“You have to be comfortable in uncomfortable positions. Even if it’s just a couple Black people, you have to make sure that, okay, I can still be in this sort of atmosphere. That’s one thing I considered when choosing a college. I still thought I would fit in and [know] what my purpose is here.”
Sophomore sprinter Andrea McPherson discussed her self-confidence as a minority athlete on Emory University’s women’s track and field team at the Emory Black Student Athlete Group (BSAG) Black student-athlete experience panel at the Harland Cinema in the Alumni Memorial University Center on Feb. 13. The panel, which featured Emory men’s basketball senior guard JJ Halaby, freshman sprinter Sydney Holden, McPherson and freshman guard Tyson Thomas, focused on the unique challenges Emory Black student-athletes face at an academically rigorous predominantly white institution (PWI). The event was also broadcast over Zoom, and virtual attendees included representatives from Johns Hopkins University (Md.) and Washington University in St. Louis.
Like McPherson, Halaby was aware of the small number of Black student-athletes in the University Athletic Association (UAA) when he was applying to college. He chose to attend Emory in part because, at the time, they had more Black players on the men’s basketball team than any other UAA school. Thomas also noted that meeting with Black coaches, players and other prospects in his class during his visit to Emory helped cement his decision.
Holden, who was one of “one of five Black people out of 100 to 150 people” at her high school, was actively “craving” a strong Black community when finalizing her college plans. She said that being Black is a central part of her identity as a student-athlete, particularly as a long sprinter.
“For me, it’s very important, my race and my sport, especially because of the events that I do,” Holden said. “There aren’t that many people that look like me, who actually do those events. So for me, it’s just important to bring my race into my events, always bring a positive attitude.”
Coordinator of mental health services in athletics and recreation Kalyn Wilson briefly spoke about how Black people inherit racial trauma from facing generations of microaggressions and violence. Wilson said that although 78% of student-athletes who identify as a racial or ethnic minority reported mental health concerns, only 11% sought professional help, which she noted was a “fallacy of strength” that exacerbates their struggles.
“Chances are, if you are not someone who occupies Black skin right now, and everyday you walk around, you don’t have to worry if you’re never going to see someone who looks like you,” Wilson said. “That is something that is really important to center when you’re thinking about experiences as a Black student-athlete.”
Halaby said he experiences heightened isolation from the Black community in his classes at the Goizueta Business School. While he feels no racial prejudice from his classmates and professors, Halaby said that constantly being the sole Black person in the room can be discouraging.
“Being in the business school, it was kind of a tough adjustment,” Halaby said. “Going into my first class – actually, all my classes, really – I was the only Black person in the class. It’s just a tough adjustment to see that there’s not people that look like you, so it’s kind of hard to find your community.”
Some of the panelists admitted succumbing to what Emory men’s basketball assistant coach Gebereal Baitey (19C), the panel moderator, referred to as “imposter syndrome.” Thomas recalled an incident last semester when a man next to him at the checkout line in Target was pleasantly “surprised” to hear that Thomas played basketball at Emory.
“They were just like, ‘Oh, wow, you play there?’” Thomas said. “I assumed it was because of the color of my skin and who I was. He also said that, ‘It’s a surprise, I’m glad you’re doing that, you guys are doing big things over there. I’m glad you’re a Black male playing on that team.’”
Baitey, who grew up in Decatur, Ga. and was a guard on Emory’s basketball team, said that he felt an obligation to be an example for his hometown during his playing days.
“I felt a little bit of pressure when I came as a student-athlete to dispel some myths or stereotypes about what people in the greater Atlanta community might think about Emory, about the Druid Hills area,” Baitey said.
Even though the panelists spoke to the ease of forming strong bonds with their fellow Black teammates, they added that connecting with other Black students outside of Emory athletics is not always as simple. Halaby recalled how he felt “alienated” by other Black students who frowned upon his hanging out with his white teammates, a stigma which also resonated with Baitey. Similarly, Holden said that last semester she struggled to socialize with non-athletes, a habit she hopes to work on this spring.
“Sometimes I can’t hang out with my friends or go to any community building events because I had practice and now I have to study and I’m just too tired a lot of the time,” Holden said. “I’m more intentional about going to [Black-affiliated] events and hanging out with my friends. I definitely feel like it is hard to break away from sports and academics and try and find that time with other people.”
Having a strong community within the men’s basketball team helped Halaby and Thomas process the aftermath of the death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Memphis Police Department officers on Jan. 10. McPherson said that coaches, teammates, athletic administrators and students should give their Black peers the space to voice their emotions after such events rather than suppressing uncomfortable conversations.
“We should talk about it and not be afraid to express how we feel in these sorts of situations, not to just hide how we feel,” McPherson said. “To come together as a community and express how we feel and not just hide the situation, especially in the Emory community.”
Claire Fenton (she/her) (24C) is a Pittsburgh native majoring in quantitive sciences and linguistics. Outside of the Wheel, she is the treasurer of Emory Data Science Club and Girls Who Code. When she’s not training for half marathons, you can find her watching the Penguins dominate the Philadelphia Flyers and reading Agatha Christie novels.