The unholy terror that White folks still feel about extraordinary talent in Black women.

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Last night I saw a tweet that sent me searching for a new story about the breathtakingly talented Simone Biles, who continues to blow the world of gymnastics apart with her unbelievable talent. There were two of them:

Simone Biles Made Gymnastics History. Now a Different Kind of History Is Repeating Itself.
Biles recently became the first woman ever to attempt the Yurchenko double pike in competition. By nailing the remarkably difficult maneuver, she not only expanded the boundaries of her sport—she ignited a controversy that feels all too familiar.


Simone Biles’ historic Yurchenko double pike is being punished
Her talent has been criticized as unfair to other gymnasts—something that’s celebrated for white, male athletes.

My first response to this was shock, and then the kind of outrage that I felt and continue to feel every single time I see another story about the incredible Caster Semenya, who continues to fight the good fight to run her race as she most certainly deserves to do. And the world will not allow her, in the same way that Biles is being told, in no uncertain terms, HOW DARE YOU BE JUST THAT GOOD.

Caster Semenya and the cruel history of contested black femininity
World Athletics’ regulations targeting Caster Semenya are rooted in a long legacy of black bodies being held to white standards.

Last night I responded to the tweet, and is my habit as a writer who sees connections where others may not, I made the analogy to a different athlete, in this case, the great Secretariat. The tweet was taken as comparing these women to animals, which not only was not what I was doing in any way shape or form, but it probably angered folks who were looking for another reason to be irritated at White folks for coming after their beloved athletes. They have good reason, but out of respect, let me clarify.

For the record, these are MY beloved athletes too, and let me clarify my point, and why I use this analogy. I am attacking the simplistic, arrogant thinking, and this is what I meant by it.

In the world of horse racing, these animals are superb athletes. Every so often an animal comes along with freakishly good skill. Both Secretariat and the great Phar Lap were later determined to have abnormally large hearts. Those hearts allowed them to get more oxygen into their bodies while running, which gave them incredible speed and endurance, so they won handily.

They were freaks. Athletic freaks. The public loved them, breeders envied them and tried to replicate their success. I am a horsewoman, an equestrian, I love these animals, their stories inspire me, so they are reference points for my writing. I am using these horses as an analogy to make a POINT about how the world of White folks chooses to selectively make heroes in one regard, but punishes freakish excellence when it comes to Black women.

I am not comparing these great Black female athletes to horses. I am using the horse racing analogy to make a point about how selectively White folks love their incredibly freakish athletes EXCEPT as it relates to Black women.

The same ugly censure has been used to attack the Williams sisters, especially Serena. Serena Williams, to my mind, is the greatest athlete of the 20th Century. Yet the personal attacks on her body were relentless. And as this article points out, it was far more about her skin than her wins:

We White folks simply cannot BEAR to see Black women rise. Oh, it’s okay if they dance and sing. That’s entertainment. But when it comes to other achievements, which might cause us to rethink that precious superiority that we so love to think is ours due to a 2mm sliver of skin color, kindly. Apparently we will bend any rule whatsoever to deny, limit, rewrite or punish the truth of Black Excellence even when it slaps us hard in the face with the sound of Bile’s landing her Yurchenko double pike. That landing was, like the sound of so many Black voices rising in excellence all over the world, terrifying. So the judges blasted her with a 6.6 score, an insult to say the least, and as the article notes, a message to her: don’t you dare do that again.

How DARE you continue to rewrite gymnastics, and demonstrate your extraordinary talent?

But it’s okay for White folks.

If I may continue:

Michael Phelps is an athletic freak. Here’s how to understand this:

Why Michael Phelps Has the Perfect Body for Swimming
With his extra-long torso and flipper-like feet, it’s no wonder the Olympian is nicknamed the ‘Flying Fish.’

From his wingspan to his hyper-extended joints, Phelps is a freak of nature designed to do ONE thing better than any other human: swim. From the article:

No matter how you slice it, between the build of his body and the power of his mind, Phelps may be the perfect example of an elite swimmer and athlete.

You don’t see the same people saying the same things about Semenya and Biles. You see them criticized (in Biles’ case, everything from her choice of hairstyle to being critiqued via score to doing the ONE gymnastic trick almost nobody else has ever done) to the otherworldly strength in running that Semenya embodies, for which she is being censured and told to take drugs in a sport that punishes athletes for taking drugs. She has abnormally high testosterone levels. In other words she is a gifted “freak” just like Phelps but God help us she’s a Black woman. How dare she.

From the Semenya article above:

World Athletics remains committed to a centuries-old, white supremacist notion that defines “womanhood” in terms of the white, cisgendered female body, rendering everyone else, especially women of African descent, socially unacceptable abberations.

At this point I’m just waiting for the same kind of mindless, idiot censure to be leveled at Allyson Felix, who outpaced the great Usain Bolt.

How DARE she be just that good.

This paragraph from SBNation’s story on Semenya says it all for me:

World Athletics simply sees little use in acknowledging and developing female talent, particularly black female talent in the Global South. As exemplifiers of a particular strain of racialized thinking, those women, to them, are not “real women.” And when World Athletics refuses to elevate the athletic prowess of a black woman, within a body that defies centuries of white supremacist, colonial, gender-essentialist myths, it chooses, instead, to humiliate her on every level.

Humiliate her on every level indeed. How dare she…Prove White folks wrong.

The rise of the Black woman on every single level, in academics, in business, in education, in sport terrifies the holy hell out of the White Patriarchy. We see the censure, we see the unrelenting punishment and denial of Black Excellence. It terrifies those who would do anything possible to prevent the long overdue rewriting of vicious, racist ideas, the centuries of limiting beliefs.

It is uncomfortable. Well, all’s the pity, folks.

Too. Bad. Ladies and Gentlemen. Too Damned Bad.

In a world which allowed, supported, forgave and elevated Lance Armstrong’s lie for years, which celebrates athletic freaks like Phelps for his “God-given” gifts which make him perfect for the sport, I am sick unto death of those same standards being used to punish Black women for precisely the same kind of freakishly good talent.

And kindly, without the drugs, which of course makes this even more offensive to folks protecting a narrative.

My fellow Black female friends who are monumentally talented, smart, capable, and who in every single way have to prove themselves by overachieving in every single aspect of their lives just to even be seen next to embarrassingly mediocre White folks, kindly. I’m talking to you.

My fellow Medium peeps Marley K., Allison Gaines, Jeanette C. Espinoza, Rebecca Stevens A. and Sharon Hurley Hall are all tagged in this for I want to hear your thoughts. Sports are part of my life, and Black female excellence in sports is part of what I look to for inspiration. I am horrified, personally offended and deeply troubled by the continuation of Rules That Bend for White Men, but which are used to punish Black Excellence. Especially female Black Excellence.

When I used Secretariat as an example, I am using the best of the best of the best in one sport to make an analogy about the best of the best: Biles, Semenya, etc. I am NOT comparing these extraordinary athletes to an animal, and to take that out of context undermines what I am trying to do. I am calling out racism, hate, ignorance, and the selective love of remarkably good talent to specifically exclude Black women, who are clearly the best in the world.

These women are my sheroes. When they rise they take me, an aging White woman, with them. They give me permission to cheer, to hope, to celebrate TALENT, no matter the package. When we tear them down, we tear ourselves down, and continue to pander to the worst aspects of our humanity, fear, hate, racism, the need to attack that which we simply cannot accept: Black women who are, if you will pardon me for pointing out the obvious, a lot better than we are at so very many things.

In one of my favorite movies of all time, Secretariat, the owner’s father says to Penny Chenery when he first sees Big Red, “Let him run his race, darlin.’ Let him run his race.”

White folks are terrified of letting Black women run theirs. Because in so many ways, in so many arenas, they are beating the pants off us.

It’s time we put on our Big Girl Panties and got OVER it.

Jeffrey F. Lin for Unsplash