“Growing up, I was never the kid who could dunk in basketball, but when I tried out high jump, it felt like I could fly,” says first year and self-proclaimed ‘tracklete’ Carl Williams.
Even so, Williams wasn’t sure that he would run track in college.
“In high school, everyone was required to play a sport,” he remembers. “So until I came to Bowdoin, I never really considered myself an athlete. I was just a guy who happened to run track.”
Throughout his life, Williams attended predominantly white institutions, where the education for black students extended beyond curriculum. While he became relatively accustomed to schools in which he was in the racial minority, he learned the boundaries of his blackness in these spaces.
“On the track team, I was one of a few students of color. I felt out of place,” Williams recalls.
More than once, Williams’ peers dropped racially charged terms.
“I remember confronting some of my friends on the track team about it at lunch. I told them I was uncomfortable with them saying the n-word in songs, and they didn’t understand,” Williams says. “After that, people dismissed me as the ‘angry black kid.’ Since they wouldn’t listen to me when I voiced my discomfort, I felt really isolated.”
Just like the label of “angry black kid” followed him into high school, ignorance and lack of understanding followed some of his white peers. During his senior season, one of his teammates made insensitive comments about ability and Williams, along with many of his teammates, felt deeply uncomfortable.
“I used to sleep at this kid’s house before meets,” says Williams. Because so many of his teammates—of all races—disagreed with these comments, Williams wanted to talk to his teammate about it.
Prior to this incident, Williams, along with the other members of color on his team attended the NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference, a conference for high school students of color attending primarily white institutions. This particular group missed the same one meet every year because the conference fell on a weekend during the track season.
“When we confronted him, he criticized us for going to the conference at all, arguing that when we left—’we’ being students of color—had come back feeling entitled as the PC police,” says Williams. “From this conversation, it also became really clear that our coaches had little to no understanding of how to deal with these issues. It’s one thing to have a conversation about race and ethnicity, it’s another to understand it, and it’s another where you are able to understand the perspective of someone who doesn’t look like you.”
“A lack of understanding in the way to talk about issues related to identity results in people not understanding one another and results in people getting hurt. Regarding his comment, we brought it up because we didn’t want people on our team to feel uncomfortable and get past it. He reacted in a way that none of us expected, and he didn’t listen,” Williams says.
This incident did not occur at Bowdoin, but it could have. Bowdoin, like Williams’s high school, remains a predominantly white institution. And while conversations about race, gender and class identity are more encouraged, a lot of the same worries—especially for students of color—remain.
Williams’ difficulties with his high school team echo the same tensions he felt at the lunch table in sixth grade. The freedom to voice a concern surrounding topics of insensitivity towards different identities, was compromised by this constructed image of the “angry black kid,” even though the comments that the student had initially made were not racially charged. This is a concern that Williams had in the back of his mind: no one listens to an “angry black kid.”
Having felt this way, Williams himself is able to see how other students of color, friends of his at Bowdoin, still might not feel like they have the space to talk about insensitive comments, especially when they are on a predominantly white team. The burden of “policing” music, confronting insensitive comments and often standing as the lone advocate still falls on students and athletes of color.
“I haven’t experienced anything like this at Bowdoin. I’ve even had conversations surrounding race with some of my white teammates, and I feel like they would try to understand,” Williams says. “I think the most frustrating part about the whole thing wasn’t that [my former teammate] didn’t understand why [we], his teammates, were uncomfortable, and he didn’t try to. That’s honestly what I want—for people to focus on making the effort to understand.”