Courtesy of WOCCA Instagram (@WOCCA_Cornell)

With the lacking representation of people of color throughout Cornell Athletics' staff and leadership, Black student-athletes often find their voices ignored.

June 5, 2020

Student-Athletes of Color Shed Light on Racial Injustice Within Cornell Athletic Community

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“I hear you when I break records,” one student’s sign reads. “I hear you when I cross the finish line,” says another’s. Swipe to the last image, and a question is posed: “But do you hear us?”

Women of Color Cornell Athletics launched the Hear Us Now campaign on Instagram Monday to “demand informed allyship from the Cornell athletic community and beyond.”

“Our humanity has been stripped away,” read the initial Instagram post’s caption. “We are hurting, but do you hear us?”

Each post includes slide after slide of student-athletes of color holding up posters with a description of when they hear the crowd cheering them on before a final slide in which they all hold up a new poster asking, “But do you hear us?”

“I think it’s important that we have these conversations about allyship and advocacy within athletic spaces,” said Theresa Grace Mbanefo, a rising junior forward on women’s basketball and WOCCA’s head of public relations.

“Because Black athletes are helping win games, we’re helping win races, helping win matches,” she continued. “At the very least, it should be recognized that because of our identity, we move differently within all-white spaces, we move differently within the world.”

When Jay Matthews, a rising junior midfielder on women’s soccer, founded WOCCA in March, the need for a space dedicated to Cornell’s female athletes of color was already obvious. Now, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and increased attention to police brutality nationwide, the group is increasingly vital for projecting the voices of Cornell’s black athletes.

But given the current national climate, Matthews knew that it would not be enough to keep the message just about women of color. She opened up the discussion, starting a group chat with as many Cornell student-athletes of color as possible in order to include men in WOCCA’s campaign.

“I always had this feeling that WOCCA should be doing something to advocate for people of color — all people of color, not just women, because it’s not just women being killed,” Matthews said.

WOCCA's campaign calls upon the Cornell community to listen to student-athletes of color's voices.

Courtesy of WOCCA Instagram (@WOCCA_Cornell)

WOCCA’s campaign calls upon the Cornell community to listen to student-athletes of color’s voices.

Within Cornell athletics, marginalization of minorities seems to run rampant. Matthews described herself as one of just three women of color on her team. Only one head coach out of Cornell’s 37 varsity teams is Black.

“There’s a level of ignorance and tokenism that I’ve experienced on the Cornell women’s basketball team,” Mbanefo said.

Both women expressed disappointment over recent conversations with their coaches about Floyd’s murder and police brutality. Matthews, after discussing with her coach the issues she took with his comments, however, was encouraged by his response.

“My coach does stand with us,” Matthews said. “He is one of the coaches that does stand with us at Cornell.”

Mbanefo, who lives outside of Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, said that her coach did not check in with her at all; it was Mbanefo herself who initiated contact.

“I was witnessing all the mayhem. I was going to the protests,” Mbanefo said. “And the fact that my coach failed to reach out to me to say, ‘Hey, are you okay?’ was just really disheartening to me … In all honesty, I think it’s shown how there has been a culture of ignorance on my basketball team.”

“It’s kind of frustrating for me because I didn’t need the murder of a black man in my home state to realize what’s happening — I’ve lived with racism my whole entire life,” Mbanefo said.

In addition to protesting, Mbanefo has been helping in cleanup efforts in Minneapolis in the wake of destruction caused by the protests.

While coaches’ reactions and conversations with their teams leave something to be desired throughout much of Cornell Athletics, some coaches are further along on their journey to support their athletes than others.

Matthews and Mbanefo cited the efforts of football head coach David Archer ’05 as a promising move in the right direction. Archer, Mbanefo described, held a meeting with his entire team to discuss the current national environment. Then, Archer went a step further and held a separate Zoom call with his Black players to specifically talk about their feelings and reactions. Such actions demonstrated a concrete way in which coaches can begin to better support their athletes of color through intentional dialogue, both Matthews and Mbanefo said.

Even with these conversations, though, the overwhelmingly white leadership throughout Cornell Athletics creates a culture in which many athletes of color feel misunderstood. The same dilemma also goes for the psychologists that Cornell athletes are referred to, most of whom, Matthews said, are white.

“When I go to talk to someone who isn’t of color [about a racial issue], that is so unbelievably uncomfortable,” Matthews said. “And it’s not something that you can get over, because you know, while you’re telling them, you know that they’re never going to understand.”

Jay Matthews, above, founded WOCCA to give female student-athletes of color their own space.

Courtesy of WOCCA Instagram (@WOCCA_Cornell)

Jay Matthews, above, founded WOCCA to give female student-athletes of color their own space.

In 2018, Matthews competed with the Jamaica Women’s National Team as it sought to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. Though Matthews lives in Florida, both of her parents are from Jamaica and she has spent much time there. The opportunity to play on the national team offered her a chance to feel “more a part of a family” through the common pride she and her teammates held for Jamaica.

But with the underrepresentation of Black voices within leadership at Cornell, it is difficult for athletes of color to feel seen, causing rifts and discomfort. When student-athletes of color have nobody who understands the problems that are unique to Black people to turn to, these athletes are placed in the awkward position of having to educate their coaches in order to open up lines of communication.

“It’s a very difficult conversation to have with a coach … I don’t want to come off as disrespectful — it would be so much easier if I had the backing of another coach, an assistant coach, whatever it may be, just to make these conversations more productive,” Mbanefo said.

The women of WOCCA hope that their activism will effect change within Cornell Athletics. WOCCA has not yet been in direct dialogue with Director of Athletics Andy Noel but hopes to be soon.

“We want to know what [Noel] is doing about diversity and inclusion, because it’s so easy … to say, ‘we are aware of the racial injustices that are occurring,’ ‘we are aware of disparities,’” Mbanefo said. “But it’s like, what are you doing afterwards? We want to make sure that all of these [statements] they release aren’t performative.”