UAA Conversations About Race and Racism: Tre Armstrong

Clarence “Tre” Armstrong III is a senior baseball student-athlete at Case Western Reserve University. He is a pre-med student majoring in nutritional biochemistry & metabolism with a minor in sports medicine. Armstrong earned UAA All-Academic recognition each of the past two seasons.

The UAA “Conversations About Race and Racism” series seeks to lift the voices of people of color and recognize the challenges faced in both athletics and academics at the collegiate level. By sharing personal stories, we hope to elevate the conversation about race to raise awareness and bring about change.

Attending Inner-City Schools

Armstrong entered into a “gifted and talented program” in the second grade. “Gifted students are put into low-performing schools to bolster test scores so the schools can receive funding to improve. As a Black child going through the program, I was put into inner-city schools where most of the students looked like me except that I was in predominantly white classes,” he described. “There was a lot of segregation and we were not integrated with other students. I was one of the only Black students in a nearly all-Black school in the program.”

That dichotomy left Armstrong in an uncomfortable space. “There was a lot of tension there for me. Both Black and white students looked at me differently. I am no different than other Black counterparts in regular education classes, but they saw me differently and treated me that way, both positively and negatively,” he remarked. “Black kids said I wasn’t one of them when playing on the playground. White friends referred to me as not Black or say I don’t act Black or aren’t like the other Black kids. That was our thought process from second to eighth grade and that showed me how deeply rooted these beliefs are.”

He used these observations to reform his behavior. “Those experiences helped me grow a lot. I started challenging people when they said I speak properly or don’t use slang,” Armstrong recounted. “I switch on and off the way I speak. I am versatile. When someone says that I act white, it has to be addressed. Sometimes people don’t realize the meaning of what they are actually saying.”

Being Black in Baseball

“Often people think I am different than other people who look like me, that I am an exception or was raised differently. A lot of times that is not the case. You want to be intertwined with your culture and embrace who you are as a person, but you have to be careful because other people draw their own conclusions,” he explained. “Being a Black player in a predominantly white sport, I have tried to just embrace the fun side of baseball. I wear a headband with the state flag. People don’t express themselves in baseball. It is ‘America’s pastime’ and expected to be played by the book. The sport may not want people to think a certain way, but I am who I am.”

Armstrong finds there is common terminology and assumptions about Black baseball players. “Black draft prospects are usually described as being raw and having great tools. When I tell people that I play baseball, they often ask if I play outfield or shortstop,” he recorded. “I am a catcher. I love to have control of the game. I have really enjoyed the last couple years.”

Carefully Choosing What to Wear

“Being located in East Cleveland, we don’t have the greatest surroundings. Often there will be a security alert description, often of an African-American individual. I fear the description makes people on edge about me,” he admitted. “When I am walking around campus late at night, I always have something that says CWRU baseball on it to show that I am a student. I am very particular about what I wear to look less threatening. It is really sad to have to think that way.”

“I wouldn’t be comfortable wearing a black hoodie so I wear a hat instead no matter how cold it is. There are a lot of freshmen on campus who may not be able to decipher who is part of campus and who is not,” he continued. “It shouldn’t matter. Just because I go to school here doesn’t mean I am different from other Black people who live around here. They are not less than me. I am not better than them.”

Being Black on a predominantly white campus also affects Armstrong’s interactions with others. “Whenever I see police officers on campus, I speak to them first so they know I am a student at CWRU. I am not giving them any problems and am always in defense mode regardless of where I am,” he narrated. “In the classroom, people ask if baseball is how I got into the school, which is racist in itself. I got in because I am intelligent. Athletics was an added bonus. I have been able to excel as much more than just an athlete.”

The Importance of Words and the Harm of Silence

“The terminology of ‘you sound’ or ‘you act’ a certain way because of your race is problematic. There are a lot of things people say that we sweep under the rug, including subtle comments about being articulate or being pretty for a Black girl. That is really detrimental. Why am I not good enough or adequate simply as a human being?” he questioned. “I have heard people say that they are white, so they aren’t good at basketball as if sports are more for Black people. We put a lot of work into these crafts and not because of our skin tone. The same is true when white people say they can’t dance. Whenever you say someone is good at something because of the color of their skin, it is a backhanded racist compliment that discredits hard work and effort.”

Armstrong notes that this is not unique to Black people. “This jargon goes further than Black and white. People assume Asian-Americans are smart and at the top of their class. There are many disadvantages with high expectations, mostly that they do not leave room for people to struggle,” he expressed.

The publicity of the police murders of Black individuals in the late spring brought a lot of issues to the forefront this year. “I started to see people’s true colors and questioned some of my friendships. Silence is something we need to pay attention to. A lot of people are uncomfortable having conversations about race, but silence on issues of this importance is detrimental,” he pointed out. “You want people to feel comfortable, but there are times they need to speak up. Some people think overt racism and racial injustice was forever ago, but that’s not true. My grandparents lived through Jim Crow. Racism is real and we may expect it to die out quickly, but that is not how it works.”

Armstrong acknowledges that he needs to do work in his own circles and that Black men need to give credit where it belongs. “Dealing with racism is deeply ingrained in our culture. Black voices are standing up all over, but I also need to hold my own friends and family accountable,” he disclosed. “It is critical that we show our concerns for all types of injustices. Black women, gay, and trans folks have always been speaking up for Black men, but we have not always spoken up for them. We need to stand up against misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia.”

Advice for Student-Athletes of Color

“As potential recruits, you want to know what campus life is about and what the coaching staff is about. Often, recruits are worried about impressing the coaches, but you can ask important questions of them around issues of race,” he stated. “If you are going to be uncomfortable on your own team and campus, you are not going to have a good experience. You will feel marginalized and not have a voice. Feel free to ask the coaching staff about these issues and see how they respond.”

The CWRU baseball program includes Black, Latino, and Asian student-athletes. “We have a diverse team. The coaching staff has brought in that diverse body of students and are advocates for them,” Armstrong remarked. “We had a Zoom call when all the protests were going on to talk about everything that was happening. We had an open forum that I led with my coach to address these pressing issues in society. That further made me feel like I chose the right place. You want to make sure that the staff and school are the right fit for you and will fight for you.”

One of the important things Armstrong has learned since arriving on campus was to be socially active in multiple ways. “Don’t be scared to be yourself. Get involved. Sometimes I wish I had been more involved in my first couple years,” he divulged. “I recently joined Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. (the oldest Black Panhellenic organization in the U.S.) and that was a major stepping point for me. I have been able to embrace my heritage and history in an organization that promotes service and advocacy. It has helped expose me to Cleveland in ways that I would not have been otherwise. Participate in organizations whose missions align with yours. It may enable you to see a different perspective and to grow in your culture and faith. It is really important to take yourself out of that student-athlete box at times.”

Role of Allies

“Allies need to look at themselves in the mirror to assess and address any issues they have. None of us address all our own issue so it takes work to look at your own biases and learn what you can do better before you begin to work outwardly,” he articulated. “Have dialogue that people are hesitant to have. Those conversations are difficult, but they are imperative to bring change and make a difference.”

Again, he points out that silence is dangerous. “People have family members and friends who say things they don’t agree with, but they won’t challenge those statements. You have to address things that are not okay,” Armstrong recommended. “Don’t be afraid to take a stance. If you lose friends for standing up for social justice, that person wasn’t meant for you in the first place and wasn’t adding positive things. Be courageous enough to take a stand. People are scared to put themselves out there. You are making a change and making a difference when you do.”

Role of Teams and Teammates

“As a student-athlete, you spend most of your time with your teammates. You travel together, eat meals together, and spend a lot of time in practice and in the locker room together. You have to embrace one another for who you are. How you dialogue with your teammates, how you say what you do, matters,” Armstrong said. “Be cognizant that what you are saying in the locker room could be offensive or detrimental to a teammate. Speak up if you are uncomfortable or if something made you feel a certain way. It is the only way you will progress and grow. It will also make your team tighter.”

Admittedly, speaking up around teammates can seem like a daunting task. “You have to put your emotions on the line if you want people to grow. Talk about pressing issues. Teams are supposed to be like a family so talk about those things with this family to make everyone feel a part of the team,” he explained. “People come from different parts of the world and country so they may not have experienced being around certain races or cultures. Be open to it and talk about differences. Ask questions instead of assuming. If you are having your first interaction with a Black or Latino person, you may have preconceived notions because of what you see on television or have been told. Sports is a great way to unite people and learn about each other.”

“We shouldn’t be all about sports all the time. ‘Shut up and dribble’ is a toxic concept. It is crucial to get away from that. Sports can be one of the best ways to make change,” he noted. “Jesse Owens (in the 1936 Olympics) fought against a Nazi regime on the track, yet wasn’t seen as equal in his own country. Sports became very influential during a bad time in history because of him. Colin Kaepernick protested and asked for feedback to navigate a way to bring attention to racism, but he was ostracized. He took a stand in a peaceful way to try to use his sport to start justice conversations. We have to be able to use sports to unite people for a cause and not shy away from it.”

Created By
Timothy Farrell


Photos courtesy of Tre Armstrong and Case Western Reserve University Athletics