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UAA Conversations About Race and Racism: Bianca Smith

Bianca Smith, who served four years as director of baseball operations and graduate assistant coach at Case Western Reserve University while earning her law degree and MBA, was recently named a minor league coach in the Boston Red Sox organization, becoming the first Black woman coach in professional baseball. A 2012 Dartmouth College graduate, Smith served as an assistant coach at the University of Dallas in 2018 and an assistant coach/hitting coordinator at Carroll University. She has interned with Major League Baseball, the Cincinnati Reds, and the Texas Rangers.

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.

Experiences Shaped Views on Race

“I think one of the first times I was really aware how my race impacted my athletic journey was as a senior in high school. We traveled to another school and the opposing coach asked if ran track. I was confused at first before realizing that most of the African-American girls on our team in the past few years had been recruited from the track team for their speed,” Smith described. “I told him no, but he didn’t believe me. He insisted I was a track recruit to the point that he physically pulled me around to look at the sport that was sewn into the back of my letter jacket (softball). I finally told him that I had never run track (I actually hate running) before he finally walked away.”

Being a Black softball player at Dartmouth was another awakening for her. “I was aware not just that I was the only African-American on my team, but I was pretty sure I was one of the first, if not the first, ever in the program. At least, I had never seen another African-American player in any of the team photos prior to my first year. It really made me realize just how few people of color are in the game,” she divulged.

Smith with her brother Trey, father Victor, stepmother Tracy, brother Reggie, and sister Rachel

Smith was even more impacted by what she faced as a Black student. “I grew up in a white community, so I was already a minority, but I also took advanced courses with very few African-Americans. Going to Dartmouth, I faced a lot of accusations that I was only accepted because of affirmative action. This was despite the fact that I had skipped a grade, hade taken advanced classes since the second grade, took 11 AP (Advanced Placement) classes since my sophomore year, had a GPA (Grade Point Average) above 4.0, and was near the top of my class,” she explained. “I finally shared these experiences with my mom who told me it didn’t matter how I got in and that graduating would show that I deserved to be there.”

She knew she was not the only one dealing with these sleights. “It was something that continued to follow me, and I know that many of my African-American classmates, who were smarter than I was, faced the same accusations throughout their college careers,” she reported. “Those experiences have made me determined to always prove that I belong because of my skills and ability rather than as the ‘token diversity hire.’ Unfortunately, it is true that people of color have to work harder because the initial thought is always that a person of color was hired to fill a quota or as a public relations stunt. We constantly have to prove that we actually worked for what we achieved and that we had to work harder than our white counterparts.”

Misconceptions and Stereotypes

Smith can run off a series of misconceptions she has heard over and over: “That I like rap, I can play basketball, I like fried chicken and Kool Aid, that I use ‘Ebonics,’ I can dance freestyle, I ran track, I don’t tan or burn so I don’t need sunblock. There is always something,” she expressed. “None of these are really harmful, but they do allow people to think they know me without actually getting to know me. I actually don’t listen to rap, but prefer alternative, country, J-pop, and musical soundtracks. I’m terrible at basketball and don’t even watch it. I tend to stay away from fried foods, think Kool Aid tastes like sugar water, can only do choreographed dances, and actually do burn in the sun.”

Smith with her sister Rachel, brother Bobby, and stepfather Bob

She believes stereotypes prevent people from getting to know those who don’t look like them. “I’ve been told that I speak properly as if it is a surprise. Telling a person of color that they sound white is just one example. People of color deal with comments like this regularly like people making assumptions about their family’s economic status, confusing them with someone of the same/similar ethnicity, even assuming someone’s ethnicity (not all Black people are descended from slaves or are African-American, Chinese and Japanese are different ethnicities, Mexican is not the same as Spanish, Native American culture is not all the same, etc.),” Smith commented. “Joking about any stereotype with a person of color is inappropriate unless you know that person REALLY well. Most importantly, it is harmful to use generalities when you are trying to get to know someone.”

Coaching at Primarily White Institutions

“Compounded by the state of our country recently, it can be hard to bring up the issue of race when you’re the only minority coach, especially as an assistant coach,” she revealed. “It can also be difficult to advocate for recruiting minority players. Not all minority athletes are comfortable going to a predominantly white school. You want to be a resource for them, but you also want them to be comfortable with their team as well. Unfortunately, when white players grow up playing without people of color as teammates, they don’t always know how to interact with them in college. That is the case for many white baseball players.”

Smith served as hitting instructor at Carroll University prior to being hired by the Boston Red Sox

For non-white coaches, Smith advises finding others who share the same experiences. “Seek out other coaches of color, even those not in your sport, and build a network. There are not many of us, but we’re out there and are the only ones who understand what it is like to be an ethnic minority in coaching,” she vocalized. “You need someone in your corner or to just to be a sounding board when you have issues. Don’t give up. It is a long road to becoming a coach and even longer for a person of color. Use every opportunity you can to gain experience and build your resume. Never stop learning and asking questions, even after you get the job.”

Role of Allies and Teammates

“Be ready to be uncomfortable. Trust me, it’s uncomfortable for us as well because many people of color are raised to not ‘make a fuss.’ If you see something, say something. Being a true ally doesn’t mean offering silent support, it means actively taking a stand,” Smith expressed. “Stay open-minded and don’t get defensive. You have to actually be willing to believe what a person of color says, even if you’ve never directly seen racial issues at play. Your experience will never be the same and you just need to accept that. Often times you can’t fix something immediately, but you can be supportive and non-judgmental.”

Photos: L: Smith coaching in the CWRU dugout; R: Smith with CWRU head coach Matt Englander at Progressive Field in 2017

Smith recommends that teammates act in the same way. “Call out racism when you see it. Teammates will joke about stereotypes and it may see harmless, but by joking about them, they are kept around. That is part of how systemic racism works,” she remarked. “It’s not fun to call out your teammate, but it is worse to let the behavior carry on. Be willing to talk about why those stereotypes are harmful and shouldn’t be a joke. Student-athletes of color need to be willing to not only talk about the harm caused, but also be patient with their white teammates whose experiences are different.”

Role of Coaches

“Coaches must call out and address racist comments or actions when they hear it or see it. Going further, they can talk to their team every year. Have the difficult conversations whether you have minority players or not. Our job as coaches isn’t just to develop athletes on the field, but to develop members of society off the field,” she stated. “Student-athletes are going to interact with people of color after graduation and if there is anything that we can do to educate our athletes to better those future interactions, we should do so, starting with just addressing that there are issues.”

The tweet sent out by the Boston Red Sox on January 5, 2020

Smith notes there are multiple ways a team can help accomplish these goals. “Focus some community service projects in minority communities, give your student-athletes exposure to people of color, particularly if you do not have minority players. Get your players out of their social comfort zone,” she suggested. “If you do have minority players, truly get to know them. Let them know they can come to you with any issues, even if it involves the team. Players need to be able to come to their coach with any problem without the fear of being ridiculed, ignored, or judged.”

Created By
Timothy Farrell
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Photos courtesy of Bianca Smith and Case Western Reserve University Athletics