The experience of being a black female athlete in America is a journey that often goes voiceless. Even William Rhoden (2010) states that the history of black female athletes has many gaps which contributes to the challenges and oppression that this marginalized group encounters. Marginalized group? Yes! This population is identified as a marginalized group based on the societal oppression and historical trauma since the 17th century (Rhoden, 2016). When other women were wearing garments to protect their reproductive system while engaging in physical activity, black women are not even acknowledged in historical content outside of slavery in American History. The Syracuse Counseling Center states that a marginalized group is defined as a a particular population of people who are "isolated" or "alienated" from society, which prevents their voice from being heard or even being seen.
When reading Serena Williams recent self-reflective piece in Harper's Bazaar, I felt as if I was reading my personal journey. You see I'm not a professional athlete, but I'm black, I'm woman, and played collegiate sports. Serena and I may have different jobs, but our emotional and psychological experience intersects on many levels. Based on research, both my athletic and professional journey, and her story...oppression is real. Serena entered a space where it was clear that she was the minority in tennis. Everything about tennis reminded her that she is black, but not only black; black and talented. I feel that her entry into tennis was what William Cross calls the "Encounter Stage," (Cross, 1991). During this stage you experience something in life that forces the reality that you are not included in the majority. You have to make a conscious decision to push through and begin a journey of self discovery. In the article Williams says, "It's not that we were welcomed, we just kept winning," (Harper's Bazaar). My face hit the floor. I've felt this in collegiate sports and in corporate America. Serena had to learn as her career grew, and so did I. I would even go so far to say...so have many black women. The countless moments of being ostracized structures your mindset to almost become robotic and extremely precise. Your self-talk may say, "Do your job, do it well, ask minimal questions, and make others feel comfortable, and hope for the best."
Can you imagine the stress of feeling out of place and discriminated against for something you can't change? During my collegiate years I heard the following:
2. My one black friend
3. Why is your hair so long?
4.You're not like the other ones.
I give these examples to show the emotional and psychological triggers that black athletes in general feel and experience; especially women. However, when you add the layer of gender it heightens the experience. Imagine suppressing your anger to maintain your scholarship and to be feminine, not masculine, or the angry black woman. Wouldn't that impact your academic and athletic performance? I would describe academics and athletics like a cycle, because one impacts the other. Serena shared that she went to therapy due to negative self talk, and just questioning who she was. When she assertively informed the line judge that she did not cheat, the media described it as a "breakdown and outburst." It's commendable that she utilized the resource of therapy, but many don't feel comfortable or have access. For black female collegiate athletes I feel that coaches and athletic administrators need to start having different conversations with players. However, what happens if your coach is part of that systemic oppression?
See the issue is, systemically the black female athlete has years of negative stereotypes which devalues their presence in sports. "They" want you there, but not actually you, just the talent. For example, Althea Gibson,first black professional tennis player, was given a DNA test to determine if she had an extra chromosome (Rhoden, 2010). Meanwhile, Serena is called masculine and is given drug test more than any other professional female tennis player on the circuit. It takes a strong individual to push through this and continue to soar into success. My question is: How many black female athletes have given up on their dreams because of racism? How many black female athletes have dealt with racism in sports and continue to experience it in the corporate America? How many black female athletes develop depression or anxiety based on the continued process of being devalued? It's a harsh reality, but it is a reality for many.
It's time for those in leadership roles to step up and provide support for black female athletes. It's time for black female athlete's to support each other and express their journey. As I continue on my doctoral journey I have discovered that my athletic journey was identical to my peers. I've also learned that my transitional period out of sports was common to others, and my journey of self-discovery was just as mentally and emotionally traumatic as others had experienced. You see as a social worker I've taught and helped others through grief, empowered others to defy the odds, and assisted many with rebuilding a self image that was shattered by society. I know my research and experience can contribute to the field of athletics and social work. I'm committed to being an educator both inside and outside of the classroom, along with on and off the court. I want to plant a seed of self affirming statements that the player's value is not defined by their game's statistics. The bravery that Serena Williams embodies is shown by how eloquently this article was designed and expressed. It provides tremendous courage for someone like me to support and motivate others.
Thank you for taking time to read my article! Please visit my YouTube Channel to learn more about the experience of black female collegiate athletes. I discuss the journey of identity development and transitioning out of sports. Soon to come will be article reviews and book reviews on this topic and many others in regards to athletics.
Rhoden (2010). Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. Crown/Archetype.
My YouTube Channel