Rayshawn Johnson: “Growing up black is difficult enough.”

My name is Rayshawn Johnson, I’m from Willingboro, New Jersey, and I run track for Saint Peter’s University.

My mental health journey started my junior year of high school. In the middle of the summer, I found out that we had to move and for the rest of that summer, my family was in between houses. During this time, I also ended up starting and leaving four different football programs.

Going into the fall season, I still did not feel welcome on the football team. They already had their family built and I understood that. With no playbook to study and no friends to talk to, I felt alone in one of my happiest places. The team never slowed down for me. My junior year, I played maybe five varsity snaps total. Seeing my hometown friends play and have a great time put me into a state of depression.

Right before the last game of the season, I took a helmet to the knee, which landed me on crutches for months. I felt like I was fully capable of playing, but wasn’t allowed, which ate me alive. I also had to miss my indoor & outdoor track seasons, which made it even worse. 

My senior year, I convinced my mom to move back to our hometown, where I could run track. I went from a rookie to a state champion in a few months and received scholarship offers by the spring outdoor season.

Photo by Stockton Photos via stpeterspeacocks.com

I eventually accepted a position on the track team at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, NJ. Fast forward to sophomore year of college, I ran a personal record in the hurdles during my first race, but tore my quad the next week. I struggled to fight my injury while watching all my teammates compete. I was proud of them, of course, but hated that I couldn’t be running with them. I ended up redshirting this past year and have since been working on getting healthy. Soon after the season began, COVID-19 sent us home from campus.

While at home, I struggled with my classes, family members dying from the virus, and not being able to take care of my injury. I felt alone because rehab and physical therapy places were closed. And now, we are still in the middle of a pandemic and a historical, moving moment.

Growing up black is difficult enough.

People will judge you from the day you step outside your home. Teachers will tell you what you can and cannot be. People will cross the street, speak to you with attitudes, and think less of you. Since a young age, I’ve dealt with these things and more. Being racially profiled can hurt someone’s spirit and there’s no real way to prepare for it.

Growing up, I often tried to go to my happy place, the sports field, to get away from these things. But sometimes, I couldn’t escape. Once during a football game, a white opponent called me the N-word after a play. I told my coach and he immediately told the referee. The referee said he would “listen out” for it. This has stuck with me forever. It will always be one of those moments that changed my life. Even in college, people at track meets, usually parents or athletes who grew up only around white kids, often make people like me feel uncomfortable or angry. It’s clear by their words and actions towards me that these people haven’t broken out of their own uncomfortable shells with black kids.

Cops killing people like me hurts differently, especially when they do it for no reason. It’s like you can do everything right and still fail in a way. Black people have been treated wrongly for years and nothing has been done about it. To this day, I have to deal with people giving me looks, changing the conversation tone, or going out of their way to prove that they aren’t racist.

I do not want to be treated abnormally special. Just treat me like a human being. I am a human at the end of the day. We both bleed the same, breathe the same. Color does not define us and never will.