Gender Games: Black Women have been speaking up

Junior women’s basketball guard Mikia Keith leads the Black Lives Matter march, organized by the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, on Sept. 26.

Through the combination of racism and sexism hurled at them throughout history, Black women became one of America’s many marginalized groups. Now, as the Black Lives Matter movement has swept the nation, Black women in sports have been able to use their platform to speak up for what is right. 


The Black Lives Matter march held here at SIUE at the end of September was one of the many displays of activism created by Black women in sports. In July, the WNBA announced their entire season would be dedicated to Breonna Taylor, a Black woman shot to death by police in March. Recently, almost every major league has made a statement on the Black Lives Matter movement. 


Sociology professor Isais Smith, whose research focuses on the sociology of sport, said the WNBA spoke up on these subjects before the NBA. 


“[The WNBA] were the first ones to be outspoken about what was happening with the Black Lives Matter movement and Breonna Taylor, yet in society, many people didn’t even really hear about until the overall heaviness of the situation until the NBA adopted what they’d already done,” Smith said.


Black women have long been faced with the stereotype of being loud, angry and aggressive. During a recent lecture on Black women in sports from the Tucker Center at the University of Minnesota, Akilah Carter-Francique, the executive director for the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change at San Jose State University, said even the most famous Black female athletes have to avoid this stereotype. 


“Venus and Serena Williams know this all too well … Together and separate they have endured, negotiating the cultural terrain of national and international professional tennis. Being non-white, and not male, blond-haired, blue-eyed, places Black women in the ‘other’ category, and they are not allowed the fortitude to express their anger,” Carter-Francique said. 


One of the organizers of the Black Lives Matter March on campus, senior women’s basketball forward Zaria Whitlock, of St. Paul, Minnesota, said she has struggled avoiding this stereotype as a Black female athlete at SIUE. 


“[I feel] as though everything that I do will be attributed to my entire race, to my entire gender, that kind of thing. Just feeling that burden always, and then having to not only experience my life as a subject of the world, but also knowing that I’m an object of other people’s subjectivity,” Whitlock said. 


Whitlock also said she was afraid to speak up at times due to fear of fitting into the stereotype. 


“Knowing where I’m socially placed within our society, I have that debate with myself – that internal battle of ‘do I say something?’ … Do I just ignore it and push through?” Whitlock said. 


Rita Liberti at California State University East Bay, whose research focuses on 20th century women’s sport, said she believes this stereotype developed because Black women were breaking gender roles. 


“It’s a way we think – ‘we,’ meaning white society – Black folks have disrupted traditional notions of women as subservient, submissive, et cetera,” Liberti said. 


Recent upticks in sports activism follow historical precedents set by previous Black female athletes, according to Liberti. One was Wilma Rudolph, who was not only a track and field Olympian but a champion of the Civil Rights Movement. 


Liberti also said a Black athlete doesn’t even have to be an activist in order to inspire change. 


“The Ora Washingtons, the Althea Gibsons, they weren’t political activists. Matter of fact, they turned away from that title, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t inspire people and force change and force us to rethink how we think about folks … political activism happens in lots of different ways,” Liberti said. 


Whitlock said she won’t let the stereotypes of Black women affect how and when she speaks up. 


“If I’m already going to be perceived in this way, I may as well be speaking in a way about the things that vulnerable people and oppressed people are experiencing in the first place. You know, that kind of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t,’” Whitlock said. 


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