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Why are all the Black athletes sitting together in the cafeteria?

September 4, 2020

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

Bowdoin has failed us. The athletic department has failed us. Our coaches have failed us, and our teammates have failed us. This failure is glaringly obvious to students of color, and it seems to go unnoticed by everyone else. I am writing on behalf of the Bowdoin Athletes of Color Coalition (AoCC), and we are demanding that these failures be addressed and corrected.

Bowdoin has acknowledged that racism is deeply rooted in our society and that steps need to be taken to acknowledge and dismantle those unjust systems. Following the murder of George Floyd, the administration compiled a book list, hosted a conversation about white allyship and set up a (temporary) donation-matching program for Black Lives Matter, the NAACP and a number of local organizations.

Despite this stated commitment to combating institutional racism, Bowdoin has failed us. The administration has failed to recognize that Bowdoin itself is an institution, and it’s not one that’s exempt from racism. Bowdoin conceptualizes itself as being inside a bubble, free from the evils of the so-called “real world.” The idea that racism is happening on our campus and on our teams is incongruent with this ideal perception, so Bowdoin ignores it. As a result, the onus falls on students of color to educate, fight and demand structural changes to the school. Before the administration had done anything (apart from thanking the police for “keeping us safe”), the AoCC facilitated a conversation about police brutality with over 300 students. Now, we are pressing Bowdoin to enact real change within the institution, to do more than recommend books.

Incidents of racial bias happen on a consistent basis, and AoCC has been, for lack of a better term, a safe space for athletes of color. AoCC is about solidarity, support and community. There’s an inherent level of understanding between us that’s difficult to articulate. As Beverly Tatum explains in her book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”, “In racially mixed settings, racial grouping is a developmental process in response to an environmental stressor, racism.” Racism doesn’t happen in some faraway land beyond Brunswick. If there are players of color on a team, there have been instances of discrimination—that lesson can be learned quickly at any Sunday night AoCC meeting.

If you’re thinking, “that doesn’t happen on my team,” think again. Just because you don’t notice the problem doesn’t mean it’s not there. Athletes of color are constantly being mistaken for one another. The N-word is sung and rapped by white teammates in locker rooms and at mixers, and it doesn’t end when the music stops. Players of color have been called the N-word outright. Racism, both overt and microaggressive, exists on our teams, yet it so often goes unreported.

Athletes feel uncomfortable approaching coaches about instances of discrimination because coaches feel just as uncomfortable handling them. Complaints have been dismissed as overreactions or ignored altogether. In the past few months, I have had a number of conversations with my coaches regarding a team statement about George Floyd’s death and our team culture surrounding race. Our conversations have been productive, but as I’ve talked to my coaches, one thing has become abundantly clear: coaches are unequipped to deal with situations like these. We look to our coaches as mentors, and it’s disappointing to watch the people we trust stumble when it comes to race. Where it matters most, our coaches have failed us.

Their failure is not surprising, considering the oversights on the part of the athletic department. Diversity training is nonexistent, as is an effective system of reporting bias and discrimination. Each year, the athletic department requires teams to go through an anti-hazing education program, and last year, an anonymous hazing incident form. What if racism were taken as seriously as hazing? There is a strict, zero-tolerance policy regarding hazing, and yet no such policy exists when it comes to incidents of racism and discrimination. This complete lack of accountability makes talking about these incidents even more daunting. The athletic department has the ability to make combatting racism a priority, but it has failed us.

As athletes, we compete because we know we are a part of something bigger. Our relationships with our teammates solidify that commitment, and we play for one another as much as we play for ourselves. Among the players of color in AoCC, every one of us is dedicated to our teammates, regardless of race. However, this bond is threatened when racism, and more frequently, complacency, are embedded in team cultures. My team participates in a yearly facilitated discussion with Intergroup Dialogue, and until recently, that has been the extent of our conversations about race.

As a team, we agreed that talking once a year is not nearly enough. I was encouraged by the enthusiasm so many of my teammates demonstrated, and many of them expressed a desire to learn and do better. This has been the response of several teams, and yet, little initiative is shown to do that learning. Too often, players of color are forced to lead those conversations and bear the weight of informing, educating and urging their teammates to engage. Our teammates have failed us. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Right now, these failures are the norm. AoCC demands that Bowdoin do better, that the athletics department do better, that our coaches do better and that our teammates do better. Because, as President Rose wrote, “When it comes to racism, we have not lived up to our promise.”

Claudette Proctor is a member of the Class of 2021.

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