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UAA Conversations About Race and Racism: Frances McDonald

Frances McDonald, a third-year law student at the NYU School of Law, is a 2018 graduate of University of Chicago, where she was a four-year volleyball student-athlete. She serves as president of NYU Law’s Sports Law Association, 3L Advisor of the Black Allied Law Students Association (BALSA) and as an Article Selection Editor of the Review of Law and Social Change.

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.

Playing Volleyball with White Teammates

“My early years of volleyball shaped a lot of my views on race. I grew up in Beverly on the south side of Chicago, which is primarily Irish. I was always the only Black person on my team every year until high school. The club team had one other Black girl, who was in a different grade than me,” McDonald recalled. “My formative years as an athlete and as a Black woman all happened in those spaces. Spending all those hours with my club teammates forced me to adapt and adjust my own personality and appearances to fit in, to make people feel comfortable.”

Reflecting on those experiences now, McDonald realizes how much energy she spent adjusting her behavior and appearance. “I look back and see how tiring it was trying to fit in. It was a battle outside of the sport itself to constantly think about these things,” she described. “It is easier as a kid to think what you are doing is normal because everyone is trying to fit in, but now I understand I was not just trying to be accepted, but trying to be accepted by white people who didn’t understand me, my background, my struggles as they pertain to race, my hair and why I wore it a certain way, or even my being in public school (albeit a strong public school). All of my teammates went to essentially all-white Catholic schools.”

Her style of play also set her apart from her teammates. “I played with passion and aggression. I have spark and energy on the court that is part of my deep competitiveness. It was not seen as feminine or appropriate,” she commented. “Years later, my parents told me that other parents were concerned about the aggressive fashion by which I played the game. It made me realize that my parents had to navigate the same things I did. They didn’t want to cause any issues for me, but also wanted to stand up for me at the same time.”

McDonald did not adjust the way she played. “It was tough being the only non-white and just about the only non-blonde on the court, but I am happy I continued to play my way. I didn’t quiet myself, which helped me get through the tough times and focus on the fun of playing. I really got comfortable being around white people 24/7,” she conceded.

High School and College Volleyball

Attending William Jones College Preparatory High School in downtown Chicago and playing for Powerhouse (now Chicago Elite) Volleyball Club provided McDonald her first opportunity to play on a diverse team. “There was a big mix of people and that was a great time for me. It is the most freely I have ever played,” she recalled. “Our team joked about often being the only diverse team in the tournament space (Great Lakes Center).”

She didn’t know exactly what to expect joining the UChicago volleyball program, but she did know the team was predominantly white. She also knew her home was only 15 minutes from the university, meaning her family lived closer to her college than they did to her high school. “A lot of college was balancing playing a sport with the demands of being a student at UChicago. I was also a double major (comparative race and ethnic studies, and philosophy), worked multiple part-time jobs to help pay for school, and was on the board of multiple clubs” she explained. “That would be a lot to handle at any school, but more so at UC while feeling like an outsider on the court, in the classroom, and at parties.”

She found a similarity between trying to fit in during elementary school and college, but she saw differences as well. “It played out differently in college,” McDonald remarked. “Fitting in was typically much better (less blatant and often) in college because the women were smart. They had a lot more common sense as to what might be inappropriate to say or do. People still said and did hurtful things, but not to the same degree.”

One of the most unsettling aspects of college volleyball for her was traveling to all-white destinations. “There were tournaments where I was the only Black person. I remember going to a tournament in Wisconsin and not seeing another Black person the entire weekend. Sometimes it was more than just being uncomfortable. It didn’t always feel safe,” McDonald divulged. “Strangers stared at me in a different way in rural Wisconsin or Georgia. Of course, that’s not something I felt I could share with teammates. My mom would literally warn me to be careful in those places. I was dealing with that by myself.”

A Culture Shift in 2020

“Things that I heard all the time in school are clearly not appropriate anymore. I heard that I wasn’t “really Black” or that I was “acting ghetto” when I was always just speaking and acting normally. This was said in practice. Hearing that kind of stuff and having to dial in for the next drill was something no one else was dealing with,” she stated. “It hurt me to hear racist comments qualifying or trying to define my Blackness, but I took it in stride and never really stuck up for myself. What would I have even said at the time? It would have made me uncomfortable to say something to be honest, but I was also uncomfortable laughing along with them. There was no remedy for me at the time. I have more confidence now than I did at 18, which could have helped me trying to navigate all of that.”

“It was sad to see that a teammate being comfortable around me meant they could say racist or ignorant things. I couldn’t reconcile how we were supposed to be on the same level, playing as a team, but at the same time, you are objectively hurting me, regardless if it’s intentional.

She believes the highly publicized racial events of 2020 have helped people gain a better understanding of what racism is and the many forms it takes. “I was fortunate to be close to home. At the end of the day, I had my sisters, parents, and close friends nearby. Not everyone has that. One of the most beautiful things I have seen this year is the Black student-athletes at UChicago putting together their new organization (Black Letterwinning Athletes Coalition). I would have definitely benefited from BLAC as Black athletes at UChicago were not engaging with one another much in my class,” she reported. “Black people are completely different from one another yet end up dealing with many similar things, especially when put in the same environment, i.e., UChicago. BLAC seems so helpful and like a great support network I would have loved to be a part of.”

McDonald with her sisters

McDonald has witnessed a true change in the race landscape in athletics. “It was as if we were not allowed to talk about race on teams, in the locker room, or on campus outside of a specific class. These conversations were taboo,” recollected McDonald, who found those truths ironic at such a strong academic university. “We were learning from UChicago professors about systematic racism, how it affects all different types of groups and countries and its intricacy with history. We also learned how racism affects the media. I didn’t know about basic examples of systematic racism like mass incarceration and redlining until taking classes in my major in my sophomore year. It was disheartening to learn these things in class and then hear racist comments revealing one’s lack of education on the subject from people on the same exact campus. It took a lot of effort to learn how to deal with my own teammates and others who were as educated on racism.”

Daily Experiences Inside and Out of Classroom

“A common experience for me was walking around the UChicago area with a backpack and a burgundy winter coat, pretty indicative of a student, and having people cross the street or quickly walk into their apartment to close the door behind them when they saw me,” she described. “In the classroom, I was seen either as really smart or not smart because I was Black. Classmates were generally condescending when they initially spoke to me, particularly white males.”

McDonald faced assumptions that she got into UChicago for reasons other than her academic prowess. “When I got into UC, a high school classmate said I got in because of volleyball, assuming I wasn’t academically very successful in the school, when I was” she recounted.

“People don’t know how affirmative action works. It has turned into a whole ‘diversity’ thing, but it was specifically started for descendants of slaves as a form of reparations. Now, after being construed by the courts over the years, it has been diminished to basically nothing. White women are now the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action, yet people make assumptions about me. Now my seat is political.” What most frustrated McDonald about those presuppositions about her was how strong her academic record was. “Those making assumptions hadn’t even seen my resume. The assumptions shouldn’t matter in the first place. With all the profound educational disparities that have existed since slaves were brought here and still persist today, how could Black people consistently outscore white people on standardized tests? My great-grandparents were unable to learn how to read and write, they were sharecroppers. It is a huge accomplishment for me and my entire family line that I was going to UC,” she expressed. “I scored a 30 on my ACT, which may not be high for UC, but is high for the country. I never took my below average score to mean I didn’t deserve to be there. I killed that test, without a prep class or tutor. My resume has insane depth without a network or any connections.”

Many of her classmates spoke openly about their advantages. “White students often talked about their parents’ wealth and connections. I didn’t have that help getting there. I had to do a lot to be there,” she remarked. “I always had to be grinding and on my game because I didn’t have a security net, including generational wealth.”

The financial differences between she and many other students were often at the forefront of social activities including ones with her teammates. “Only 39% of UChicago students receive need-based aid. More than 60% of the students come from families that can potentially afford to pay $80,000 a year solely toward their child’s education. For social activities with teammates, we would do an unofficial team bonding event downtown that would be way out of my budget, but I felt compelled to go,” she explained. “I wanted to be included so I would work a closing shift at the gym to make $15 an hour to pay for that meal. The majority of my teammates were just swiping their parents’ credit cards.”

Another important issue she found that highlighted differences between Black and white students was the need for a safe environment. “Safe spaces were a huge topic at UChicago and many of my teammates didn’t realize how important they are. You really haven’t gone through anything if you can’t even conceive of how a safe space might be needed. They don’t have to require a lot of programming and structure, just a space where we can talk,” McDonald communicated. “The lack of empathy many people have is crazy to me, but they can’t get out of their own experiences. Some people argued that safe spaces don’t exist in the real world, but that is simply not true. For some people, their sorority is a safe space or even the classroom is a safe space because the space is made for them at a predominately white institution. Students of color are at a very vulnerable time in college, going through a range of things in dealing with academics, often past racial trauma, ongoing racist experiences, while usually lacking the time and tools for self-care.”

Harmful Words

“There were many jokes. Many revolved around commenting on “how dark” my skin is, but some were more silly. It was hard because people were not coming from a place of malice; they were trying to relate to me and thought that was a way to get close to me. It put me in a weird position and as I processed it, it added to my already existing trauma,” she revealed. “It was difficult having hesitancies about the people I was grinding for because of things they said. I love these people, especially my last year. I was the only senior and my teammates were particularly awesome. It is my most treasured season. I now deal with the dichotomy of the great memories and coaches who clearly cared about me, but also having been through a lot of pain and suffering.”

One comment from her first year stuck with her. “A football player told me that if I thought racism was an issue I should go back to where I came from.” He was one of my good friends and someone I had hung out with during preseason and at a fraternity. He was completely serious,” she recalled. “This is how someone who was nice to me was treating me. Plenty of people pretended like I didn’t exist. Sometimes I was blatantly ignored and just not addressed, even at parties where a lot of us were at minimum familiar with one another. It was almost like they couldn’t even pretend like I existed. That’s when I started going out with my high school friends on the weekends. I’ve seen Black people put up with a lot of nonsense to have a social circle. I had an escape route and emergency valve in my friends and family, but would I have been a loner otherwise?”

When she moved to New York City for law school, McDonald joined a reading group about New York City Politics. “I want to learn about this city, not just come and go. UChicago allows people to come and be part of a very elite school that has longstanding, consequential issues with the surrounding community. Many students learn in a bubble instead of engaging with the city and seeking solutions or volunteering their time,” she recorded. “We have these ‘brilliant minds’ that could have been helping solve problems in the community, using their education and privilege in a productive manner instead of demonizing the people who live there. I frequently heard teammates and people on campus generally say not to go South because it’s so dangerous. It frustrated me that people would say such blanket statements without a clue as to what makes up those communities or the deep history and complexity of that history, my own family being one example.

Advice for Black Student-Athletes

McDonald highly recommends finding a support system. “I don’t know how I would have lasted or flourished without the support I had from my family and in my major,” she acknowledges. “My major was so small, graduating only 12 people. We had 15-20 people at any time in a class. That environment of a small group of people having important and eye-opening discussions was perfect for me.”

Expanding her horizons in high school and college was also something she found beneficial. “Coming from a nearly all-white neighborhood, I had never met a single Latinx or Asian person until high school. My class there only had 100 people with about the same number of Black, white, Asian, and Latinx students so it was a very specialized bubble,” she noted. “It was very fun for me to finally learn about non-white people’s issues in an academic setting in college. Racism is insidious everywhere, and it plays out very uniquely in different cultures and different countries.”

Most of all, she would suggest Black student-athletes use their voice. “Speak up and be empowered to speak up,” McDonald recommended. “Center yourself, your experiences, and your comfort over making other people comfortable. I had conditioned since I was a very small child trying to navigate racist situations to not speak up to defend myself. Instead, I internalized what I went through and I learned responses that are deemed appropriate by whiteness to not draw attention. Now I have to go out of my way to deconstruct that and work against it.”

She thinks back to things she did to fit in that caused self-harm, sometimes literally. “Growing up playing with white players, I would wear pre-wrap in my hair and do other things that were damaging to my hair like leaving it in a ponytail forever. That lasted all the way through college. By college my hair was so damaged and broke off a lot,” she recalled. “To assimilate, the cost was seriously damaging my hair. I did things I shouldn’t have done just to be accepted, because I didn’t want anyone to say anything about my natural hair and the various forms it takes. I didn’t want to bring any attention to it so that I wouldn’t have to hear any ignorant comments or questions. My sisters told me that I let people live in my head rent free and instead I should just be myself. It is important to make decisions based on what you want rather than how you think you will be perceived. That is something I did not start truly doing until I got to New York.”

Role of Allies

“Don’t expect people of color to teach you. At UChicago, there are plenty of classes about race from colonization to Black Chicago that you can take. They are hard classes, but very rewarding. Use your many electives to learn about the fabric of the country, what it was built on, and how those things still exist,” she suggested. “It is hard to read about these kinds of issues and a lot of my classmates struggled (emotionally) to read it, but that doesn’t absolve the duty to know what is going on.”

Through internships, McDonald took her own advice about exploring what you don’t know, working in wrongful conviction, criminal justice policy reform, and police reform spaces. “That work is very hard, but I have the duty to do my very small part in moving the movement forward, to help effect some change, and to bring people some measure of happiness if possible,” she explained. “White people also have that duty and role. Every person in this country should be doing something. The problems of this country were not created by Black and brown people. Reading and being anti-racist is a great step, but what are you going to do to move things forward?”

Just as she encourages Black student-athletes to speak up, she asks allies to do the same. “Don’t let things go unsaid. I could tell that sometimes others were uncomfortable when I was, but they didn’t say anything. You don’t have to do it in front of everyone, but say something,” she expressed. “Shoulder some of the burden. Listen to what people around you are saying. Also listen to the grievances so you can support them.”

That support does not always require talking about race. “Sometimes support is just saying, ‘I am here for you.’ I could have used that kind of person when I was playing. If your team is almost all white, and there is an uncomfortable situation, ask your Black teammate how they are feeling,” she suggested. “They may or may not share at that moment, but at least they know that you care. Sometimes I would not have any specific issues, but then something changed my mood or feeling of safety. Simply asking me how I was doing would have made me feel more secure, like someone had my back.”

Role of Teammates and Teams

“Locker room time is a chance to be the most comfortable with your teammates, but it is also when some of the worst behavior comes out. I heard the way they talked about Black people and the way they fetishized Black men, which was really shocking. People tried to relate to me by asking me to teach them how to dance or twerk. It was harmless, but it follows the stereotype that all Black people know how to dance and now you’re asking me to essentially perform for you,” she described. “It is important not to generalize rap music or assume that your Black teammates know every rap song. I listen to plenty of different kinds of hip hop/rap music with quite a few of the artists talking about things most white people would not understand. The stereotypes that play out in the locker room illuminates how people don’t afford Black people individuality. Everything with Black people is seen as monolithic.”

McDonald with her teammates on her Senior Night at UChicago

McDonald believes the dethroning of these views begins with a simple act. “Stand up for your teammate of color, put these false ideas to bed. Do it even if you don’t have a teammate of color. People aren’t saying these things to be hurtful. They don’t think it is wrong so start by telling people that the things they are saying are an issue. I realize that is hard to do. I let it happen too,” she disclosed. “Group think can happen easily on teams. Be the person who does say something. It could be as simple as, ‘Come on guys, you really don’t know anything about the people who live here so let’s not make blanket statements (Chicago for example).’ You do have to pick your battles as a person of color or even as an ally. Some things were so offensive that I couldn’t say anything. When something was said about my skin color as if it is bad or dirty, it would honestly paralyze me in the middle of the practice. I couldn’t even stand up for myself at that point, but maybe someone else could have.”

“To have each other’s back on the court we should be comfortable talking about things that are sensitive. People either don’t realize or just forget that microaggressions and explicit racism is hard for people to experience. It is simply not possible to say something every time. You are almost dehumanizing me if you think what you say doesn’t (or shouldn’t) affect me as if I am not human,” McDonald narrated. “Have empathy for your teammate, think about what you say and the harm it might cause someone in the room. Think about the potential consequences of what you say, particularly if it is based in ignorance or stereotypes.”

She was particularly saddened to see this senior class not have a volleyball season. “The current senior class at UChicago made my whole senior year (when they were first-year players), it was the most fun year I had playing. They are all excellent women who care about and are abreast of important issues no matter who else is in the room. It was so refreshing and I was so happy to know they would be the ones continuing to shape UChicago volleyball.”

Role of Coaches

“The reality is that if part of your team doesn’t feel safe, they won’t play to the best of their ability. They can’t always dial in and compartmentalize things that are so invasive to their being. For me, most of the time it was about surviving, particularly when I was triggered.” McDonald vocalized. “As a coach, you can’t change the composition of the crowd, control what everyone says or be able to do anything about how a player of color is feeling as a result, but you can make sure they feel supported. That is one less layer of worrying and makes it easier for the student-athlete to focus.”

She believes coaches play an instrumental role individually. “Coaches have to be comfortable with being told they are being insensitive or that they said something ignorant. It takes a lot for a player to say something to any coach, let alone a head coach,” she articulated. “If you have a true open-door policy, you care about reconciling the situation without regard to playing time. Set up that space ahead of time. Use that space for when incidents do occur as well; maybe someone isn’t comfortable checking a teammate but is comfortable telling you behind closed doors. The space will more likely be utilized if it is clearly made known to the team that it is available.”

McDonald was fortunate to have a supportive head coach in Sharon Dingman. “Sharon believes that if each student-athlete is in a good place, our team is better off. Sharon cared deeply about volleyball, but also about me as a whole person,” she recalled. “The head coach has a responsibility to make sure that each player feels supported by the team and coaching staff with attention to the fact that many Black student-athletes do not. The reality is that when this support is given, those student-athletes are going to play at their best.”

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Timothy Farrell
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Photos courtesy of Frances McDonald and University of Chicago Athletics