Having solidarity with Black folks’ strife goes beyond a spontaneous social media post.
What do your actions look like? Are you making changes in your behavior and holding other people in your circle to the same standard yourself?
For Tia Kiaku, an Alabama walk-on second year gymnast, she began to analyze her coaches’ gestures in light of the racial awakening the country has experienced this summer. Something about a Black square popping up on her social media feed to show “support” for the Black community and culture she experiences competing for the Roll Tide did not sit right with her, so she took to Twitter to explain.
Writing: “Alabama Gymnastics Do we really stand together? The program that allowed the Assistant Coach to make a racist “joke” & ask a group of black girls “what is this the back of the bus,” allowed gymnasts to say the N word, and much more. You can’t stand with us & allow injustices to happen.
“Greg Byrne [Alabama athletic director] is this the way you expect athletes and coaches to represent Alabama athletics?”
Kiaku also commented to a response Tweet with:
“I have already talked to Title IX while I was at school and did a full investigation. They deemed it a ‘bad joke,’ and he is still coaching at The University of Alabama. This is a systematic problem, as well!”
Kiaku left Alabama in February due to feelings of detachment and depression.
I wrote about this just after George Floyd was murdered by domestic police terrorism; empty statements of solidarity are not what we need. White people, save the pandering.
According to a recent report by ESPN, Alabama athletic administrators said they encouraged gymnasts to speak out about race after Floyd’s death. Still, ESPN got a copy of a team group message that gives a vastly different message.
After Kiaku spoke out, Dana Duckworth, Alabama’s head gymnastics coach, told the group according to ESPN, “It is best that our staff, team, and parents not comment, engage directly or indirectly.”
Anti-blackness is a global illness. Combating America’s racist society will almost certainly ruffle some feathers. If you jump in the ring and don’t want to get hit, why step in there in the first place?
Duckworth’s message speaks to a more significant problem in this country when racism is at the center of a conversation. If it brings about a hypocritical contentious environment, then the powers that be say, “We want to stop doing that,” which ignores the fact that if you want to have honest conversations about race, you have to look at the culture on which this country was built: racial violence and hierarchy.
If you haven’t dotted all of your i’s and crossed your t’s to address your program’s role in perpetuating the toxic racial hierarchy this country sits on, then why encourage your athletes to speak out against racial injustice in the first place. The first thing they would start with is their personal stories of being ostracized.
ESPN reached out to Duckworth to ask about the allegations, and she released a written statement reading:
“I appreciate the opportunity, but respectfully disagree with the assumptions included in many of the presented questions, which don’t align with the materials [the Title IX investigation documents] that were provided. We care about every student-athlete coming through this program and want each one to have the best experience possible. This was no different for Tia. …
“Looking back, yes, I wish I wouldn’t have worded some things the way I did. That being said, I always had Tia’s well-being in mind. I’ve learned important lessons from this situation, and I apologize to Tia and am sorry that her experience at Alabama was not what she hoped it would be.”
Kiaku says that she experienced several pandering gestures by her all-white coaching staff. In January 2019, Duckworth insisted on taking a picture of Kiaku and another Black gymnast for “African-American Appreciation Month,” but Kiaku said it was never used. Another time, Kiaku said, a white gymnast was pulled out of a photoshoot because Duckworth wanted “a minority picture.”
Black people are not puppets, and they are not to be used to prop up an agenda. We are human beings who would like to live equal and equitable lives to our white counterparts. It’s that simple. The way white people treat and see their white peers is precisely how Black people want the exchange between them and their white counterparts to be.
Making up an African American appreciation month or creating memorabilia of Black people for white consumption in the name of diversity on the surface seems nice. Still, if no action follows to create equitable treatment, it shows you are pandering.
It’s also flat out weird.
The ESPN report found that Kiaku’s story resonated with over a dozen Black Division I gymnasts. Former Collegiate gymnastics stars like Kennedy Baker and Kytra Hunter took to Twitter in recent days to give their account of the racism they faced at the University of Florida, which speaks to a more significant problem when we see these social media “unification” gestures. They are a gesture, and that’s all.
Former marginalized gymnasts across the country have begun to use the hashtag #gymnastalliance this month to tell their stories of racism while competing collegiately.
When it comes to featuring Black gymnasts in photos, before you throw them up for advertising purposes, the least you could do is make sure their experience on the team is free of racial prejudices and the bureaucracy that comes with it. I hope Kiaku’s story serves as a lesson for programs that are white-led to cultivate the right culture before you engage in encouraging your athletes to speak up. Otherwise, you will find yourself back-peddling.