Marking the second time in recent months a world-class Black woman athlete publicly prioritized their mental health over competing, gymnast superstar Simone Biles withdrew from Thursday’s individual all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympics.
“I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health,” Biles told NBC.
But for many Black women fans watching the media frenzy, not enough has been said about the overt racism Black athletes often encounter during competition, the trauma of fighting racism under public scrutiny, and the tendency for White people to idealize Black athletes — only to discard them when they do not live up to their expectations.
Writer and attorney Jodi M. Savage, who lives in New York City, views the increasing dialogue around Black women’s mental health in the workplace as critical: “Because of Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, we are having more conversations about the need to create boundaries at work and prioritize our mental health,” she said.
However, Savage said, comments by White fans in particular on the “strength and bravery” of Biles and Osaka for prioritizing their mental health negatively feeds into the “Strong Black Woman” stereotype, which can preclude Black women’s right to be vulnerable.
“The idea that Black women can act without fear or without suffering from anxiety, and the idea Black women don’t break, is not true,” she said. “By the time a Black woman gets the point of saying no, they have already suffered trauma and reached a breaking point. Making any Black woman your savior overlooks this point and does not add context to the conversation.”
Savage emphasized how often Black women are demeaned for vocalizing their needs.
“Rather than call us courageous, White people need to look more deeply at the circumstances for Black women that become overwhelmed and need to disengage,” Savage said. “Start with the Black women in your own organization. Are they engaged? Are they happy? Charity begins at home.”
“Why can’t we have headlines that respect Simone, respect what she has accomplished in the sport, and demonstrate that she is perfectly capable of making a decision that is smart and what she needs at the moment?” said Jennifer Pahaham-Allison, an anti-racism life coach and director of RISE District who is based in Norfolk, Va.
This has also led Pahaham-Allison to be skeptical of the recent outpouring of support by others; she believes it can only be viewed as performative if it ignores Black women’s humanity. As she put it: “Can Simone excel and be human at the same time? That is my question.”
Rosamond S. King, associate professor at Brooklyn College and director of the Brooklyn College Ethyl R. Wolfe Institute for the Humanities, agrees: “What does it say about our society when a Black woman saying no [because she] values her own health is said to be brave?”
King pointed out that officials had already come under fire for their decision to modify the scoring system, underscoring Biles to even the playing field for Olympic competitors unable to attempt her complex moves.
“I feel like now we just have to get what we get because there’s no point in putting up a fight because they’re not going to reward it. So we just have to take it and be quiet,” Biles said in response to the scoring system.
What Biles experienced is familiar to accomplished Black women viewed as a threat, King said: “We’re expected to be twice as good, and when we are, they change the metrics they judge us by.”
Joy Banner, director of communications at the Whitney Plantation Museum, has found much of the dialogue surrounding Biles and Osaka triggering.
“[Biles’] moves were being viewed as too difficult and that somehow resulted in lower scores,” Banner said. “My first reaction was, ‘Is this about her being a Black woman?’ Because Black women often find ourselves in this situation — questioning whether our evaluation is equitable, fair or appropriate.”
This goes back to the legacy of slavery, Banner said. “Historically, Black bodies were used for labor. There was an incentive to support the physicality of the Black body because our bodies were used in service to White people, or for the purpose of their comfort and consumption.”
That continues today for Black athletes, Banner argued. Americans want “physically perfect, superior Black athletes — but they want them to stay in their place and maintain control.”
Banner fears that making Biles the new face of mental health awareness may only add another label and another set of unwanted expectations on the athlete. “This is the experience of being a Black person in the U.S.,” she said. “Always being gaslit, always being given reasons we are overqualified but still not good enough, and never being heard or believed.”
Instead, Banner views Biles and Osaka’s stance as an act of resistance for their own happiness as they become more in touch with their bodies and less willing to put their own health at risk for others’ gain.
“The belief is whatever is being thrown at us, we can take it — because our ancestors had to,” she said. “This hurts us, we are not indestructible, and society has a responsibility to ensure our environments are as comfortable as everyone else’s.”