Sha’ Carri Richardson and the complexities of white supremacy

Sha’ Carri Richardson is Black Girl Magic personified. The adage that Black people must be twice as good to get half as far has continued to shape how Black women move and exist in predominately white spaces — whether that be corporate America, or on the track field. And Sha ‘Carri wasn’t just good — she was phenomenal. She was a symbolism of authenticity and boldness — defying traditional and Eurocentric standards of beauty and aesthetics. Her fiery orange hair, her outspoken disposition, and her long blinged out nails are a testament to the versatility of Black womanhood and their beauty.

I love the way in which Sha ‘Carri is defining and owning her beauty and the way that she chooses to show up — free and expressive. As Black women, we know that our beauty has always been highly contested and complicated. On one hand, our trends and styles are idolized and appropriated — and then on the other, society condemns our versality and authenticity. Sha’ Carri is breaking the glass ceiling for women of color athletes who want their talent judged over and before their appearance. Sha ‘Carri Richardson isn’t your average athlete — Sha’ Carri is a Black woman superhero — showing and reminding all young Black girls that our existence in predominately white spaces is always and forever an act of resistance.

Seeing Sha ‘Carri Richardson reminds me of 1988 Olympic medalist Florence Griffith Joyner who continuously showed the world that she was a force to be reckoned with. Sha ‘Carri Richardson is only 21 and her orange hair is not the only thing that is catching the public eye-she effortlessly crossed the 100 meters finish line in first place qualifying her for the Tokyo Olympics. For young girls of color, representation matters. The Olympics has a history of exclusion — Olympic athletes are disproportionately white so when a Black woman is an Olympics contender — it matters for young Black girls who are athletes who need to see themselves reflected. In a world that has constantly told Black women to quiet their aspirations — and to not be too boisterous, Sha ‘Carri Richardson gives us all permission to own our talents, our magic, and be loud about it.

This past week — Sha ‘Carri Richardson received attention for something other than her speed. She tested positive for cannabis from marijuana following the Olympic trials. The positive test invalidates her Olympic trials competition. Initially, she faced a three-month suspension but because she consented to participate in counseling, her suspension was shortened to one month. Society can point to numerous incidents of athletes using performance enhancement drugs, but marijuana is certainly not one of them — and many states like Washington and Oregon — have legalized recreational use of marijuana. Marijuana use has slowly become less socially stigmatized due to states legalizing it’s use and sale, and its enormous health and healing benefits. Marijuana has been found to reduce chronic pain in patients with significantly debilitating diseases. In spite of the social stigma that exists surrounding marijuana use, its health benefits are far reaching and undeniable.

This is not a think piece attempting to justify the use of marijuana — this a piece that highlights how our racist institutionalized system uses marijuana to punish and demean Black and brown people while privileging white folks. This is a piece that calls for a racialized analysis of how we continue to ignore the pain and trauma of Black women, while empathizing with the tears and struggles of white women. Marijuana is a billion-dollar industry, run primarily by white people — but has also been the key driver of mass criminalization of Black and Brown people. Even with the increased legalization and decriminalization of marijuana — Black people are still more likely than white people to be arrested for the public use of marijuana.

Black and Brown people are also more likely to face harsher sentences for drug use — racist policing and sentencing tears Black families apart and also impedes any hope for social and economic prosperity. Many states prohibit people with previous felony convictions from working or owning cannabis dispensaries — with convictions disproportionally saddled on people of color — Black and Brown communities cannot profit from an industry that has disrupted and destroyed their communities. The lack of drug reform and racist policing and sentencing practices ceases the generation of Black wealth — and only fuels the cycle of poverty. Having a drug conviction on your record creates barriers to education, the inability to qualify for government subsidized housing, the loss of child custody, homelessness and more.

America is a country that has always blamed Black and Brown people for their mishaps or misfortunes without an established critique of how racist institutionalized policies have left them marginalized and excluded. Perhaps if America devoted as much time and energy to developing comprehensive gun reform to prohibit white men from mass terrorism as they do policing drug use in Black communities, we would be better off as a society, really and truly.

Sha’ Carri Richardson handled the public well when it came to admitting that she had used marijuana even with knowing that it’s use was prohibited in the Olympic Trials. She was honest, apologetic, and forthcoming. Sha ‘Carri knows that when Black women engage in behavior that is socially stigmatized — the public judgement, scrutiny and consequences are always three times worse than when privileged white folks partake in the same behavior. She had no other choice but to admit her faults, but she knew a system privileging the trauma and emotional pain of white women would never come to her defense. In response to her behavior, I heard every word in the lexicon — from “hood-rat”, “ghetto”, “low-life” etc. Of course, society has never granted Black women the grace of separating or distinguishing their behavior from their character — weed is bad and thus all Black people who use it must be bad too.

Sha ‘Carri Richardson apologized for not being perfect and disappointing her supporters. I found her word choice inherently interesting — we expect Black women to be flawless, perfect and without fault — holding them to unrealistic standards and expectations and wondering why they resort to substance abuse to manage these high expectations. Sha’ Carri Richardson admitted that she smoked weed to cope with the recent loss of her mother — of course, America is incredibly apathic — when we fail to empathize with the stress of being a high performing athlete, a Black woman and someone who recently loss their parent. Black women’s pain, sorrow and trauma have never been recognized or acknowledged by mainstream — we don’t grant Black women the same grace and forgiveness to be emotional and vulnerable that we do white women. We can point to numerous incidences where society has shown compassion and affinity with distraught white women — but very few instances of where society has demonstrated this same warmth and empathy towards Black women. This is why Sha ‘Carri Richardson had to apologize for being perfect and not for being real and human. If you want to see how everyday white people rationalize their use of marijuana as an ordinary behavior and skate around accountability — visit any Student Conduct office or ask any Resident Advisor who has caught a white student smoking marijuana on campus. Rich white students will always find ways to mold and shape the system to work in their favor.

Sha ‘Carri Richardson — I am rooting for you. You remind us how magical Black women are — To be a Black woman who competes and wins — and looks fly doing it is a Black woman superpower. Black women see originality in Sha ‘Carri Richardson — we want Black girls to know that regardless of the color of your hair, length of your nails or your tattoos, you are destined for greatness. Richardson’s existence is an act of resistance to white supremacy — in a world that has denied Black women their agency and full range of vulnerability and personality — she is showing the world how truly complex and multifaceted Black women are — we can be fierce competitors, but also deeply impacted by pain and trauma, and substance use. In a world that historically and presently excludes Black people from participating in the Olympics and in conventional predominately white spaces — -it seems like the drug most in need of eradication, reform and systemic change is white supremacy, not marijuana.

I’m a writer and higher education administrator. A doctor of sociology with a love for writing topics on race, intersectionality, and women’s career issues.