The fight against injustice: How black female sportswomen are using their platform to drive change
When Naomi Osaka, the world’s highest-paid female athlete, composed the first of many impassioned posts on social media following the alleged murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, it set the tone for a collective of black sportswomen to shape their own conversations about the injustices of racial inequality.
“Just because it isn’t happening to you,” Osaka wrote, “doesn’t mean it isn’t happening at all.” Days later, teenage tennis sensation Coco Gauff handed 20-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer a detailed list of practical ways to aid the Black Lives Matter movement, after he posted a black square on his Instagram page.
Closer to home, British wheelchair athlete Kare Adenegan transformed her own Instagram channel into an informative hub for discussions around race and disability. An image of England youth hockey player Darcy Bourne holding up a banner outside the US embassy emblazoned with the words “Why is racism a debate?” was so powerful it went viral after being shared by Martin Luther King III.
Through the Black Lives Matter movement, sportswomen have taken the lead in amplifying injustice, while shining a light on the transformative work others are already doing in addressing the under-representation and misconstrued perceptions of blackness within sport.
There is a palpable excitement in Ebony Rainford-Brent’s voice as she reflects on the success of her African-Caribbean Engagement Programme. As Surrey’s director of women’s cricket, she launched the initiative to help grow the sport’s low participation rate among the local black community in their home borough of Lambeth. Despite the small matter of a pandemic to deal with, the programme is already harbouring success.
“It blew my mind how well it went,” she buzzes down the phone. “The talent that came through the door was ridiculous, we had to almost double our intake. The enthusiasm from the community told me that it’s only because we’re disconnected, not broken, and a relationship just needs to be built.”
Recent figures from a Sport England report show just 5.2 per cent of black children in England play cricket. In that sense, Rainford-Brent, the first black woman to represent England, has handed her notoriously white, middle-class sport a lifeline. But she is acutely aware of the work that remains.
“The biggest frustration was from a female perspective,” she says. “There was really a big gap in how many girls are playing from a black background. We’re looking at re-engineering some pathways and creating some opportunities because if we don’t address it, we won’t see long-term change.”
Such is her determination to not allow this to morph into a short-lived sea of black squares that she has spearheaded a campaign with several other prominent black sports figures, including her childhood idol, Denise Lewis, with whom she is riding 10,000 miles over 100 days to raise money for the movement.
It is reflective of the activism employed by a host of black female athletes in the wake of George Floyd’s death last month.
One of them was with UK Athletics director Anne Wafula Strike, the only black board member among major sports in the UK, who has been at the centre of dialogue concerning the profound whiteness of sports boards as revealed by The Telegraph in the wake of the movement.
For years, leadership consultant Michelle Moore has engaged with sports bodies to include more ethnic diversity while nurturing young black women in the sports industry, preparing them for “a world that isn’t fair”.
“There’s more to lose for black athletes, especially black female athletes because of how racism and sexism intersect, and their positions in the team are in potential danger,” says Moore. “I know first-hand some black female athletes are scared to speak out. There are serious consequences for black female athletes when they call out injustice as demonstrated in the case of the courageous Eniola Aluko.”
Moore believes the relentless pursuit of gender parity and pay equality has resulted in ethnic diversity being sidelined in the female sporting world, when it plays an important role in achieving parity for all.
“Women’s sport has unique challenges,” she adds. “I remember having very direct conversations with somebody on a panel from one of the national governing bodies saying, ‘This is a massive issue’. She said to me, ‘No, Michelle, the biggest issue we’ve got now is funding’.”
Earlier this week, she chaired the first sports stakeholder meeting for The Black Cultural Archives, where she invited Alice Dearing, Britain’s only black senior swimmer, and Khadijah Mellah, thought to be the first person to ride in a hijab at a major British racecourse, to speak.
“Opening up doors and spaces like this to include the voices of black female athletes is important,” says Moore. “This should be happening across sport and not left to the black individual in a position of power to invite them in.”
For Dearing, who Moore mentors, racial activism is not new territory. It has been almost a year since the 23-year-old documented her struggles about growing up in a whitewashed sport. As part of her activism challenging the cultural stereotype that black people cannot swim, she co-founded the Black Swimming Association in March, which aims to raise awareness to black and other ethnic communities about the importance of swimming.
She has also become an ambassador for brand Soul Cap, which seeks to break down barriers with bespoke swimming caps for Afro hair.
“It baffles me swim companies still haven’t thought a bit wider with their range,” laments Dearing, who spent years stretching standard caps to the right consistency to fit all her hair in.
Club swimmers, she is at pains to point out, are often expected to wear identical caps when competing in the same team. It is a microcosm of the structural racism that still exists in the sport and one which Dearing is tackling on a personal level by no longer chemically straightening her hair.
Her activism draws parallels with the emergence of the Afro hair style embraced during the 1960s civil rights movement as a powerful assertion of black identity against white, mainstream fashions. For all her game changing work, Dearing knows the buck lies with those in charge.
“As much as I want to make change in my sport, the only thing I can really do is represent it and show you can achieve great things, no matter your race or colour,” she says. “As athletes, we can make people aware, but the structural changes need to come from the board members.”
Her words were echoed earlier this month by Maggie Alphonsi, the only black person on the Rugby Football Union’s 61-strong council, who has recently stated her goal to one day become president of the organisation.
For years Alphonsi has been a beacon of hope for black women at the grass-roots level, such as Barnes RFC player Zainab Alema, who spent years trying to reconcile the sport’s laddish culture with her religious beliefs as a hijab-wearing black Muslim. Her anxiety led her to trawl through the laws of the game, only to find World Rugby permitted the wearing of head coverings.
“That was the decision-maker for me,” says Alema. “For rugby to facilitate that, it made me feel welcomed and that I could play.”
The revelation encouraged her to stick with the sport and she went on to set up Studs in the Mud, a project which provides rugby equipment to disadvantaged communities in Ghana and Morocco. At the elite level, there is plenty of work to be done still.
Just two women of colour were awarded a professional contract by England Rugby this year. As a black spokesperson in the women’s game, Alema is all too aware that women’s rugby has long prided itself on inclusiveness related to body shapes and sizes rather than ethnicity.
“This is the time for all clubs to sit down and ask, ‘What can we do to make the game more diverse?’ ” says Alema.
“With the uncertainty around coronavirus, and everything that has happened with Black Lives Matter, now is the best time to talk about the lack of racial diversity in the game. We have to strike while the iron’s hot.”