Editor’s Note: ESPN, Disney Music Group, and Babble are all a part of The Walt Disney Company.
2018 may not be over yet, but it’s already been declared by some to be The Year of the Woman. (And with good reason.) We’ve seen the voices of women grow louder and stronger this year in more ways than one, as they’ve run for office in record numbers, broken barriers in male-dominated industries, and bravely shared their #MeToo moments with the world. And now, a new single released by singer Rayana Jay is shedding light on a female experience we rarely hear about: the silent struggle of black women in sports, who overcome both sexism and racism in pursuit of their dreams.
The single, which is aptly named “Undefeated,” was released by ESPN and Disney Music Group today, and is an extension of a joint project between ESPN’s The Undefeated, a website that highlights the intersection between sports, race, and culture, and Morgan State University.
ESPN also recently commissioned the university to produce the academic study, “Beating Opponents, Battling Belittlement: How African-American Female Athletes Use Community to Navigate Negative Images” — and it’s shedding some much-needed light on the unique challenges of black female athletes in pretty eye-opening ways.
What the study documented was a long trail of damaging stereotypes that have been associated with black females in sports dating back to the year 1900. Researchers were even able to trace those labels back through the centuries, as many were directly tied to how black women were perceived during the age of slavery. All of this, researchers say, has systematically impacted how black female athletes present themselves in the sports world today, working twice as hard to prove themselves.
The lyrics of “Undefeated” touches upon many of these same, long-held stereotypes — namely, that black female athletes are “too aggressive.”
“There’s constant pressure not to act out,” shared Marirose Roach, an attorney and former scholarship track and soccer athlete at Temple, with The Undefeated. Roach now plays semiprofessional football in the Women’s Football Alliance.
Explaining just how important it is as a black female to not be stigmatized or kicked off the team, she continued: “You have to keep your composure so you can excel and get to the next level. It’s just like an added obstacle.”
Although my own athletic prowess never quite reached the level of these women, I can say this for certain: As a young black girl growing up in a small Southern California town 30 years ago, it was hard not to be aware of the “angry black girl” stereotype that seemed to follow me wherever I went. The “angry black girl” was what people expected me to be; but it wasn’t who I was.
Whenever I entered a debate, whenever I’d argue my point, I’d simultaneously wonder in the back of my mind what people were really thinking.
Am I coming off as assertive? Or will they just label me as angry? I’d wonder.
And so, more often than not, I’d soften my delivery.
Kayla Cohen, a graduate student in sport business at Temple, knows this experience as an ex-field hockey player. She told The Undefeated that simply playing the game aggressively was treated as a “problem” at her predominantly white high school, and vividly remembers the day that broke her spirit.
“I was playing predominantly against white girls as well, and I remember I was being really aggressive, and I know my team was behind me — they loved it,” she shared.
But after the game, when it came time to line up against the opposing team for high-fives, every team member she passed told her the same thing: “You need to calm down.”
Discouraged and heartbroken, she quit the team the following year.
While many women like Kayla and Marirose have dealt with the effects of this negative stereotype in recent years, the Morgan State historical study asserts that over-aggressiveness as a stereotype of black women reaches back through the centuries.
“While white women were portrayed — and treated as — delicate and as a civilizing influence [during slavery times], black women were viewed and treated as deviant, savage, and hypersexual,” the study states. “This perception did not abate after slavery ended, and, as a result, the stereotype of the loud, immoral and aggressive black woman extended into the area of sports.”
Despite this negative perception, however, black women in sports have clearly been working hard towards shattering these stereotypes for years. According to the Morgan State study, black female athletes established their own community and athletic clubs back in the early 1900s, where they’ve been supporting each other ever since.
This theme of camaraderie and embracing your own fierceness weaves itself into every lyric of “Undefeated,” making it the new black girl anthem we never knew we needed.