A common misconception is that all athletes select a sport that best demonstrates and compliments their athletic ability. For some this is true; however for some black female athletes, the sport selection is often based on access to resources, household income, and the concrete barriers placed around female sports. Also, many black female athletes on the collegiate and professional level encounter limitations based on social interpretation of their physique, and physical attraction in comparison to those who competed prior to them or currently against them.
For black female athletes there is a conscious duality that one discovers at a very young age when entering a sport where one may be the minority. The infamous W.E.B Dubois explains that this invisible survival tactic is unknown to the majority, but it’s the social skill that is often utilized to soften the often false representation of blacks, but in this case black women. Imagine just being a young woman wanting to be great at her sport, but somehow you conform to being an athlete first. By prioritizing your identities you suppress what makes you unique and often experience frequent moments on how to insert and balance being a black woman. For many black female athletes their athletic identity is either supported or destroyed at a very young age. What happens to the young black girl that observes Simone Biles in the Olympics, but has no access to a gymnastics organization in her community? What happens to the black girl that wants to golf, but her parents dismiss her dreams by racially defining the sport as “white?” What happens to the black girl that wants to swim, but has no access to the swimming pool? For some they will go on to find another sport that displays their athletic ability, but that shift often creates an internal concept of “less than.”
Now imagine being a black female that is participating in a sport that was not her initial interest. She wanted to be a tennis player, but her only options consist of track, basketball, and volleyball. For any person this could be a challenge or maybe just an experience, but for many black female athlete this is their introduction to racial inequities, gender inequities, and financial inequities. Seems like a far reach right? For many it's an unfortunate reality.
During my high school years, participating on club teams (volleyball travel teams) was not an option for me. One, I lived in Alaska so traveling was extremely expensive! However, it was a harsh blow to my ego when my teammate would return from Pepperdine University and demonstrate such a fluid approach for an outside attack on the court. Their financial agility granted my teammates opportunities that secured their future; in my eyes. Meanwhile my summers involved me running on courts alone and playing pick-up games to sharpen my skills. Based on what I saw on television she was a “real” volleyball player. The question is, “Why did I minimize my talents?” Why did I foresee success for her and not myself? Could it be that I had never seen a black volleyball player? Could it be that no one in my family played volleyball? Could it be that coaches and leaders don't often encourage success? Could it be that I knew there was no future for me as a black volleyball player? For many the answer is yes. In my case, I had a very supportive mother who attended every game and constantly told me, "You're as good as anyone on that court." What happens to the young girl who doesn't have a support system?
Despite my internal challenges, I worked hard and made my way to collegiate sports. I went to Independence College and then transferred to a Division I school, Bethune-Cookman University. The reality is for many this never happens, but for those of us that do make it the concept of duality kicks into over drive. W.E.B. Dubois (1903) explains that double consciousness is the experience of identity division that black individuals must implement on a daily basis. What makes the experience of a black female athlete unique is that double consciousness is part of our lives on the court and in a board room. The ability to be consistent and adapt to any environment is our strength, but is often seen as a threat.
The experience of athletics is priceless, but I can only imagine how many black females withdraw from this world due to the challenges before even recognizing their talents. The fight is hard, it never ends, but your journey will open doors for the next athlete behind you.
Thank you for reading!
Marlene "Marley" Holmes
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York, Avenel, NJ: Gramercy Books; 1994.