Wonderland.

DINA ASHER-SMITH

The Team GB athlete speaks to us about race, the Black Lives Matter movement and protecting her peace.

Dina Asher Smith covers the Autumn 2020 issue

All clothing and accessories LOUIS VUITTON Autumn Winter 2020 & LV Volt jewellery

Dina Asher Smith covers the Autumn 2020 issue
All clothing and accessories LOUIS VUITTON Autumn Winter 2020 & LV Volt jewellery

Taken from the Autumn 2020 issue. Order your copy now.

Prior to becoming Britain’s fastest woman, Dina Asher-Smith was a history student at King’s College London, specialising in race and racial biases. It’s been three years since the 24-year-old athlete graduated, yet this summer felt all too familiar to her days spent in lecture halls — the only difference being that this time, the teachings were taking place on Instagram and the rest of the world was listening in too.

“The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement was the hardest part of lockdown for me,” she admits, as we catch up over Zoom on what would have been the final days of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics; a career milestone Asher-Smith — who won silver at the 2019 World Championships with a record time of 10.8 seconds in the 100m race — has been working tirelessly towards for years as Team GB’s brightest hope for a gold medal. “Mentally, I didn’t struggle with the Olympics cancellation, I didn’t struggle with the isolation, I didn’t struggle with any of it but when that happened, that was very difficult for not only me, but Black people everywhere.”

The haunting murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minnesota on 25th May sparked a global uproar and the greatest anti-racism movement of the digital age. For some, it was an awakening to white privilege and a time for self-reflection and accountability. For others, it was a triggering reminder of daily trauma. “I still haven’t watched the George Floyd video, or most recently, what happened to Jacob Blake. I can’t do it,” she says. “The sports mentality is all about keeping your peace. I know people talk about it a lot in the mental health space, but it is also really big in high-performance sports as well. If you think watching your competitor run is going to stress you out, you don’t watch it. That’s something that’s very much been drilled into us from the beginning so I’m very good at protecting my peace, which is why it took a while for me to allow myself to psychologically engage with what was going on in the world.” When she eventually did, it took the same strength and resilience Asher-Smith is renowned for on the racetrack to use her platform to inspire change, but only on her own terms.

Dina Asher Smith in white skirt and blue jacket

All clothing and accessories LOUIS VUITTON Autumn Winter 2020 & LV Volt jewellery

Dina Asher Smith in white skirt and blue jacket
All clothing and accessories LOUIS VUITTON Autumn Winter 2020 & LV Volt jewellery

When the Black Lives Matter movement kicked off, there was suddenly a huge demand for Black public figures to speak up. Did you feel a sense of pressure or responsibility to use your platform?
I got loads of requests to come on TV and talk about it but I declined every single one, which was a bit hard for me because you’re on that balance of obviously I have a platform and I want to talk about these things, but I want to do it on my own terms. Especially as a Black person in the UK talking on race, I could tell from a lot of the tones of the emails I got that people wanted me to go on their shows for an argument. Racism was something I wasn’t going to go and debate. I’m not going to argue about whether something I see and face every day exists or not. I’m not going to sit there and have to explain it. We can debate whether traffic lights should be red, amber, green or red and green, whether restaurants open at 12pm or 3pm or anything like that. But when it comes to something that is so clear and so traumatic for so many people, it’s like debating somebody’s existence and experiences they have lived and seen with their own eyes — and that was something I, quite frankly, didn’t have the emotional capacity for at that moment in time. I also think that’s how a lot of Black people felt when it came to explaining things to friends, acquaintances or people who suddenly wanted to be ‘taught’ by their Black friends without being mindful of what the whole thing felt like for a Black person.

Dina Asher Smith black and white with leather jacket and skirt
Dina Asher Smith in leather jacket and black skirt

All clothing and accessories LOUIS VUITTON Autumn Winter 2020 & LV Volt jewellery

Dina Asher Smith black and white with leather jacket and skirt
All clothing and accessories LOUIS VUITTON Autumn Winter 2020 & LV Volt jewellery
Dina Asher Smith in leather jacket and black skirt

You mentioned the importance of being mindful of the mental health impact of this for Black people. How did you deal with it mentally?
I was so upset I couldn’t sleep properly for weeks. It brought up so many painful residual experiences that many of us have suppressed but seen our parents go through, our grand-parents go through, or that have happened to us directly. Then there’s the whole thing of having to accept the fact that if you do choose to speak up about it, you have to be ready for people to be racist back to you and insult you. It takes a lot of psychological preparation if you want to share your experiences or use your platform to speak about an issue so close to home. I wrote a column on it for The Telegraph and I was so nervous. I’ve never been this nervous about publishing one of my columns before. And that’s not because of what I had to say — I knew that what I was saying was factual and was my personal experiences, so I wasn’t nervous about people refuting its validity. I just knew that what comes with that is trolls, and after I had published that, even though loads of people liked it, my DMs were just full of vile comments. But I knew that was going to happen, so I had to be psychologically prepared for it to be able to put it out in the first place. And I think that’s part of the process of using your platform that people who are trying to engage with it need to realise. Whilst it might be something that some people are just waking up to, which I’m happy about because it’s better late than never, this isn’t something many of us have the luxury of dipping in and out of.

Another dialogue that people seem to finally be addressing is the lack of protection for Black women. From the Breonna Taylor case to the reaction to Megan Thee Stallion opening up about being shot by Tory Lanez in the pop culture world, there’s a recurring theme of Black women constantly being let down. What are your own thoughts and experiences with that?
There are so many heartbreaking cases, but Breonna Taylor was particularly heartbreaking for me. While there was initial support, I feel that as the weeks and months have gone by, she has been done such a disservice. It’s tragic that there was no immediate justice for a poor woman who was killed in her sleep. And it’s even more tragic that despite her name and story being so widely known now, as it’s trended for weeks [and] athletes and many other high pro- file figures have shed a spotlight on this case, there is still no justice. I did a lot on my history degree on race relations, particularly looking through the eyes of colonialism, America and more relevantly, psychological narratives. So it was all about how people were perceived, the unique perceptions of masculinity, femininity, men, women and of course Black men and women specifically. It’s very different for Black women. I was having a conversation with some friends about this last night. I think on this kind of issue, where violence is perpetrated, it’s much tougher for Black women to garner widespread sympathy. The issue is the ‘strong Black woman’ stereotype and why it exists. Through so many historical readings, it’s clear that one of the many reasons — and I emphasise on it being just one — is that in racist, colonial narratives [Black women] have been closely aligned to masculinity, and in sport we’re very much on the front line of that. You get muscles and you’re told you look masculine. It doesn’t matter whether women of different races have the same build as you, because you’re a Black woman you all of a sudden look like a ‘man’ and you get called so many animalistic and masculine slurs, both intended as insults and veiled as ‘compliments’. This narrative needs to change. We need these allusions to stop, and for Black women to be included in the conversations around not only femininity but the sympathies that come with that. Well, I think we all need to be more sympathetic and empathetic to everyone, really.

How hopeful are you that the current calls for anti-racism and stereotyping will create real change for future generations?
I’ve definitely got hope, but people need to remember that this is a long-term process, which we as Black people already know. It’s like chipping away at stuff — hopefully some chips are bigger than others, but ultimately, you’re still chipping. There may be one aspect of racism we discuss today and then there’s the next one, and the next one and so on, because it is so layered and complex. It’s a long journey to change something that is so deeply rooted. Even within the Black community, we’ve got our own things that need to be addressed and sorted out — like the lack of protection for Black women, colourism and other things that are layered in colonialism and racist discourse that, without critical assessment, we may not acknowledge as stemming from there. I’m an optimist, so I genuinely believe we’re taking more steps, but it’s about consistency. It’s all about opening doors and giving the people who come after us not only an easier path, but also the opportunity to be whatever they want and not have these constraints. Maybe our job as this generation is to do just that. We didn’t start this conversation about racism, and sadly, I don’t believe we will be the last generation to have it. But maybe our role is to create global awareness, so that no one can deny that this is happening. Also, to get anti-racism to be firmly part of political discourse, as in we are all so vehemently against it in any form as a society, it’s intolerable all-round — that would be a huge step.

Dina Asher Smith in white dress
Dina Asher Smith in black jumpsuit

All clothing and accessories LOUIS VUITTON Autumn Winter 2020 & LV Volt jewellery

Dina Asher Smith in white dress
All clothing and accessories LOUIS VUITTON Autumn Winter 2020 & LV Volt jewellery
Dina Asher Smith in black jumpsuit

Conversations about racism and BLM is just one aspect of what 2020 has thrown at us. How have you been dealing with the pandemic as an athlete, especially during lockdown?
I was very busy during lockdown, which kind of helped. My life changed a lot, but the intensity of my work kept up. Even though the Olympics were cancelled, I still trained six days a week, did my gym workouts and all the sessions I needed to do because my programme continued. Everything just got adapted to what was possible given the restrictions. It just meant longer runs in the parks. Gym became a lot more about technical aspects and the small stuff, like coordination and control, and other things you don’t get the luxury of time to work on when we’re always chasing dates, deadlines and championships. Also, because everything went online I had loads of Zoom calls and I still had to do a bit of work for sponsors, so I had something scheduled to do every single day. Sometimes I’d wake up and look at my calendar thinking ‘Oh my gosh, this is a lot.’ My friends were all laughing at me because I bought a PlayStation just before we went into lockdown because I thought I was going to be bored, but no, I never touched it! I didn’t even have time to understand how to connect it online because I was so busy.

How did you feel about the Olympics being postponed?
I was actually really chilled about it. The only time I was stressed was when there was a bit of a crossover point, where the UK and lots of other European countries were in lockdown but the Olympics were still on. Only in that little gap was I stressed, because obviously if the Olympics are on then we have to do our utmost to be in the best shape for that date, but I could only do that within the confinements of the lockdown — so my one hour of exercise outdoors per day like everybody else, and then working out in my flat. And at that point, I was still very much in race mode, so the competitor in me was like ‘You’ve got to get this done!’ But then you also have that nagging feeling, like ‘How is this life right now?’ Once they postponed it obviously I was really upset, because it’s something you’ve worked towards for a very long time, but at the same time I was so relieved because it was just so untenable given the circumstances.

Now that things are easing up a bit and you’re back to your regular training programme, what are you looking forward to doing again the most?
I want to go back to full stadiums, competitions, having fun and travelling the world. I can’t wait to see all my friends that live in the Caribbean, America, different parts of Europe, Australia. As an international athlete your friends are from everywhere. At the moment we just see each other on Instagram, so it will be lovely to actually see each other in real life again. I also really want to go on holiday properly, without the anxieties that currently come with it. Experiencing different cultures, different foods, different people. I love that. One of my favourite things about being an international athlete — aside from competing, which is number one — is that I have friends from everywhere. I love the fact that when I’m at a meeting I can go and have lunch with all the Americans and crack jokes with them, I can go and sit with the South Africans, or I’ll be out having fun with the Swiss girls or the French girls. You just end up having friends from everywhere. Without sounding airy-fairy, it’s really beautiful because we’re all different culturally and we laugh about our differences, but at the same time, when we’re in a sporting space, everybody’s the same. Everybody has got the same goal and we’re all there to perform, concentrate, sleep well and do the best that we can whilst enjoying it. I think in this country, with athletics, we need to do a better job at portraying that message, because that is one of the USPs of track and field.

Dina Asher Smith with braids
Dina Asher Smith close up

All clothing and accessories LOUIS VUITTON Autumn Winter 2020 & LV Volt jewellery

Dina Asher Smith with braids
All clothing and accessories LOUIS VUITTON Autumn Winter 2020 & LV Volt jewellery
Dina Asher Smith close up
Photography
Jack Bridgeland
Fashion
Toni-Blaze Ibekwe
Words
Sagal Mohammed
Hair
Zateesha Barbour
Makeup
Hila Karmand at One Represents using Tom Ford Beauty.
Post-Production
Jody Brook
Fashion Assistant
Anastasia Busch
Special thanks
The Photography Foundation.
DINA ASHER-SMITH