Are the criticisms of Simone Biles racist?
Slavery will stop being relevant to the experience of black Americans when the crucifixion stops being relevant to the experience of Christians.
When Simone Biles withdrew from the vault and uneven bars finals at the Olympics, fans were shocked. She was physically fit to compete. She eventually shared that she did not feel mentally well enough to compete and was struggling with “the twisties.” She received hordes of praise for her decision to take her mental health seriously. Many former gymnasts expressed hope that this will be a new dawn for a sport that has been plagued by abuse and maltreatment of athletes.
But others offered sharp criticism. Co-founder of Turning Point USA Charlie Kirk called Biles “a selfish sociopath” and a “shame to the country.” The Texas Deputy Attorney General called her a “selfish, childish national embarrassment.” In an editorial, English TV personality Piers Morgan wrote, “There’s nothing heroic or brave about quitting because you’re not having ‘fun’ – you let down your team-mates, your fans and your country.” Catholic provocateur Matt Walsh analogized Biles’s decision to Michael Phelps storming “out of the Olympics because he lost a race and was embarrassed.” An associate editor at The Federalist titled her criticism: “There’s no I in team, but there is in Simone Biles.”
A few have addressed racism faced by Biles, including Candace Buckner, Brianna Holt, Erin Aubry Kaplan, and Biles herself. But Biles’s decision to step out of the Olympic competition and the ensuing criticism provide an opportunity to explore the subtlety of racism and racialized dynamics today and why they can be so hard to talk about. In particular, I’d like to ask:
How are race and racism relevant when white men (and a white woman writing for The Federalist) complain about a black woman not sacrificing her mind and body for the sake of their national pride?
Some might object that race just isn’t relevant here, and that there are more central issues to consider. I can certainly see where this is coming from. And I don’t think race is the only question when it comes Biles’s decision and the ensuing critiques. One can examine the situation from the lens of contemporary athletics, gender, and a number of other perspectives. The race perspective is not the perspective, but I’m going to explore it as a perspective worthy of consideration, in large part because the race perspective is difficult to see for many white Americans but is very important to many BIPOC Americans.
Systemic Racism and the Unconscious
In his 1987 essay The Id, The Ego, and Equal Protection Reckoning with Unconscious Racism, Charles R. Lawrence III considers the relationship between the unconscious and race. He writes about a sports broadcaster who got carried away in excitement and referred to an African American football player as a “little monkey” during a live broadcast. A progressive himself, the broadcaster apologized for his statement and said no racial slur was intended. Lawrence notes the sincerity of the broadcaster but also says:
“But his inadvertent slip of the tongue was not random. It is evidence of the continuing presence of a derogatory racial stereotype that he has repressed from consciousness and that has momentarily slipped past his ego’s censors.”
The broadcaster knew that African Americans have been derogatorily referred to as monkeys for many years. But somehow the derogatory comment (a racist animal association that even President Reagan used to denigrate black people) just slipped out.
Lawrence talks about another manifestation of unconscious racism that might be called “a slip of the mind: While one says what one intends, one fails to grasp the racist implications of one’s benignly motivated words or behavior.” Lawrence considers a comment made by many white liberals in the 1950’s and 1960’s to their black friends, that they “did not think of them as Negroes.” Lawrence recognizes the intent as complimentary, but he says,
“The statement is made in the context of the real world, and implicit in it is a comparison to some norm. In this case the norm is whiteness. The white liberal’s unconscious thought, his slip of the mind, is, ‘I think of you as different from other Negroes, as more like white people.’
“One indication of the nonneutrality of the statement, ‘I don’t think of you as a Negro,’ when spoken as a compliment by a white is the incongruity of the response, ‘I don’t think of you as white.’ This could also be a complimentary remark coming from a black, conveying that she does not think of her friend in the usual negative terms she associates with whiteness. But this statement… only makes sense as a lighthearted and cautionary retort. It conveys the following message: ‘I understand that your conscious intent was benign. But let me tell you something, friend. I think being black is just fine. If anything, our friendship is possible because you are unlike most white folks.’”
The lack of congruence between the statements comes from tacitly transmitted cultural stereotypes. Exposure to people of various races does a lot to form our views of race. At my undergraduate university, Notre Dame, black students are subject to all kinds of racism. Some of it is overt, but much of it comes in subtle forms, such as when black students are presumed to be athletes, sending a subtle, even if unintended, message that black students are accepted for their athletic, rather than academic, abilities. Tall black students are often assumed to be football players, in large part because many Notre Dame students lack exposure to tall black men who prioritize and excel in academic pursuits.
This assumption may seem innocuous to white students, who are only conceptualizing their black peers through their limited exposure to black persons. But to black students, this assumption can be tied back to and trigger their racial and cultural history, the world in which their families were once valued as laboring bodies rather than as full persons, and where they were seen as brutes rather than intellectuals. The asymmetry arises from a blindness for white students, where benign intent results in harmful impact. What the white students don’t realize they are doing is perpetuating expectations and characterizations of white people towards black people that were established during America’s slave era and which America hasn’t quite seem to overcome.
Catholic Social Teaching can help make sense of why racist attitudes and structures have been so hard to root out of American culture. The Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church states:
“The consequences of sin perpetuate the structures of sin. These are rooted in personal sin and, therefore, are always connected to concrete acts of the individuals who commit them, consolidate them and make it difficult to remove them. It is thus that they grow stronger, spread and become sources of other sins, conditioning human conduct. These are obstacles and conditioning that go well beyond the actions and brief life span of the individual and interfere also in the process of the development of peoples.”
The establishment of slavery by individual actors grew into the establishment of society-wide racist policies and attitudes which consolidated personal racism and enshrined it in society, making it stronger and spreading it even outside of the specific institution of slavery, becoming the source of new kinds of racism and conditioning all members of that society, whether they realized it or not. The obstacles and conditioning established by slavery then found new forms and outlived the institution itself, interfering in the process of American development even in our own day. A look at present housing disparities and city segregation help us understand how America’s legacy of slavery still endures. Actively racist policies continued well into the twentieth century and still live on in more subtle ways today, maintaining and furthering racial segregation and socio-economic inequality without any explicit reference to race.
Cultural Meaning and the Southern Strategy
It’s for similar reasons that Lawrence proposes using a “cultural meaning” test to identify racial discrimination in the law:
“This test would evaluate governmental conduct to see if it conveys a symbolic message to which the culture attaches racial significance. The court would analyze governmental behavior much like a cultural anthropologist might: by considering evidence regarding the historical and social context in which the decision was made and effected. If the court determined… that a significant portion of the population thinks of the governmental action in racial terms, then it would presume that socially shared, unconscious racial attitudes made evident by the action’s meaning had influenced the decisionmakers.”
He notes that a society which condemns overt racist attitudes and behaviors would drive any enduring racism underground, and so we would need to explore more than just overt racist intent to identify and address racism. The identification of “symbols” is thus essential: “The expression of shared attitudes through certain symbols gives those symbols cultural meaning, and once a symbol becomes an enduring part of the culture, it in turn becomes the most natural vehicle for the expression of those attitudes and feelings that caused it to be an identifiable part of the culture.”
The Republican party’s “Southern strategy” is a prime example of how this works. With the success of the civil rights movement and the resulting resentment of many white southerners, republican politicians and political strategists realized they could utilize that resentment to gain historically democratic white voters by appealing to their racial grievances. Seeing the potential of this approach, Nixon “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to.”
Republican strategist Lee Atwater who helped develop the Southern strategy explained how it worked:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, "N*****, n*****, n*****’. By 1968 you can't say "n****"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it.”
The tie between many southern “conservative” ideals and racism goes back at least to the early nineteenth century. As the Conservative political theorist Russell Kirk has written:
“[B]y 1824, John Randolph demonstrated that the problem of slavery was linked inescapably with loose or strict construction of the Constitution, state powers, and internal improvements. From the latter year onward, therefore, the slavery controversy confuses and blurs any analysis of political principle in the South: the historian can hardly discern where, for instance, real love for state sovereignty leaves off and interested pleading for slave-property commences. Both Randolph and Calhoun deliberately entangled the debate…
Years after Appomattox, at a convention of Confederate veterans… General Nathan Bedford Forrest listened to a series of highflying speeches from his old comrades in arms, by way of apologia for the lost cause; but slavery was scarcely mentioned. Then Forrest rose up, disgruntled, and announced that if he hadn’t thought he was fighting to keep his n******, and other folks’ n******, he never would have gone to war in the first place.”
(This is partly why Kirk hated the version of “conservatism” that developed in the South.)
For many Southerners, “states’ rights” advocacy was advocacy for slavery before the Civil War and advocacy for what could be retained of slavery after the War. For black Americans, the impact of this advocacy was their ability or inability to safely pursue equality and justice in society, and so the entanglement was all the more significant for them. The same could be said of busing in the Nixon era. Republican critiques of “forced busing” were code for opposition to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and black Americans remained cognizant of this code long after white Americans had forgotten it (even though they continued to make use of it). The code is relevant, because it still has the same racialized impact that was originally intended, even if the overt intent is now absent from its white advocates. Many repeat the arguments, talking points, priorities, and strategies of their racist ancestors (whether ideological, communal, or biological), but decry calls to discuss the racial issues because of a lack of “overt racism.” In other words, overt racial progress and addressing racism became unnecessary at some point in the last century because politicians stopped using the n-word.
Thus Lawrence’s “cultural meaning” test calls for a “significant portion,” rather than a simple majority, of the population to recognize the racialized context of an activity for it to have legal relevance. White Americans have largely forgotten the context, while black Americans bear the memory of it, often in the continued inequality they experience. Given their lived knowledge of inequality, as well as their frequent familiarity with the history outlined above, in contrast to their white peers, one would expect white Americans to defer to black Americans on questions of racism and racialized problems. Unfortunately, black Americans have not been given the deference to which they should be entitled.
The Black Woman Gymnast
This all brings us back to white men shaming a young black woman for prioritizing her mind and body over their sense of national pride. These responses to Biles do much to revive a number of racialized and sexist dynamics. They activate a “cultural meaning” that is probably invisible to those who utilize it.
From the perspective of sexism, we see a common response from men when a woman doesn't want to do something he wants in order to protect her body: she's ignored, accused of weakness, and shamed. The message has cultural meaning as sexist because it is a mode of response to women that is culturally directed specifically towards women in our society. Regarding Kerri Strug’s famous vault while injured, Susan Bigelow Reynolds writes, “She didn’t choose to sacrifice. She was the sacrifice.” So often in society, women don’t so much choose sacrifices as they become sacrifices for corporate, academic, and athletic goals set by standards favorable to men. In another culture, that sexist meaning may not be relevant, but it's relevant because of the types of messages that have been given to women broadly in America. Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in healthcare disparities faced by women, and by black women in particular.
While racism and sexism can’t be entirely separated for black women, their race subjects them to unique kinds of critiques. Eden Ghebresallasie, a former creative strategy lead at ESPN comments:
“We’ve seen Serena [Williams] break down on the court, and if you compare her to other white tennis players, they’re viewed as passionate and secure about themselves, and that’s why they were defending their game. But when it comes to Serena, she’s just the angry Black woman.”
Mike Watkins, an athletic trainer, has shared how black athletes receive disparate treatment. He saw black athletes hide their injuries, because they would be viewed as lazy when coming in for treatment, in contrast to their white peers. He said:
“Two of my Black athletes, when I worked with gymnastics, felt more comfortable and felt like they were only listened to by medical staff because I was there. But if a white athlete had concerns, all things needed to stop to make sure nothing was wrong with them. There’s definitely a double standard.”
Certainly, the expectation that any gymnast would enter competition while insecure about their ability to do so safely is an inhumane expectation. Gymnastics reform is needed for all gymnasts, not just black gymnasts. But when the expectation is callously hurled by white men upon a black woman who is then shamed for not meeting their expectations of national pride, a racial element is relevant here.
Candace Owens’s participation in the shaming of Simone Biles can also be seen as a participation in these dynamics. As Derrick Bell has pointed out, the lifting up of certain black voices to protect racialized interests is as old as slavery. This practice “replicates the slave masters’ practice of elevating to overseer and other positions of quasi-power those slaves willing to mimic their masters’ views, carry out orders, and by their presence provide a perverse legitimacy to the oppression they aided and approved.” Owens has been instrumental in attempts to rewrite American history in order to hide the legacy of slavery, even going so far as to say in a Congressional hearing that the Southern strategy “never happened.” Ironically, instead of rewriting history, Owens repeats it.
All this also speaks to the significance of what Biles has done A black woman has told her country that she will not be sacrificed for a false sense of national pride. If Owens represents one end of the spectrum of black women living out racialized dynamics of American history, Biles represents the other end, participation in a tradition of black voices demanding a better future for themselves and their communities. Biles may not consciously intend a message of liberation for black women and girls, but this is the impact of her achievement.
Biles is not a gymnast who happens to be black. She is a black gymnast. Her race is relevant to United States athletics, because she is black and the United States is the United States. Her race cannot be simply removed from her any more than a racist history can be simply removed from our country. Her blackness is part of who she is, no matter how many might try to abstract it out of her.
These dynamics should already be familiar to Christians. We live in a world where many expect us to enter spaces such as workplaces as areligious selves. And, like black Americans, we have cultural symbols that are elicited by our sufferings, regardless of whether or not the perpetrators of sufferings intended this. Many aspects of life are seen by Christians as reenactments of the life of Christ, whom we are called to imitate. Often, such a vision comes as a realization in retrospect. Our sufferings are participations in the Cross. Our triumphs are Resurrection. We might live in an culture claiming secularism, just as our black peers live in a culture that has claimed to “not see race.” But we know better. Our secular age has a way of bringing our memory back to the Cross and the Resurrection, just as our “racially blind” age has a way of bringing black memory back to slavery and liberation. Satan is real, and racism is real, no matter how many people might claim that our progressive age “knows better.”
Slavery will stop being relevant to the experience of black Americans when the crucifixion stops being relevant to the experience of Christians. Just as experiences of suffering allow for the activation of the cultural memory of the Cross for Christians, experiences of domination, subjugation, and marginalization of black Americans by white Americans allow for the activation of the cultural memory of American slavery and its progeny. What many white critics of Biles have recently demonstrated is an attitude of entitlement not only to her performance but also her physical safety. In this, we can hear the echoes of American slavery, segregation, and racial subjugation.
The question I started with, “How are race and racism relevant when white men (and women) complain about a black woman not sacrificing her mind and body for the sake of their national pride?,” should give us pause. It should cause us to remember what many can’t forget. When someone “plays the race card,” they’re providing an opportunity to jog cultural memory, to draw attention to cultural meaning behind a symbol or dynamic that may seem racially neutral on its face. To dismiss it is to forget. To forget is to perpetuate.
Flight attendants always caution passengers on an airplane that when the cabin loses pressure, air bags will drop from the ceiling. The instruct them, please put yours on first then make sure those seated with you do the same.
Some would call that selfish, others would call it common sense, you cannot take care of others without taking care of yourself first. In Latin it goes like this; Nemo dat, quod non habet. No one gives what he does not have.
Being mindful of one’s health and welfare is not selfish, but rather mature, responsible living!