwise. Just as they have for the Williams sisters, Biles and the many other Black athletes that dominate sports “we shouldn’t.”

As we look at Manuel and what she’s accomplished in swimming and juxtapose it with North Carolina A&T State University’s decision to disband its women’s swim team this year, the only all-Black swim team in NCAA Division I, the Aggies motto, “Black Girls Do Swim,” rings out loud and true. Yes we can. Yes we do. 

We have just about a year until opening ceremonies in Tokyo. While the Olympic machine begins to rev up its sizable and influential engines to sell you the next great American star, be mindful he or she could be Black and could participate in a sport you didn’t think Black people participated in. 

Manuel doesn’t want to be a label, but in that Undefeated piece, she offered up the following words of wisdom, that all Black people know in their hearts, minds and spirits to be true:

“People don’t always like 'different' — and it often scares them the most when it’s wrapped in excellence.”

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

(Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

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