• Fri. Oct 30th, 2020

At the W.N.B.A., the Fight for Racial Justice Goes Way Back

— Kimberlé Crenshaw, co-founder of the #SayHerName campaign


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In the wake of the shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake by the police in Kenosha, Wis., the Women’s National Basketball Association last week postponed scheduled games on Wednesday and then again on Thursday, using the time as a “day of reflection” and to recommit to the social justice causes that underpin their season this year.

“We are doubling down on our previous calls to action,” Nneka Ogwumike, president of the league’s players’ union and forward on the Los Angeles Sparks, said on ESPN on Thursday. Like the rest of the players, Ogwumike wore a black T-shirt that read “Arrest the Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor” in big, bold letters. She was flanked by other union representatives, including the New York Liberty’s Layshia Clarendon.

“We call upon Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron to arrest the officers that killed Breonna Taylor,” Ogwumike said. “Let us not let up seeking justice for Sandra Bland, Michelle Cusseaux, Shelly Frey, Korryn Gaines, India Kager, Kayla Moore, Layleen Polanco, Michelle Shirley and other Black and brown women who are victims of police violence.”

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Credit…Jessica Hill/Associated Press

Much of U.S. sports came to a halt on Wednesday night, with walkouts spread across teams from leagues including the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball, marking a historic day in professional athletics. But for W.N.B.A. players, the move was just another step in a yearslong stand against racial injustice.

As far back as 2016, players and teams wore shirts supporting Black lives and protesting gun violence, organized media blackouts and kneeled during the national anthem, drawing the ire of league officials and a public that has told them to “stick to sports.” This year, amid social unrest and a pandemic that forced them to conduct their season inside a bubble in Bradenton, Fla., the entire W.N.B.A. is honoring Black women and girls by dedicating its season to Breonna Taylor and the #SayHerName campaign.

Created in 2014, the #SayHerName campaign aims to broaden the national conversation about anti-Black police violence to include the names of Black women and girls whose stories tend to be overlooked. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a co-founder of the campaign and the executive director at the African American Policy Forum, reflected on the W.N.B.A.’s work with #SayHerName.

Credit…Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

“To have other Black women, saying, ‘No, Sis, we’re not going to forget about you. We are going to bring you into the spotlight’ — that is the game-changing moment for Black women in this century that we’ve been waiting for,” Crenshaw, who is also a law professor at U.C.L.A. and Columbia University, told In Her Words.

This season, W.N.B.A. players are warming up in shirts printed with the words “Say Her Name” on the back and “Black Lives Matter” on the front. Other shirts call for the arrest of the cops who killed Breonna Taylor. There are pregame tributes, featuring photos and moments of silence, honoring the Black women lost to police violence. And postgame notes to the news media include the #SayHerName hashtag and continue to call for justice for Taylor.

For a league that is predominantly Black and that has fought for national recognition and attention for 24 years, amplifying #SayHerName strikes close to home. “We know what it feels like to live on the margins, even within the sports community,” the New York Liberty’s Clarendon said.

In Her Words spoke with four W.N.B.A. players — Clarendon, Chicago Sky’s Sydney Colson, and Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm — about the #SayHerName campaign, white allyship and the broader push for racial and gender justice in 2020.

This interview, conducted before this week’s events, has been condensed and edited for clarity.

This year, your jerseys have Breonna Taylor’s name printed on the back. What does it feel like putting them on?

Credit…Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Sydney Colson: For me, it’s not so much an eye-opener because I’m well aware of how Black people have been treated in this country. Putting that jersey on as a Black woman … I feel like it means something more than just playing basketball. People are thinking about Breonna and wanting justice for her.

Credit…Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Layshia Clarendon: It’s really somber in a lot of ways. In a season where we have so many televised games, we have a platform. But at the same time, the weight of it, like — we have to put Breonna Taylor’s name on the back of our jerseys to keep raising awareness, to get some semblance of whatever justice could look like for her and her family. It really is this constant swirl of pride that we’re getting to do this, but also heartbreak and despair.

Credit…Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Sue Bird: It’s a way to acknowledge and amplify all the things that are happening in our country. I find in those moments just before a game, when the league has the Say Her Name montage, is a time to reflect: to know whose name is on the back of your jersey, know why her name is on the back of your jersey, know that women’s names don’t get said enough.

Credit…Chris O’Meara/Associated Press

Breanna Stewart: It shows the solidarity that we have together and what we’re really fighting for. There are so many women like Breonna Taylor. Being a white athlete in the W.N.B.A, I want to continue to be an ally, to create justice for those that have not gotten it and a better world where this doesn’t happen anymore.

W.N.B.A players in particular have been at the forefront of fighting for justice, but the partnership with #SayHerName brings together racial and gender issues, making this an intersectional moment. When did you first come to experience or understand these issues through an intersectional lens, and what has that journey been like?

Sydney: I’ve always been aware of the different ways I’m discriminated against as a Black woman — kind of hard not to be aware of them. But I didn’t have a name for it until recently, when I learned about Professor Crenshaw, who coined the term intersectionality, and connected with her personally and studied up on her work.

Layshia: I first started learning about intersectionality during my undergrad at University of California, Berkeley. My degree was in sociology, so I studied how intersectional identities affect each other. And as someone who is Black and queer, I know quite literally how close to home and how important it is for us to take an intersectional approach. More recently, I’ve been following prominent activists like Alicia Garza and Raquel Willis who are constantly challenging and pushing the boundaries on intersectionality.

What does it mean to be a white ally in this league?

Sue: Being an ally is not just one thing. In some situations, it could be as simple as helping pass the mic or making sure my Black teammate is being heard. I’m not Black. I’m not feeling racism on a daily basis. If I’m going to try to help my counterparts in this league get something done, and they’re feeling the burden of all of it happening at once, I can take something off their plate. That is also how I have been an ally.

Credit…Octavio Jones for The New York Times

Breanna: It means talking to some of our Black teammates and hearing what they have to say — really hearing them out. It means having uncomfortable conversations with my family or my friends about everything that’s going on in society and the racism that has been going on in our country. It means continuing to listen and be a voice and amplify the message.

Sydney: During the civil rights movement, it was necessary for white people to be involved, to be a voice, to be allies — not to speak for us, but to speak to one another. I think it’s necessary and honestly, it’s unavoidable if we really want to get to a better place in this country.

Layshia, you’ve talked about how going back to play this season gave the league an opportunity to be “centered in a way that an 80 percent Black” and LGBTQ+ league typically isn’t. Now that you’re all there at center court, what’s it like, especially during this moment of upheaval?

Layshia: It feels heavier than I expected. At the same time, there’s the fact that we are getting centered. The world is finally catching up to how great we are and how awesome our league is. I wanted the spotlight for everyone. We’ve all played for so many years and worked so hard for this moment. We didn’t get on the cool train of like, “Yo! Let’s start talking about politics and voting and Black Lives Matter.” We have been doing this work. It’s like basketball: Preparation shows, and we’ve been prepared for this moment.

The Times journalist Kurt Streeter pointed out that female athletes, particularly W.N.B.A. players, fighting injustice often do so without the same recognition their male counterparts receive. Is this season different?

Sydney: I do feel like we’re finally being heard. It took two pandemics happening simultaneously for people to sit down and listen. And while it is about coverage, it’s also about being Black women.

You have a lot of support for your activism but also many critics, some of whom are associated with the W.N.B.A., saying we need less, not more, politics in sports, so as not to alienate fans. Do you pay attention to that criticism?

Sue: To say to us, as W.N.B.A. players, to keep politics out of sports is incredibly hypocritical. There’s some irony because all anyone has ever done is judge us on everything but the game of basketball. We’re judged because we’re women. We’re judged because we’re Black. We’re judged because we’re gay.

People ask, “What makes women’s basketball players so good at this?” We just literally had to fight for ourselves for so long. And now we’re in a moment when all of those things have come to a head. If anything, we would love to be judged as basketball players. Imagine that — where they’re just talking about your play on the court and not what you look like and not who you’re dating. Imagine? That would be amazing.