UAA Conversations About Race and Racism: Temilade Adekoya

Temilade Adekoya is a junior pre-med neuroscience major and volleyball player at University of Chicago. She is an executive board member of the University of Chicago Student National Medical Association — Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students (SNMA-MAPS) and is a member of the school’s Black Letterwinning Athlete Coalition (BLAC), which was founded in June 2020.

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.

Club and High School Volleyball

Growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago, Adekoya began playing volleyball in the fourth grade. “At some point during sixth grade, I was showing some potential and a referee told my mother I was really good and asked if I had thought about playing club volleyball,” she recalled. “I joined a club and was one of two black people on my team, the other being my best friend who is also nicknamed Temi. We felt like we didn’t fit in. Coming from diverse elementary to junior high schools, this predominantly white volleyball team was flipped from our regular experiences. We stood apart from the other girls and it was hard to make friends. They went to the same school, they lived in the same towns, and they were already friends. It was kind of uncomfortable, especially when the girls were looking at my hair when I had braids.”

Her other best friend joined her on the club team the following year. “We car pooled together and it was better having her there. The three of us really started to see things differently in how those from different environments treated us,” she explained. “We would tell the other girls, ‘No, don’t do that’ or ‘Don’t say that’ when they did inappropriate things. They acted like we didn’t have the right to tell them how to act or what they can or can’t say. It felt like us against them.”

Adekoya (R) with her best friends Nailah Jones (L) and Temitayo Thomas-Ailara (C)

Having Nailah as her teammate made things better, but certainly didn’t stop the consistent microaggressions. “There were so many prejudices that I was aware of, but I didn’t expect to experience them as much as I did,” Adekoya explained. “The girls and their moms were racially insenstive. Our teammates would sing songs with the n-word and not think anything of it.”

High school volleyball brought its own set of challenges. “One time the team was free serving and the coach split us up by skin color, claiming it was so it would be less racially segregated,” Adekoya explained. In addition to the emphasis placed on race during practice, Adekoya garnered a lot of attention at her high school because her friend and teammate was also nicknamed Temi. “We both had Nigerian immigrant parents and had the same nickname so the local historic newspaper wrote a story on us. “It was so blown out of proportion and didn’t make any sense,” she laughed.

Adekoya and her family at her high school graduation

On a more serious note, she continued to deal with multiple issues with club teammates. “They acted any way they wanted to and knew they could get away with it because of their privilege. At one point in high school, I even considered quitting volleyball,” she revealed. “I wasn’t getting any better as a player and was always being compared to the white girls, who were good, but not great. Temi was five times a better player and she should have been the example of what we should strive to become. It is really important to see someone successful who looks like you, like (former University of Texas standout and U.S. national team member) Destinee Hooker, who was one of the few Black players I really looked up to when I started playing club.”

Being a Black Student-Athlete at Predominantly White Institution

“In the summer of 2018, I came for a camp at UC, where the current players help out. I asked a player if I could talk to her,” Adekoya disclosed. “She was the only Black player on the team at the time and immediately she knew that is what I wanted to talk to her about. I was expecting it to be like club and had concerns. She told me the women on the team were very educated and respectful. That helped me a lot.”

Once she started preseason practices, she was completely focused on volleyball. “Practice was so fast that I never once had time to think about me as a Black person. I was not expecting that speed and we hit the ground running,” she related. “The first time we played Emory, I understood why we worked so hard and fast. I was impressed by the way they jumped and swung. I liked the competition immediately.”

While it is an important part of her life, Adekoya is not only in college to play volleyball and the environment she is in as a student warrants the same scrutiny as those on the court. UChicago is on the quarter system so classes were still in session when George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020. “The Black Lives Matter movement and protests were dominating the news. It is psychological warfare seeing Black people being brutally murdered by police. That does something to Black minds. You start wondering, ‘Am I next?’ This was all going on near the end of our quarter,” Adekoya recalled. “The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) students were unfairly given two times as much work in the middle of a pandemic and civil rights movement.. It felt very unfair. They professors were not considering how this was affecting their Black students.”

The Role of Coaches and Teammates

Although Adekoya knows of student-athletes whose coaches were silent during this time, she was fortunate to have her coaches reach out to her. “My coaches stood with me as a Black athlete, Black student, and Black woman.”

Some of her teammates did not contact her as the country was embroiled in protests. “I addressed that. I told them, ‘I love you and ride with you, but I am not feeling that energy. You may not want to be part of uncomfortable conversations, but my life is uncomfortable as a Black woman,’ she explained. “I just wanted them to be more aware. It was not purposeful and people may not be aware until it is pointed out. My teammates were not defensive at all. All our women are open to being educated. (Head Coach) Sharon (Dingman) made it clear that it was not my job to educate them. Emma (Griffith) and I put together a book club on the team, reading So You Want to Talk About Race (by Ijeoma Oluo).”

2019 UChicago volleyball team

Adekoya is confident her team would be standing up for Black Lives Matter even if she were not on the team. “100 percent this team would be doing this if I wasn’t there. Hopefully other teams would be as well. I think this will lead to future conversations that maybe I didn’t feel as comfortable talking about in the past,” she said.

Griffith serves as president on the executive board of the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) at UChicago and invited Adekoya to attend a meeting. “I went and now I am on the executive board. I watched these women and knew I could be a part of that,” she relayed. “We can facilitate more conversation about race through the WAA and The Order of the C (the men’s undergraduate varsity group).”

Another important step was the formation of the Black Letterwinners Athlete Coalition, founded by a football student-athlete. “We came together as Black athletes and shared how similar our experiences have been here. I couldn’t relate to what all the other student-athletes were going through, but it was helpful for everyone to hear others’ stories.”

“Hopefully teams will have these important conversations going forward. Being on a team is very important, but for some Black student-athletes, it also hurts,” she described. “It can be very difficult if you are not around people who support you off the court, field, or pool. It is always on my mind. ‘Where do you stand when I don’t have my jersey on?’”

Harm in What Others Say or What They Don’t Say

“One of the most common things I have heard is ‘You talk like a white girl’ or ‘You don’t talk Black.’ This reflects institutional, not just personal, racism,” Adekoya communicated. “There is no such thing as speaking white. You are associating speaking white with speaking well. What do you define as speaking Black?”

On dreadlocks: “Dreadlocks are your hair. Society wants you to believe that only the way white people dress and wear their hair is professional,” she expressed. “People all of a sudden like Black culture. White people want to wear dreadlocks now. How do you leach off Black culture and not stand up for our lives?”

Being Late: “Those of us with international parents sometimes joke about them always being late. That is different from assuming I am late because I am Black,” said Adekoya, who spent a lot of time in Chicago traffic to get to club volleyball. “On a good day, it would take 50 minutes to get to the club after school. That meant I arrived at practice 20 minutes after it started. That had nothing to do with me being Black.”

Overt Comments: “In my freshman year of high school, a girl asked my friend why her lips were so big,” she recounted. “Another person asked me how I tanned my skin to get it the color it is. Instead of taking the time to discover what they are doing wrong, white people retain the privilege of not talking about it.”

Beyond the comments, it is the failure to speak up that Adekoya finds the most harmful. “The main thing that hurts is when someone refuses to self-educate or remains silent when they have Black people in their lives, especially Black people they say they care about,” she explained.

Adekoya Notices Other Disturbing Actions Around Race

1. Not checking on your Black friends/teammates/players during major racial events

2. Making yourself the subject even though you are not the topic

3. Refusing to have the conversations because they make you uncomfortable

4. Not wanting to talk because you don’t want to get into an argument. Why would you get in an argument talking about race?

“You are for or against Black Lives Matter. There is no in between. If you are against it, you are detrimental to my life. I will do what I need to survive and don’t want to be with you,” she pronounced. “I have to know if you support my Black life and other Black people who you do not know. You can’t say you care about Black lives because you care about me. Believe the Black Lives Matter movement. It is not that complicated.”

Advice for Other Non-White Student-Athletes

“To any non-white student-athlete coming in, your life is important and no one else’s is more important. Everyone is equal,” she stated. “You are important. It is okay to set boundaries early. Coming into a PWI, there will always be forces against you. You can work through those and there are resources for you, some open or promoted to you, and others you may have to find yourself.”

For Adekoya, one of the keys has been turning to other students who are not athletes. “Look for other students who look like you. I rely heavily on the Minority Association of Pre-Med Students (SNMA-MAPS),” she recorded. “It is great being on that board with people of color and especially those who are Black. As POC we face many of the same stigmas, but there are experiences that are wholly unique to Black people, and prejudice that can come from non-Black POC, as well. I love to be part of a program that has to do with my career goals with people who look like me and share similar goals.”

Adekoya with fellow members of the 2019-2020 SNMA-MAPS Executive Board

What Allies Can Do

“How will you use your privilege to lift Black voices? The most important way to know what to do is to listen. If you listen and ask questions, you will understand how you can keep from contributing to institutional racism in the future even if you didn’t know you were,” she commented. “Raising up your voice means not victimizing and centering yourself. This situation involves you, but it is not about you. Those are two very distinct things.”

Adekoya points out that it is imperative for allies to understand what has been normalized is not necessarily correct. “You need to be open to realizing what you consider the norm or what you have gone your life thinking is normal is something you need to deconstruct. You have to be willing to deconstruct or you are helping it grow,” she explained. “Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter. If that bothers you, you have to consider why having the spotlight on anyone but you is a problem for you.

Adekoya stresses that the most important thing an ally can do is to make a lasting difference in whatever their passion and/or sphere of influence is. “If you are going into the medical field, for example, make sure that Black patients and patients of color get the correct and necessary treatment. Learn what melanoma looks like on darker patients,” she modulated. “It is scary to deal with those problems that should not be problems. People of color go to the hospital to get better, but worry that they may get worse because of the color of their skin.”

“If you ask for information and we direct you to resources, actually go to those resources. Don’t be performative. Don’t do things so your Black friends can say you are a great ally,” she added. “Do things because you actually care about the injustices going on in the world. Act because you want to contribute to the change happening right now.”

Created By
Timothy Farrell


Photos courtesy of Temilade Adekoya and University of Chicago Athletics