On Not Erasing Blackness in gymnastics (and everywhere else)

First of all, if you haven’t seen this yet, watch it.

This is Nia Dennis’ stunning floor routine in an NCAA competition earlier this week. I don’t really follow gymnastics, but this went viral enough for even me to notice.

Now watch it again. Her strength and power are amazing, and — as she said in an interview — the music, choreography and energy are a direct celebration of who she is as a Black woman.

Well, a lot of the internet didn’t like the acknowledgement that this Black woman is, you know, Black. Here’s one example:

Slate has an excellent analysis of racism in gymnastics and what is really at play when people claim to be “colourblind.

I have similar experiences almost every day. My job is to design and facilitate processes for meaningful strategic change in healthcare and higher education. Racial justice and structural equity are a huge part of that. And every single day, when we try to put the topic of race on an actual, literal agenda, someone (a White someone) tries to downplay it. “Can’t we talk about community — I think we’ve already worked hard to be diverse.” “I think it’s really filling structural gaps in general – when we call attention to race it leaves out other marginalized groups.” “We are already addressing inclusion in so many ways, I don’t know if we have to name race.” “I don’t want to include race in this case study because it will be distracting.”

Claiming to be colourblind — not to notice race — feeds and reinforces the systemic inequities by creating no openings to even acknowledge them, let alone change them. It’s a tidy little system where we perpetuate oppression by assuring ourselves that we are so evolved that we don’t need to acknowledge difference. (Reading White Fragility helped me understand these dynamics a lot better).

When you start to notice these dynamics, they are… everywhere. I said to my colleague the other day “apparently my current role in the world is to hold the line and say, yep, as White people we need to step into directly naming and addressing racism.”

It’s not that easy — as a consultant, my job is to translate clients’ needs into action. Usually that means letting their comfort and preferences dictate and shape how we talk about things. But as one of my sister’s BIPOC clients observed, “the conversation only goes as far as the least comfortable person in the room.” So I have a choice — do my job with a consultant lens (“if client is uncomfortable they won’t want to work with me”) or with an equity lens (“I have a moral responsibility to acknowledge and try to break open attempts to erase race, even if it creates discomfort”).

So I’m pushing back on that comfort in ways that can be uncomfortable — I’m contradicting or countering people I respect and work closely with. I’m holding people’s gaze in ways I’m not used to doing. It’s scary — I keep waiting for someone to fire me because they find me too confrontational — and I also know that I can’t keep letting myself be an unexamined part of these dynamics anymore.

But I have to get skilled at not just naming, but talking about, race. WE have to get skilled at it. Erasure of the conversation is one of the slipperiest ways we perpetuate systemic racism.

If you’re the least comfortable person in the room, and your impulse is to rush to assure people you ARE inclusive, think about why. If you’re the one standing by uncomfortably when someone pushes back on the conversation, think about why. Think about what it means to hold the line and really own what being “colourblind” means.

And embrace the power and joy and “Blackety Black Black” ness of this amazing gymnast.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who is trying to learn about true allyship in Toronto.

4 thoughts on “On Not Erasing Blackness in gymnastics (and everywhere else)

  1. i love this post! Cate, you are ferocious and thank you for standing up on this with your clients. Just this week, I was at an everyday activism workshop, where we were thinking about exactly these sorts of issues. Colorblindness is … ridiculous. Do you match your outfits? You are not colorblind. Noticing each other in our wholeness and our struggles is what we are aiming for.

  2. Thanks for this, Cate– wowee wow wow, what a glorious performance by a glorious young black woman! We white people (I’m one, too) owe her the backup we can provide by holding gazes, not letting uncomfortable people off the hook, and keeping the race-word in the conversation. Thanks for the encouragement, and thanks for all you do.

  3. Great post, Cate! I work on the fantasy of colour blindness a lot in my research into Shakespeare and co – it’s been a big discussion, often very hard – and the word many thoughtful theatre makers now use is “colour conscious”. We must be conscious of racial differences in order to confront our relationship to difference – something that is rarely easy but is an urgent reality. If a young Black athlete chooses to overtly showcase and celebrate her racial heritage, she is telling everyone (and especially every White viewer) that race matters to her – she sees it, and she sees you seeing it. If your response is “I don’t see colour”, you are denying that young woman’s lived reality. Why? What are you afraid of seeing?

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