On the heels of the #metoo and #TimesUp movements, as well as the second annual Women’s March, our minds are focused on the women in our lives: on the women we encounter, the patriarchal world they face and the obstacles that come with being nothing but themselves. One may think about the unique and treacherous obstacles women of color face in America, especially on a campus such as ours. At Whitman, one of these obstacles has to do with an activity that most students on campus either participate in directly or enjoy being spectators of: varsity athletics. With more than 20 percent of Whitman’s students participating in athletics and 13 varsity sports (eight of which women participate in), it is safe to say that our female athletes are an important part of what makes this campus great. Yet, can we also say that we as spectators are able to fully understand the unique and treacherous obstacles that women of color, especially those who are athletes, face on this campus? I spoke with Cherokee Washington, Kendall Dunovant and Jhunam Sidhu, several women of color on various Whitman varsity teams, to get an inside look at what it means to be a woman of color on a predominantly white campus, and on top of that, taking up spaces that receive great amounts of attention as NCAA DIII athletes. Cherokee Washington is a volleyball player who graduated last semester with a degrees in Psychology and Rhetoric. Kendall Dunovant is a senior ES-History major (the first of its kind at Whitman) who also competes on Whitman’s women’s golf team, alongside first-year Jhunam Sidhu.
What inspired you to continue to play your sport into your college years?
Cherokee: My journey with this sport hasn’t been easy; I’ve been cut from a college team without explanation, yelled at by countless coaches, and been treated differently as a woman on countless occasions. But, all of those rough experiences have pushed me to develop my voice and presence as a woman of color. I really try to be a role model for other girls like me who don’t see themselves represented in athletics, or feel like they’re being silenced in their roles as players. That’s a huge driving factor for me.
Kendall: My grandpa, Harold Dunovant, was one of the first African-Americans to receive a class-A PGA card, and was the first African-American to graduate from the PGA business school; he is my inspiration. I want him to know that the difficulty he faced in achieving these incredible things was well worth it. He opened doors for me and other people of color in this sport, and he deserves a granddaughter who is willing to carry on his legacy.
Jhunam: My coach in Vancouver, TJ Atley, was a big inspiration for me, she really opened up and presented to me the possibilities and advantages of playing collegiately.
Have you felt adequately supported by the Whitman community (especially in comparison to your male counterparts) during your time as an athlete at Whitman College?
Cherokee: I do believe that a majority of Whitman professors are supportive of our roles as student-athletes and some aren’t at all. We’re definitely respected and supported by our fellow athletes; we root for each other’s success and are often each other’s biggest fans. In comparison to male athletes, we have little spectator attendance at our games. Additionally, more money seems to be funneled into the male sports, maybe rightfully so in terms of certain teams’ levels of success. However, there needs to be just as much intensity and respect put into the women’s programs at Whitman as the men’s programs, as we are all worthy of full attendance and other benefits as an athletic community regardless of gender. I also think that narratives around female athletes need to change at all colleges, even at Whitman. Our volleyball team was once sent an article discussing the inadequacy and incompetency of women’s ability to survive collegiate sports. It essentially claimed that women cry more often than male athletes, can’t handle the pressure that coaches place upon them simply because they’re women, and included other insulting commentary that was biased, harmful and unfair. In reality, I think women are extremely mentally tough as we’re constantly disrespected and considered as inadequate in the real world outside of sports. Couple the mental and emotional toughness we use to fight for equality daily with the pressures of sports and you’ve got yourself an indestructible machine of a woman who can handle anything and everything that comes her way. In addition, within our team, our mental toughness was constantly tested more than our male counterparts (at least from what they told me), as we were often called soft by a lot of individuals. But tell me why we’re considered “soft” or lesser than the boys when we practice 5 days a week for 3 hours, get up 2 days a week at 6 a.m. in season to later practice at 4 p.m. the same day, travel for 5+ hours every weekend, lift at least 5-6 hours a week after practice, and play 2 games in a weekend, all while trying to eat 3 solid meals a day, get to and do well in our classes, sleep more than 3 hours a night, finish homework, and have a sliver of a social life without falling apart. Every athlete has a tough role to play as a student-athlete, but one gender isn’t more sturdy than the other.
Have you ever experienced racism in an athletic environment, either at Whitman or in your previous athletic career? Please explain.
Cherokee: At Whitman, I did feel like my voice as a black woman was heard by a majority of the community, as I chose to kneel during the 2016 volleyball season and was met with more support than backlash. Senior members of the women’s soccer team as well as a handful of other students knelt with me in their respective athletic events or in the stands, which was overwhelmingly special to me as a person of color. Other coaches weren’t too happy with my decision to kneel; however, and we were told at the beginning of the 2017 season that we were not to use Whitman volleyball as a platform for political activism or statements. I understand this decision to some degree, however, we as athletes (especially as a racially diverse team of women) have a duty and right to speak up against injustices when we can and feel the need to.
Kendall: I am consistently the only African-American woman playing golf in our intercollegiate tournaments; I have come to expect that I will be the sole representative of my race in the competitive environment of my sport at the collegiate level. I cannot think of any instance in which I have experienced overt racism, but the scarcity of black females in the sport is reflective of an exclusive history in this sport traditionally dominated by wealthy white men.
Jhunam: I feel very fortunate to be part of such a diverse team full of opened-minded and understanding women who are very accepting of different cultures and opinions. I also haven’t experienced any racism in other athletic settings outside of my team, everyone I have met who is involved in athletics at Whitman has been very respectful and kind. In my past, I did have a few encounters playing with people with racial prejudice. One aspect that I have always loved about golf is that you meet many different people each tournament and play with and interact with new people regularly. This is usually a very fun component to the game and a great opportunity to make new friends, but occasionally you run into people who are not as open minded or hold prejudiced views.
Have you ever experienced sexism in an athletic environment, either at Whitman or in your previous athletic career? Please explain.
Kendall: Typically when I play golf with men I have never played with before, there is a sense of surprise when I am able to hit the ball far or straight. This sport tends to be played by men at exclusive country clubs, and I often feel as though women do not get the respect they deserve in the sport overall. I do not feel that this has been my experience as an athlete for Whitman.
Jhunam: I have never personally experienced sexism in an athletic environment. I think that Whitman has been very supportive of our team. Even back home in Vancouver, women’s golf has started to become much more promoted and supported.
What do you think can be done to bridge the gender gap in sports, either here on campus or beyond?
Cherokee: I think we need to develop a bigger outward sense of respect for one another as athletes. In other words, I think all athletes, no matter their gender or lack thereof, need to have mutual respect for each other’s sports, experiences and struggles. We can’t walk around thinking we’re better than one another; we all share a common identity as athletes, which comes with expected experiences and we need to remember that one experience isn’t better than another. Additionally, I think coaches need to do a better job of being wary of their coaching styles. They shouldn’t necessarily fall into a trap of coaching men, women, gender non-binary, gender fluid, transgender, etc., players differently because that causes sex hierarchies, but they need to be aware of their ability to empower or disempower athletes. Coaches need to step back and ask if they’re the issue instead of worrying about how to make their athletes stop crying in practice and be willing to collaborate more to create a productive team environment.
Kendall: I think that encouraging young women to play this stellar game is a really simple way to combat the gender gap in golf. Women often quit playing at a young age because they do not have other young women to play with, which can make the sport feel isolated and lonely. I think that it would be great fun for the golf team to host a camp for young girls in community, and to show them that golf is an accessible sport for them, and a sport they can do with their friends.
Jhunam: On campus, I have never personally had an issue involving gender. However, professionally, there is a large gap between men and women in golf. On the professional level, there is a large gap in the winnings between men and women. This is because of many different things (sponsors, ratings etc.), but I think it goes back to how men’s professional golf is much more highly valued than women’s golf in the public eye. I think that this is translatable to many other sports and in athletics in general. Because of this, I think that it is always important to keep in mind that both men and women work equally hard and invest much of their life into the sport that they are passionate about.
What do you think can be done to improve the racial climate in sports, either here on campus or beyond?
Cherokee: I think there needs to be more work done like that of activists such as Kaepernick, Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson. We as people of color have a lot to lose when we speak up against injustices, no matter how obvious they might be. It’s the athletes, coaches, activists, fans, etc., who are willing to be the first to speak up, the only ones to speak up, or simply be willing to speak up that create change and inspire others to do the same. I have mad respect for athletes who have the balls to use that platform to fight social injustices, because winning a game on the court is hard, but finding the confidence to fight for those injustices is even harder.
Kendall: I think golf poses a distinct challenge when considering racial climate. Golf was one of the latest sports to welcome people of color and women. The sport is couched in exclusivity and strife for minority groups. Again, it is important to offer young athletes of color a support network and opportunity to see people like them in the sport. I think that encouraging conversations about race, and truly understanding the history of this sport are critical to creating change.