Growing up in the suburbs, outside of Atlanta, being present in spaces that were occupied by people that looked like me was not common. As young as seven years old, I was exposed to implicit bias, micro aggressions, and discrimination. Being “the only Black girl” was customary to me. Being one of few Black girls in my learning environment that could succeed was my normal. When I was eight years old, my parents signed me up for club track. I’m ashamed to say that I was overwhelmed with the number of people around me that actually looked like me. I wasn’t the only “fast black girl” anymore; I was one of many. Of course I had to suffer the perpetual insults from my teammates about how whitewashed I was, yet getting that experience as a child was one of the best things that could’ve happened to me. It was my introduction to Black sports culture.
Being a part of that team at the time was amazing for such innocent, yet essential reasons. It was reassuring to come to practice with my hair in a style that I might’ve been ridiculed for at my predominantly White elementary school. It was refreshing to hear other kids on the team listen to the same music as me, and have that to discuss in between runs. It was inspiring to see coaches that looked like me, and understood who I was as a person. Whenever we traveled to track meets, it was always our team that was dominating all of the events. It was our members that were ranked nationally. It was a majority of Black people that were excelling at the sport. That was one of the few things I loved about track at the time. I always knew I could come to practice and track meets, share parts of who I was, and have other people relate to me. I quit track after a year for personal reasons, but I always associated the sport with feelings of comfort. That was one of few spaces for me as a child to really embrace my culture, and not feel ashamed or ostracized because of it.
I didn’t fully return to track until my freshman year of high school, but I had been keeping tabs on all of my childhood friends. Over the course of those five years, I watched my Black childhood friends turn into national champions, world champions, and so much more. I saw other Black kids up on those podiums with them, and to say I was proud would be an understatement. This gave me the motivation to participate in Varsity track at my high school. Though my high school was a racist PWI, I found a lot of comfort within my teammates. My teammates were also my friends in the hallways, my African dance partners, and my support system. Track proved yet again to be the space where I could mutually support people who looked like me. As crazy as this sounds, with every track meet came a new opportunity to meet more Black people in the sport, and I desperately needed that. The only thing I loved more than seeing us succeed, was forming relationships with those around me. Essentially, in high school, my track friends had become my family, and track meets were our family reunions.
I never genuinely felt ostracized from my track teams, or that the color of my skin contributed to how I would be treated, until I got to college. Because Duke is a private PWI, my team really lacked diversity my freshman year, and years before as well. Coming in as a freshman, I said I wouldn’t let this affect my experience, yet it largely affected my first year in its entirety. To say I was treated horribly would be a lie, but to say I was treated equally by my teammates would be a lie as well. An alumna told me best. When I asked her about racism on the team, she told me “ No one is blatantly racist, but they will make you aware of your Blackness.” I wish I took that statement more seriously. Racism, ignorance, and individual bias were never overt, though they were present if you searched for them. Because of this, I found myself experiencing the same emotions I did in my learning environments as a child. I had to keep my mouth closed on topics that were considerably important to me, just for the sake of my White teammates’ comfortability. I had to navigate the balance between firmly standing my ground, yet not living up to the stereotype of being “the angry black girl.” I had to be the strong Black woman when I was injured or mentally hurt, because a lot of people did not take my pain seriously. I felt as though I could do my best, and it still was not enough. No matter who was truly amicable, my inner discomfort in team spaces was always inside of me. I suffered from mental health issues as the year progressed, and it was showing in my performance on the track. I did not have a bad season at all, but of course it could’ve been a better one. After experiencing this discomfort being on a predominantly white team for only six months, I wondered how in the world do Black athletes navigate predominantly White sports.
Of course, I had never asked myself this question before, seeing as my sport made me love my skin. I assumed occupying White spaces as a Black girl my whole life was the same as occupying White sports as a Black athlete for their whole life. It is not the same. Of course I can’t speak for these athletes and their lifelong struggle, but my heart truly goes out to them. What I can say is, being a Black athlete in a predominantly White sport, or at a PWI, is a marathon. The road is bumpy, the weather is never on your side, and your shoes are never tied. Though these are our circumstances, it excites me to see Black student athletes nationwide bringing awareness to our struggle. It lets me know that I am not the only one suffering in the business that is college athletics. Through Duke United Black Athletes and other connections, I have yet again found a place of comfort for who I truly am. I’m ecstatic seeing so many athletes discuss their stories and struggles, and I’m extremely grateful that I get to share mine. I’m still running my marathon, but the weather is getting a little better now that I know I have a team behind me, nationwide.