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Black Hair, Black Athletes, and the Impacts of Systemic Racism: A Primer for Coaches

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

Image Credit: Victoria Johnson

Consider the following:

  • During the 2012 Olympics, gymnast Gabby Douglas faced backlash and scrutiny for her natural hair. Some commentators made derogatory comments, claiming her hair was "unkempt" and "unprofessional." Gabby became the 2012 Olympic All-around Champion.

  • In 2018, this generation’s greatest gymnast, Simone Biles, was criticized for wearing a hair accessory that some viewers deemed “distracting.”

  • In 2018, New Jersey high school wrestler Andrew Johnson was forced to cut off his dreadlocks mid-match to comply with the referee's demand or forfeit the match. Although Andrew was wearing his usual headgear and covering, as he had done in previous sanctioned bouts, the referee at that event said it was not in compliance with rules by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA)(1). Captured on video, Andrew was visibly distraught while being "comforted" by teammates and coaches and having his dreadlocks sheared off by a trainer. He returned to the competition and ended up winning his match.

  • In 2019, the National Football League (NFL) Houston Texans' receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, was subjected to a fine for wearing his hair in long braids during a game. The NFL deemed Hopkins's hairstyle violated the dress code prohibiting "excessively long hair." That year, DeAndre went on to earn the most receiving yards in a single postseason for the franchise.

  • In 2021, North Carolina high school softball player Nicole Pyles had to remove her braids during a game to continue playing. Although she had the same hairstyle in previous games that season, the opposing coach initially claimed that Nicole's hair covered up her jersey number (which she further tucked in her hair to accommodate). Later in the game, the opposing coach complained about Nicole's beads in her hair, citing that they were not allowed per the rulebook. The umpire agreed. She had to remove her beads or stop playing. As a result, her teammates attempted to help her remove the beads but had to cut parts of her hair instead. Nicole remarked to reporters later, "I felt dehumanized." It was her last home softball game of the season.

  • In 2023, Valdosta State University baseball player Asher Akridge, was forced to cut his hair to play on the baseball team. After complying with the requirement, he was cut from the team because the coach said his hair was still too long and he "can set whatever rules I want."

It is important to note that these incidents occurred at all levels of play and were initiated by coaches, officials, sports leagues, and spectators - just about everyone except for the athletes - and sparked backlash and accusations of sexism and racism, as White athletes with hairstyles of similar length or accessories were never penalized. Whether famous or elite like Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles, or DeAndre Hopkins, or playing for the fulfillment and possibility of competing on a higher level like Andrew Johnson, Nicole Pyles, and Asher Akridge, Black athletes are, unfortunately, subjected to the persistent problem of discrimination. As these cases show, neither skill, success, status, records, gold medals, nor "love of the game" can offer protection or solace. The truth is that using arbitrary rules and enforcement to regulate Black hair is a symptom of a more significant, systemic issue.

"-that efforts to discipline, exclude and humiliate [Black] athletes are often focused on their hair…The constant demand to 'tame,' conform, and change their natural hair to accommodate or assimilate into White-dominated sports spaces is an all-too-common demand of so-called integration and a power move designed to remind [Black] athletes of their place and the terms of their inclusion."

-Dr. Amira Rose Davis, Assistant Professor of History, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Penn State University

Dr. Davis highlights in her research that the "policing" of Black athletes' hair in sports systems helps to support, maintain, and extend the social hierarchy using race and ethnicity. Now, it is easy to do the eye roll when one hears "racism," "systemic," or "institutional." In the current charged political environment, people range from uncomfortable to resistant about discussing systemic racism and the legacy impacts of chattel slavery in the United States. For substantive, transformational advances in the sports space, intentional and robust historical understanding must be a part of the equation. In the sport of fencing, coaches can play a vital role along that path.

Historical Thru Line

There is a direct line between the institution of chattel slavery in the United States and the weaponization of systems and practices against Black athletes through their hair. For generations, Black people, particularly those who identify as American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS), have been the targets of economic, social, political, and educational exclusion and plunder, among other institutions.

Chattel slavery in the United States (1619 – 1775) existed as long as the country was sovereign (1776-1865). This institution thrived for 246 years. For ten generations, every law, policy, practice, experience, and custom was steeped in the dehumanization, subjugation, rape, torture, terrorism, and oppression of one specific group of people, enslaved Black Americans.

For example, enslaved Black Americans were considered property and treated as commodities ("chattel") bought, sold, and traded. In preparation for the slave block, my ancestors were typically stripped naked (men, women, and children) with all body hair shaven. Historians state that removing any form of individual identity and unique characteristics was an intentional way to gain control and "break" people from resisting the dehumanization process. By denying fundamental human rights, including the right to marry, own property, travel freely, and exercise agency over their own lives, my ancestors were devoid of legal personhood for centuries.

The generational trauma that surfaces when Black athletes like Andrew Johnson and Nicole Pyles have to cut or change their hair so that they can participate in a sport that should be available and accessible to them just as it is for others is visceral. Actions and decisions that require that form of treatment have a dehumanizing effect.

In Fencing, repetition is critical for technical mastery. Research reveals that learning and effectively applying a new skill, such as in Fencing, takes at least 10,000 hours. For illustrative purposes, over the course of at least 246 years (which equates to over 2 million hours), the United States perfected the institution of chattel slavery. The underlying point is that the time that structural components of societal institutions have been in place is significant and concentrated. Thus, the ensuing systems are built upon the United States' foundation. Overcoming the resulting outcomes and discriminatory practices today will require an extended, deep understanding and new skill attainment.

The good news is that the capacity to build this extended, deep understanding is something that fencers and coaches do in their sports practice. They already have the skills for the concentrated and comprehensive work necessary to embed a new approach into our ways of being. These deliberative practice skills can be applied to this example of removing structural racism.

What Can Coaches Do?

Fencing coaches can play a role in minimizing the effects and impact of systemic barriers that Black athletes are potentially subjected to because of their hair. Here are three tips for consideration.

1. Educate yourself:

Research has shown that chemicals used to straighten Black hair have been found to lead to higher incidence of cancer and other health concerns. In a study by the Environmental Working Group, over 70 percent of products marketed for Black hair contain dangerous ingredients, compared with 40 percent of hair products made for the population at large.(2) The study analyzed 1,100 hair products marketed and sold toward Black consumers. Results revealed that most products tested contained toxic chemicals that can potentially cause cancer or developmental and reproductive damage, disrupt hormones, and trigger other adverse health effects - harmful ingredients such as lye (found in relaxers) and formaldehyde (found in keratin straightening treatments and Brazilian blowouts). Therefore, if athletes choose natural hairstyles like afros, braids, or locks, which do not require chemical treatments, support and encouragement of that choice is helpful.

Talk with your athlete’s parents if you have questions. Just like with other aspects of fencing and since they know their child the best, parents are a great resource and ally.

Challenge yourself to read books about the history of the United States, including chattel slavery. The more understanding you have about what has happened, the more equipped you will be to see the systems in place that need to be challenged and changed. For reading suggestions, see the Suggested Readings section at the end of this article.

2. Advocate for your Black athletes:

The rules that govern hair, as per the USA Fencing Athlete Handbook, include the following. Before the start of the bout, the fencers’ hair must be fastened and placed inside the clothing and/or mask in such a way as to ensure that:

  • It does not cover a valid surface (and thus prevent a touch from being scored);

  • It does not conceal the name and nationality of the fencer; and

  • It does not need to be put back in place during the bout, thus interrupting it.

What would you do if the above rules were not applied equitably? What would you do if your athlete were removed from competition because of their hairstyle? It is hoped that there will never be an incident at a fencing tournament like the example presented at the beginning of this article. An unfortunate event can be prevented with preparation, communication, and awareness.

3. Promote/create a safe and inclusive fencing environment:

Encourage an inclusive team environment where all athletes respect and embrace each other's diverse backgrounds, including their hair. Foster an atmosphere without judgment or discrimination based on hair type, length, or style.

For example, suppose you are a coach who works with many people trying the sport for the first time. In that case, you typically have to teach people how to use various equipment, including the mask. There are some practical considerations regarding fencing masks and Black hairstyles. It is easier for someone with naturally straight hair to redo their ponytail to fit in the mask. With natural and protective styles like this popular style, a braided high ponytail may be positioned precisely where the tang goes. Sometimes, Velcro straps tangle themselves fully in Afros or other loose styles.

Image credit:

In preparation for new students, think about what you would say so that people feel welcome and valued while ensuring they are adequately protected. Here is an example of language that a coach uses in their club:

"Let's make sure the Velcro doesn't get anywhere near your hair. I think most fencing stuff was designed by folks with very short, straight hair, but we should be able to make it work if we're careful."

This example demonstrates care and concern while acknowledging and respecting individual choices. Black athletes may have personal preferences for how they wear their hair. Allow them the autonomy to choose hairstyles that make them feel comfortable and confident. Avoid making assumptions or imposing restrictions unless it objectively hinders their performance or safety.

Remember, treating your athletes with respect and acknowledging the significance of their hair is crucial for their overall well-being, performance, and confidence. Creating an inclusive and supportive environment can help your Black athletes thrive on and off the strip.

Suggested Readings

The Half Has Never Been Told – Edward E. Baptist

The Color of Law – Richard Rothstein

  1. Racial bias investigation launched after high school wrestler forced to cut off dreadlocks - ABC News.

  2. "How Toxic Black Hair Care Products Hurt Women" - Eluxe Magazine.


Vickie Miller has 20+ years in the education and community economic development fields. She has served as a teacher, managing director of a grant development company, as executive director of a non-profit, and as Director of the State of North Carolina Community Development Block Grant program.

Currently, Vickie serves as the Director of Learning and Development with a statewide membership association. Civically, Vickie has been active on several local, state, and national non-profits boards as founding board member and board officer. She currently serves as Chair of Empowered Parents in Community and as the National Director of Training for the American Descendants of Slavery Advocacy Foundation (ADOS AF).

Vickie is active in the fencing community and serves on resource teams with USA Fencing including FenceSafe and the African American & Black Heritage Council. Vickie also serves as President of WFencing.

She has a B.A. and M.Ed. in Education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a Certified Public Manager, holds certifications as a Housing Development Finance Professional and Economic Development Finance Professional with the National Development Council, and the Municipal and County Administration Certification from the University of North Carolina School of Government.

Vickie lives in Durham, North Carolina with her husband. Their daughter is a senior double majoring in chemistry and materials science and is a collegiate saber fencer.

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