Olivia Jarvis: Finding My Voice as an African American Athlete

         My name is Olivia and I was born and raised in Utah. I was adopted by two white parents and I’m a recently retired college athlete. I grew up in an area where there weren’t many kids who looked like me. When I was a little girl being signed up for my first dance class and soccer team, I never saw myself as different from the other kids around me. But as I got older and that childhood innocence began to dissolve, I realized I was no longer like all the other kids. Before college, there were maybe two occasions where I was not the only African American on my team. It wasn’t until high school that I began to recognize others’ comments and behaviors towards me for what they really were. They were no longer jokes, but hurtful comments that made me feel isolated. 

I’ve been told:

  • “I’m going to lynch you the way my grandad lynched yours.”
  • “You are the whitest black girl I know.”
  • “Are you even really black?”
  • “Why don’t you want to join the track team? You are black, don’t all black people run fast?”
  •  “She is the black girl on the volleyball team.”
  • “I thought you were mean, like all black girls, but you are actually so nice.”
  • “You aren’t going D1? You are black, I thought you were good.”
  • In 5th grade my teacher called my mom and accused me of cheating because I did well on a test. 

Each of these statements were followed up with, “but I’m not racist,” or “not to be racist but…” 

         I comforted myself by telling myself that these were just jokes. These people must have been absent when their history classes talked about slavery or Martin Luther King, right? I began to notice that it was a problem if I didn’t talk, look, or act the way black people did in the movies or television shows. But, it was also a problem if I did.

         I grew up struggling to be proud of who I was. I obsessed over things like my weight and body shape. I straightened my hair because the less my attributes pointed to being African American, the more I would fit in. All athletes can relate to feeling the pressure to perform at an elite level. But imagine carrying all that, plus the added pressure of people expecting you to be an amazing athlete just because of the color of your skin. 

         When I started my collegiate career, I hit the full brunt of my struggle with my identity and confidence. I was very impatient with myself and I mentally could not handle the pressure and expectations that I felt were on my shoulders. I got depressed, isolated myself outside of practice, and ultimately, did not perform my best the majority of the time. As a black athlete, I often relied on sports to be a constant positive in my life. So, when I was struggling to perform athletically, it felt like I had nothing left.

         Difficult conversations about racism and mental health need to be normalized. The world needs to move away from these conversations feeling awkward or uncomfortable. We need to be able to say things like, “you know what? I don’t have it all together” or “I’ve had some very difficult things said or done to me.” So what can we do?

  1. There needs to be space for people to identify racial comments or behaviors that negatively impact another person. Racism has become an uncomfortable topic because, for so long, it has been avoided or muffled in conversations. We have all said or done something that was hurtful towards someone else. These discussions are often heard, discussed, and finished with an apology and commitment to do better. The same needs to be done for conversations about racism. 
  2. The media needs to change. In the media, there are often two extremes. You hear about the African American athletes who are the best in the game, or you hear about the African American athletes who are being criticized or are in trouble. There is rarely casual dialogue involving athletes of a different race. Children need to grow up seeing more athletes of all colors and backgrounds in these professional athletic realms. Because as a child, this allows imaginations to soar and believe that “I can do that” or “I can be like them.” Doesn’t every child deserve to dream that way?  
  3. Our mindsets also need to adapt. In the athletic realm, it’s often the athletes that are afraid to make mistakes that are the athletes that end up making them. There is a similar mindset in terms of racism. Some people think if I don’t talk about it, I can’t offend anyone. But unfortunately, that’s when it happens most. We need to be able to talk about how words and actions can be hurtful. It is ok to not know if something is hurtful or offensive. To some people these situations might seem obvious, but to another individual, it may not be so obvious. Problems arise when conversations are avoided or rebuked because we aren’t taking steps to get educated.
  4. It begins in the locker room and on the field or the court. We need to set a standard for what is and what is not acceptable to say. The same goes for behavior. A team can also implement a zero tolerance policy for racial slurs or remarks. 

So ask yourself: do you support and respect the achievements of your colored teammates? Or, do you have unrealistic expectations of them and their athletic ability? Do you stand up for ALL of your teammates? Are you willing to participate in these conversations or do you avoid them?

         It has taken me most of my life to believe that I get to choose my place in this world. And that it is okay to carve my own path outside of what everyone else says I should be. I wasn’t an All-American or the most well-known athlete at my school. But, these things do not dictate anyone’s value as a human being. The hardest competition that any athlete will ever face is accepting who they are and being okay with the good, bad, and ugly that comes with it. Everyone has gone through a time where they needed others to support and remind them of their worth. The black community needs you, your strength, and your voice. 

“I realize that I’m black, but I like to be viewed as a person, and this is everybody’s wish.”

— Michael Jordan
Jarvis #9 (center back) via https://campbellsvilletigers.com