- Soul Cap tried to have its swim caps – which fit over Afros – approved for the 2021 summer Olympics.
- The governing Olympic body rejected the request, saying it didn’t conform to the “natural” head.
- Fortune 500 consultants explain why the decision is a teachable moment for other leaders.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Maritza McClendon, the first Black woman to make a US Olympic swim team and a 2004 Olympic silver medalist, vividly remembers the sound of her white teammates in high school and college laughing as she struggled to fit her thick, curly hair into her swim cap.
She’d laugh along with them, but inside, she had an awful, sinking feeling. It was one of many microaggressions she endured over the years.
To be Black and a swimmer, she said, is difficult. And a new ruling by the International Swimming Federation, or FINA, makes it even more difficult.
A company called Soul Cap recently tried to have its swim caps – which fit over Afros, locs, extensions, and thick hair – approved for the 2021 summer Tokyo Olympics. FINA rejected the product, saying the caps didn’t follow “the natural form of the head.” Following swift backlash, FINA is revisiting the ban.
In response to a request for comment, FINA pointed to its latest press release on the matter, which said the federation understood the “importance of inclusivity and representation,” and that it would be revisiting the decision at an undisclosed date. As of this writing, no formal announcement has been made.
“It’s just really disappointing,” McClendon said. “The Olympics is the C-suite of sports. What kind of message does this send? It excludes the diversity the sport so desperately needs.”
In addition to calling the ban “ridiculous” and “racist,” consultants who work with Fortune 500 companies on issues of diversity said FINA’s decision is a learning moment not only for Olympic leaders but also for business leaders.
Corporate America has been engulfed in a racial reckoning ever since George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, and many experts said FINA’s swim-cap ban highlights a problematic status quo. Decision-makers must not only welcome opportunities to be inclusive, these experts told Insider, but also question whom these standards of dress and behavior are serving.
“When we talk about something like the Afro cap not conforming to the ‘natural shape of the head’ – Well, the natural shape of whose head exactly?” said Tiffany Jana, the founder of the diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm TMI who works with Fortune 500 companies.
A lesson for all leaders
The backlash against FINA has been swift.
Soul Cap has spoken out against the ruling, saying it discourages many younger athletes from underrepresented backgrounds from pursuing the sport. And an online petition for FINA to remove the ban has garnered more than 59,000 signatures.
That FINA snubbed the opportunity to be more inclusive is a lesson for business leaders, said Jana, the author of “Subtle Acts of Exclusion.”
Jana, who is nonbinary, called the decision “utterly ridiculous” and “a demonstration of white supremacy.” “What is being stated is that the white standard is normal, that it is best, and that it is what’s acceptable.”
Some writers have said that FINA’s language is reminiscent of phrenology, a pseudoscience from the 1800s involving the measurement of bumps on the skull to predict mental traits. It was used to argue that nonwhite people were inferior because of the shapes of their heads.
Jana said the decision showed a lack of historical and emotional awareness and “overall intelligence.” Kerryn Agyekum, a DEI principal at the consultancy The Raben Group, agreed. Both said it’s no longer OK for leaders to not be aware of how racism has influenced their sector, field, or even company or sport.
Stop policing Black and other nonwhite bodies
There’s a parallel to draw between the ban on the Afro swim cap and the ban, in many professional spaces, of braids, locs, and other ways Black people care for their hair.
Both bans, DEI experts said, are knowingly or unknowingly racist.
“It’s just another expression of how different people, their needs, their expressions, their well-being, and their way of being are not taken into consideration, honored, or privileged,” Jana said.
Oftentimes, the “standard” or “professional” way of doing things – whether in sports or the office – is how white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual people have existed, Agyekum said. The US Army has gone through a reckoning regarding what hairstyles are and aren’t permitted, with new guidelines released this year that allow styles such as cornrows, braids, and ponytails.
The CROWN Act, a bill that prevents workplace discrimination based on one’s hair texture or style, has passed in 11 states, including New York and California. Still, there is no law preventing such discrimination on the national level.
But business leaders shouldn’t wait for the CROWN Act. They should question the status quo, Jana said, and stop policing Black and other nonwhite bodies, or making it harder for them to exist in work spaces.
For example, leaders should reexamine workplace rules around presentation, adjust healthcare policies to include trans and nonbinary people, and make sure their offices are accessible to differently abled people.
“Historically, there was a lack of the ability for Black people to actually swim in pools that were for whites only. Now you have this generation of people who don’t know how to swim for that reason. In the present day, now hair becomes the issue,” Agyekum said. “It’s about exclusion.”
Workplace culture and sports culture can change, Jana said, but only if leaders are willing to put in the work. Take, for example, how women have made gains in the professional world. Many companies now have lactation rooms, offer free menstruation products such as pads, and offer paid parental leave.
“This only happened after we stopped and took a hard pause,” Jana said.
Embrace mistakes to usher in progress
No leader or organization will always get things right, especially when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. But it’s what leaders do after they make a mistake that defines what they stand for, DEI consultants said.
“You don’t get from institutionalized slavery and racism to any kind of international, global utopia without tripping, without learning,” Jana said. “What I’m interested in now is what FINA does next.”
In order for FINA to be an anti-racist organization, Jana said, its committee should not only withdraw the ban but also issue an apology and commit to a full review of its practices.
“Show me you’re doing the work,” Jana said.