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OPINION: Racial incidents are a Bowdoin problem

September 4, 2020

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Lily Anna Fullam

Being an athlete of color at Bowdoin comes with a certain degree of difficulty. During my time at Bowdoin, I have considered it a privilege to be part of Bowdoin football, where I am not the only person of color and have felt support from my teammates, especially my teammates of color. I am also the president of the Athletes of Color Coalition (AoCC), and I try to make my team, and athletics at Bowdoin, more inclusive. However, this doesn’t mean that my team doesn’t struggle with issues concerning race. Since my first year, I have been attending AoCC meetings, most of which have focused on unique difficulties and challenges that come with being an athlete of color on Bowdoin’s campus. Over my years as an AoCC member, I have seen many athletes of color quit their teams. Many of them say the added stress on top of Bowdoin’s rigorous curriculum is too much for them. This is a problem that Bowdoin should do more to address. Challenges that may come with being an athlete of color—such as finding a way to deal with racially charged incidents or not feeling a sense of belonging—should be things that we as a community know how to handle.

When my teammates and I were faced with a racially charged incident, we were shook to the core. This past fall, we dealt with an issue that I never expected to encounter at Bowdoin: one of our assistant coaches said the N-word. We were in the locker room before one of our games, and he said that the rap song that was playing was using the N-word too much and that we shouldn’t play it. He felt the need to comment on how inappropriate a song was but did not recognize how wrong it was for him to say that word. No matter what, a coach should never say the N-word. Coaches should be self-aware and know the history and connotations behind this slur. The fact that he thought the word would ever be acceptable to say is appalling. Very few people were in the room at the time, but the message was heard by everyone. Like most of my teammates, I was not there to hear him say the N-word, and it was saddening to find out after the game because it felt like I was hearing about it so long after he had said it. However, immediately after the game, the entire team knew what had happened. As our team is more diverse than most on campus, many of our athletes were deeply offended and distressed. This went beyond just the Black athletes. As word spread on the bus back to campus, no one was talking about the game we had just played.

Many of us understood that there is absolutely no excuse for using the N-word and that this behavior is unbecoming of a Bowdoin community member. So naturally, it was shocking. Our coach’s saying the N-word was something no one saw coming, and no one was prepared for what to do in that situation. Many of us were aware that this happens at schools around the country, and the various responses of those institutions, and we also knew that it was likely a violation of Bowdoin’s code of conduct. We also thought Bowdoin’s administration might have a response. On the trip home, one of my teammates volunteered to report the incident to our head coach.

The next morning, my teammate reported the incident to our head coach. Our head coach let the teammate who spoke out know that he was there for him and that his focus was on supporting us. However, nothing could truly make this incident and its impact go away. After he met with our coaches that Sunday morning, they decided that an apology was necessary, so the team had a series of meetings where we discussed what happened and why it was wrong.

That afternoon, our coach apologized in front of the team before our workouts, but the issue never really went away. Walking around campus felt different. It felt like a heavy weight that made being there less enjoyable. Other than talking to our head coach, we had no idea what to do. Our captains held players-only meetings that encouraged us to stay focused on our season and our studies, but for some of my teammates, it wasn’t so easy to move on. As players, we felt that all we could do was support one another. It really ruined the energy and momentum we had tried to build as a team over the course of the season. The air around our favorite sport is supposed to be all fun and games, but for a while, the mood felt soured. Some of my teammates may not have felt this way, but that speaks more to how we weren’t on the same page as a team from then on out.

Our coach saying the N-word remained on the minds and in the conversations of my teammates, especially the Black athletes, for so much longer than the end of the season. Despite having games to prepare for, homework to do and tests to take, the fact that our coach said the N-word remained a disturbance that was impossible to ignore. It felt like, even though he apologized, we did not reach a resolution, which made it impossible to come to a point where everyone could feel like the incident was solved. We have continued to work on rebuilding our relationship with our coach, but it has been challenging because we know it never should have happened.

When your coach says the N-word, it means a lot more than the isolated action. On a college sports team, coaches are people you respect. They are the leaders of the team, they set the goals, they teach and they influence your team’s culture. So when coaches give messages, those messages persist. We expect more out of our coach’s behavior than anyone else in the program, and that’s the part that hurt the most. He should never, and can never, say the N-word. That is the standard all faculty and staff at Bowdoin need to be held to. He has told us that he has learned from this mistake and will be committed to being better, but the effect on the program and the community can never be undone. I know that as a community we have to make sure this never happens again, and we have to find a way to raise the standard as an institution.

As I think about what Bowdoin can do to make things right, it reminds me that Bowdoin has no specific solutions for certain acts of racial insensitivity and bias in the athletic department. When we have conversations as a team, it all comes back to the conversation of what to do next. In sports and as a program, we work to build and learn from mistakes in all facets.

Many people in our community like to believe that incidents like this don’t happen at Bowdoin, as if we are removed from the racism in our country and the world. However, when my coach said the N-word, that imaginary bubble around Bowdoin disappeared, and we decided to address it as a problem that exists here, too. In a place like Bowdoin, we shouldn’t wait for something to happen to decide to talk about what to do. We should be more proactive. And I know that my team isn’t unique, and the problem is not isolated to the one incident on my team or even the athletic department. Incidents like this happen at Bowdoin often and across all of our departments. Until we learn how to handle racial incidents at Bowdoin and how to prevent them, this is Bowdoin’s problem.

Lester Jackson is a member of the Class of 2021.

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2 comments:

  1. Recent Alum says:

    Do you think there is a difference between someone “saying” the n-word and someone “using” the n-word?

    Your coach did not refer to anyone with the word; he didn’t *use* it. He spoke of it as a word itself — and in the context of it being broadcast *less often* in the locker room. You said a few times that learning about this hurt you, burdened you. Can you explain why? It doesn’t seem your coach has any hatred toward black people.

  2. Class of '73 says:

    I’m curious about something. You note that coaches “are the leaders of the team, they set the goals, they teach and they influence your team’s culture. So when coaches give messages, those messages persist.” I’m wondering if your teammates no longer listen to music that contains the n-word as a result of this coaches input? It sounds as if his intentions were in the right place but failed in how he communicated the message. Personally, I disdain the use of any racial slur including in the lyrics of songs. Do you feel using the n-word in song lyrics is appropriate? What about people to whom the racial slur refers to using the slur in question – is that ever okay and if so, why? Speaking as a member of a frequently slurred group, I find it to always be inappropriate be it in song or otherwise. However, I notice a lot of black people do indeed use the n-word (or some deviation there of) in song or conversation. Why is that ever permissible? I’ve never understood this. Back to the coach, sounds like you should cut him some slack – his heart was in the right place.


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