The 2020 Olympics were mired with challenges and controversy, but there were a few sweet spots. Jamaica sweeping the Women’s 100M; Team USA's Raven Saunders winning silver in women's shot put, and Sunisa Lee becoming the first Hmong American to compete and medal in the Olympics with her gymnastics individual all-around gold; and - my favorite moment - Simone Biles choosing herself. Prioritizing her mental health, physical safety, and overall wellbeing.
What stood out in the backlash Simone received wasn't the ignorance of statements that she was a quitter, non-patriotic, and let down her team. Nor the dismissal of mental health concerns as less significant than physical injury, or total lack of regard for her physical safety even after numerous gymnasts and experts explained the alarming danger a gymnast is in when continuing to compete with what is known as the “twisties.” These didn’t shock me because, as Instagram user gabythickums posted, “they want [B]lack women humbled…even if it’s by death.”
Despite the triggers impacting her mental state, Simone was expected to operate and perform at 100% within a system where she was sexually abused. As one of the many gymnasts assaulted by pedophile and convicted sex offender Larry Nassau, Simone stated that a contributing factor in her decision to postpone retirement was concern that, with none of the affected victims remaining as active elite USA Gymnastics (USAG) members, the women’s traumatic experiences would be swept under the rug. Simone achieved well beyond what most gymnasts do throughout their competitive career and, even if she hadn’t, could retire whenever she wanted. Simone was offered a $215 million settlement from USAG to be split by Nassar victims who filed a civil suit against the gym, but she didn't want “dirty money.” She desired accountability.
Simone trained daily within an organization that abandoned her, then added insult to injury with an attempted buy-off. Learning the Tokyo games would be delayed a year and realizing she'd have to continue performing and producing for an unjust, non-reciprocal system was re-traumatizing. She faced this not only in the mishandling of the Nassar case but in the unfair International Gymnastics Federation scoring of her athletic feats. How many of us can relate to being told we must overachieve to “make it,” only to have those efforts overlooked and minimized when it is our contributions that keep a company afloat, earn the highest revenue, and yield the most clients - consistently contributing to positive trends in individual and organizational performance metrics?
A panelist at a diversity summit I attended spoke to the diminished staff discretionary energy companies face when employees of color experience unchecked microaggressions and gaslighting - phenomena friends, colleagues, and I live daily. Heathfield (2019) defines discretionary energy as effort exerted by an employee that goes beyond that which is a basic requirement of the job. Gymnastics competitions were Simone’s job. The Olympics was Simone’s workplace. In the words of Representative Maxine Waters, Simone reclaimed her time by withholding her discretionary energy, and I’m here for it.
Throughout the pandemic, many of us reveled in the absence of unrelatable small talk with white co-workers and forced, phony laughter we muster to avoid being labeled anti-social, angry, or a non-team player.
We leveraged the additional time and flexibility remote work affords to engage in new and increased acts of self-care, begin pursuing that idea we had for years but never had time or energy to pursue, and - best of all - rest. The result has been a collective realization that, in many ways, they need us more than we need them and we are going to proceed accordingly. From individual employees re-negotiating contracts to incorporate permanent expansion of remote and other flexible work options and labor unions fighting for the same, to smaller acts of resistance such as scheduling therapy appointments during the work week and entering them as standing meetings on one’s office calendar - Black people are exhausted and, in lieu of governmental acknowledgment and reparations, are claiming our own.
Simone isn’t the first Black public figure to reach this point. In interviews after announcing her withdrawal from the remaining team and individual events, Simone cited tennis star Naomi Osaka as an influence on her decision. In May 2021, Naomi announced she would not participate in required press activities during the French Open, citing mental health concerns, and ultimately withdrew from the tournament. Naomi, too, received backlash. Historically, Black women are not afforded the same compassion and empathy as or by white men and women and even Black men. Perpetuation of the “strong Black woman” trope leads to widespread dehumanization and subsequent industrialization of Black women. Banks (2019) posits that, “Negative representations of [B]lack womanhood have reinforced discriminatory practices…that disadvantaged [B]lack women relative to white women and men.” One example is states’ omission of established labor protections benefiting Black women by failing to require said policies in sectors where Black women typically would or could secure employment. I’m no history buff nor an expert in economics. However, my background is interdisciplinary, making it difficult to ignore the intersectional nature of Naomi and Simone’s stories.
And Sha'Carri's. I mentioned her plight in conjunction with Naomi and Simone's and was shut down by a family member who insisted the situations weren't the same. That Sha’Carri brought hers on herself and must reap the consequences. Keenly aware of an impending rabbit hole, I chose to preserve my peace and not debate this individual - but not before calling out the institutionalized, systemic barriers experienced by all three women as a result of their multiple, overlapping identities, including race, class, and gender. I’m proud of Sha’Carri, Simone, and Naomi. I rooted for them even when their actions didn't align with societal edicts and expectations, because who is society to dictate how one should grieve, support one’s mental health, or govern one’s body? These women are half my age, but I see myself in them. Figuring it out as we go and doing the best we can to do right by ourselves.
They inspired me to keep saying no without explanation. To choose and advocate for myself without guilt and when no one else will. I hope you do, too.
*A previous version of this post originally appeared on Medium.