Was That Racist Though? Italian Gymnast Apologizes For Her Comments About Simone Biles

October 10, 2013  |  

All throughout the day, people have been discussing the eyebrow-raising comments Italian gymnast, Carlotta Ferlito made about Simone Biles, an African American girl on the USA team.

Sixteen year old Simone Biles did the country proud, becoming the new all-around world champion. She’s the first black gymnast to do so as Gabby was the first black gymnast to win the Olympic all-around title. Meanwhile Italian gymnasts, Ferlito and Vanessa Ferrari finished fourth and fifth in the balance beam. According to the Associated Press, Ferlito said, with a smile on her face:

“I told Vane that next time we’ll have our skin black also so we can win, too.”

Biles’ parents, Ron and Nellie, took issue with the comments, calling them out of line. Ron, Simone’s father found them insulting. Nellie, Simone’s mother, said that the comments did initially bother Simone but she’s not going to address it and let Ferlito’s comments take away from this victorious moment.

Ron even took it a step further saying, “Normally it’s not in her favor being black, at least not in the world that I live in.” But he said Simone is moving on and is not fazed by it.

On Tuesday, Ferlito took to Twitter to apologize about her comments. “I want to apologize with the Americans girls. I didn’t want to sound rude or racist. I love Simon and I’m a huge fan of USA gymnastics.” 

She went on to say: “I’ve made a mistake, I’m not perfect…I didn’t think about what I was saying. I’m just a human. I’m so so sorry.” 

In an attempt to do damage control, the Italian Gymnastics Federation (Federazione Ginnastica d’Italia)  may have made a bad situation worse when the federation spokesman attributed different athletic abilities to race.

The president of USA Gymnastics, Steve Penny wasn’t satisfied. He released a statement: “USA Gymnastics is disappointed by the recent comments made by Carlotta Ferlito and apparently by the Italian Gymnastics Federation. Gymnastics is a global and inclusive sport with talented athletes, and there is no place for racial insensitivity. We are contacting the Italian federation for clarification on its comments.” 

I’m sure someone is waiting in the wings to snatch my black card but I don’t find Ferlito’s initial comments to be racist. Juvenile and naive? Sure. But certainly not racist. Racist would mean that she found Simone to be inferior to her because she’s black. And seeing as how she no doubt wants to be where Simone is right now, I don’t think she finds her inferior. I also don’t believe she’s insinuating that she had an advantage because she’s black. After all, I’m sure she didn’t really believe that black skin is what allowed Biles to excel and become the world champion. But the girl is also not blind. She’s noticed with the success of Gabby Douglas and now Simone Biles that black girls are doing it these days. So perhaps if she and her girl Vanessa paint their skin black, maybe it will have them coming in first place instead of fourth and fifth. I get it. It’s a joke based on race but not a racist joke. I know that some will reference the history of whites using blackface to illustrate stereotypical and often negative qualities associated with black folks. But I strongly doubt that Carlotta is familiar with the history of American blackface or whether she intends to paint her face in order to make fun of Simone and/ or Gabby. She did it because, like those black girls, she’s trying to win. And though her word choice may have been poor considering the historical context, I don’t think it’s racist at all.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the Italian Gymnastics Federation wasn’t even racist in their failed explanation of Ferlito’s comments, just ignorant as all hell. A cursory study of biology will tell you that genetics may contribute to increased athletic achievement, not something as trivial as the amount of melanin in the skin. Because at the end of the day, that’s all race really is. Race is societal and not based in biology or science. Are people of certain races more likely to have similar genetic makeups? Sure. But that’s because society has conditioned people of similar races to “stick” (and by stick, I mean procreate together.) There’s a reason why studies have found certain racial and even ethnic groups are more susceptible to certain diseases etc. People with the same genetic qualities keep having children with other people with similar genetic qualities. But the federation spokesperson effed up when he tried to attribute Biles’ success to her race as opposed to her having actually having trained to reach this level. Even if Biles’ genetic makeup gave her an advantage, does that mean she didn’t have to put forth any effort to reach this career milestone? Of course not. The Federation’s comments, at the hand of their spokesman, who said he’s speaking for himself, were dismissive of all of Biles’ training and completely inflammatory at such a dangerous time. But not racist.

What do you think about Ferlito’s initial comments and then the subsequent explanation from spokesman from the Italian Gymnastics Federation? Do you find them to be racist?

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