Hailey Barnett

University of Virginia Women’s Rowing | Age 19 | @haileygbarnett

The extent to which playing a predominantly white sport like rowing has had on how much I embrace my blackness is not a simple answer. I remember feeling cautious about embracing my blackness from a young age. I attended a predominately white, all girls private school for 13 years. I’ve always been friends with people of all races and ethnicities, and never really stuck to one group. I was a floater. The only thing that differed between those friendships was that I never talked about race around my non-black friends in school and on sports teams. I never embraced that part of myself around them, but I had been conscious of that for so long that it did not bother me. For some reason, the topic of race always made things awkward. At the end of conversation, I felt more distant from them, so I avoided bringing up race or blackness entirely. The difference between my High School rowing teammates and my college rowing teammates is that in college, the team is more like a family so I’ve felt more inclined to open up to them about everything. I definitely can say that I have a few friends that I feel are in my circle/corner. Around these people I don’t feel the need to censor myself and I’m comfortable embracing my full self with them. They don’t act weird or awkward when I talk about a race related issue, or when I leave the rowing parties halfway through to go to a party where my black friends are. The other black girls, along with a few white girls are in that circle.

The bond between the black girls on the team and I feels different than the bond with the rest of the team because we’ve shared similar experiences regarding race, which is a large part of one’s identity. It is a fact that the very first thing you notice about a person is their race and gender. Being able to connect with someone without having to censor yourself is an important relationship to have, and having those similar experiences brings us together. I believe I’m working towards embracing my blackness around people of other races as well. It’s not necessarily their fault. I just have to do it on my own time. I usually refrain from doing so because I still have an underlying hesitation from my grade school days.

Given the climate we’re in now with the death of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, and so many others, white people have been forced to talk about and acknowledge racial issues in America. While talking to certain people on my team about race, my heart literally pounds and I feel like I have a lump in my throat. It sucks because I feel like I could easily talk about anything else to those same people, but talking about race brings up a different feeling. I’ve seen a common trend where non black people have said, “I understand that I will never understand.” It takes more than just acknowledgement to “understand”. For those non-black people who want to understand I suggest they not only research the history of racism in America, but experience what it feels like to be the only one of your race in the room. I suggest they go to black parties, take African American studies classes, go to Black meetings. For things to really change, hearts and feelings have to change. If they immerse themselves in these uncomfortable situations and see the world through our perspective, they might start to understand.