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February 13, 2019

Being a Black Female Athlete in America

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BY: KENDRA CHAMBERS

In honor of Black History Month I wanted to share some of my experiences of being a black female athlete in America. I hope by doing so, we can all take a look deeper into black history and learn from our past mistakes in attempt to not repeat history, but to make the future better.

My experience in sports has been interesting. I’m sure if you ask any WOC (women of color) in sports they can tell you stories or incidents when their skin color mattered more than their sport, talent, identity, upbringing or character. I can think of several experiences through my career that made me question if I wanted to continue being an athlete, if it came filled with black stereotypes that most people couldn’t unsee once they saw me or learned I was an athlete. 

Some of the most racist moments I’ve experienced while being an athlete happened when I wasn’t expecting it at all. I thought everybody had already accepted me and accepted colored people, especially in this sport. Then, boom it happens.

In high school and college, we would often travel by bus to other Texas cities. During that time we would encounter white people who would look at a large group of majority African-American girls and snicker, stare and give us subpar treatment or service. We were a large group of black girls going to eat in a restaurant or buying candy at a gas station. We could hear them talk badly about us, assume we’d steal and look at us up and down with glaring eyes; as if we didn’t belong there. I remember feeling: how can you bunch us all in one group that way? Based off something so uncontrollable as skin color? How could you hate us before getting to know us? Why the divide? 

Though rare, those experiences stay with you over the years and the damage is severe. It haunts you, until one day you realize you might be part of the problem. For example: There’s an idea that groups or cliques of the same race or skin color just happen by chance and are accepted as “the norm” in most sports, especially running. 

I think as runners we’ve all been a part of a large team that had sprinters or jumpers who are majority black girls and they hang out together and the white distance girls hang out together. It just so happens most of the sprinters are black and distance girls are white. Was it because of the similarities in race, skin color or culture that drew the groups together or was it because they did the same event? Regardless it seems to be problematic in some way. Why the divide? 

As a professional athlete I’ve also noticed my unique perspective and position on being a sprinter then transitioning to a middle-distance runner. The difference is staggering. While I was a sprinter my attitude was very ego driven, I remember feeling real anger towards my competitors in high school and college and wanting to rub a win in their face. Never really wanting any other interaction or friendship out of that competitive relationship. But as I transitioned to being around more distance runners, everyone seemed so nice and so supportive. There were actual friendships off the track with the distance girls. Was it because white girls are nicer than black girls? Somehow people of color are seen as more “aggressive and irritable”. We all know that’s simply not true and often used as a stereotype against people of color. So why is it that society seems to put colored girls against each other and non-colored girls- well, not so much? Why the divide? 

I don’t have the answers, only ideas on how we can do better as female athletes, coaches and advocates. I’ve simply provided a few examples of experiences that have made me think about race and the political climate in this country, especially while being a black female athlete. It doesn’t feel good to be excluded or feel like you don’t fit in a certain group. It doesn’t feel good to be judged so horribly off of something uncontrollable and God given - like skin color or hair type. It doesn’t feel good to have stereotypes and labels set on you before you ever open your mouth or run a race. It doesn’t feel good to be paid less because you were born a black woman.

I ask you, “why the divide?” to see what answers and experiences you might have. I don’t think there’s one right or wrong answer, but I think by talking, listening, sharing our stories, and understanding others’ cultures, beliefs and motives, we can reach far past skin color and actually reach the person. We can simply talk to understand more deeply, not talk to find out who’s right or wrong. 

So, I encourage you all to start a conversation about racism or political views in relation to race climate with your friends and family. Look up African-American history and share with your running clubs or teams. Help educate those around you and talk about struggles and triumphs of the people who may not look like you. The time is now to bring all women together so we can accomplish the changes we need for all female athletes. 

In the world of sports, we are fighting a gender war and facing a pivotal moment in women’s history. With the likes of Serena Williams and other stellar female athletes, we are finally seeing some progress. The war - over equal pay, over equal media coverage, over equal contracts and equal sponsorship money, equal endorsement opportunities in comparison to our male athlete counterparts - is just getting started. Divided, we won’t accomplish anything sustainable but together, we become unstoppable. There’s a bigger task at hand; to make the impacts and necessary changes we must work together! 

Happy Black History Month to everyone! There’s still a lot of work to do. Thank you to the people and women of color who came before me, who endured more racism, threats and hatred than I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime. Thank you for paving the way and providing me and so many others with endless opportunities. Thank you for all the hard-fought firsts so we could be the many after you. I promise I will do my part in continuing the conversation and the fight for racial equality in this beautiful country. So together we all have the same opportunity to prosper! 

Comments

Amanda E | February 13, 2019 at 9:50am

Thank you!

Thank you Kendra for offering some insight on this issue! Your journey in sport, along with your story, will help us all learn and work towards making not only the sport of running, but the world a better place for all. Head Up, Wings Out!!

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