Kris Powell is in his sixth season as the University of Chicago assistant coach with the men’s and women’s tennis programs. A native of Chicago, he was ranked in the top-100 in the Midwest on the junior circuit and now also works as a coach at XS Tennis, where he trained as a junior player. Powell competed as a student-athlete at Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black college and university.
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.
Growing up in Chicago
Powell was born in the historic southside community of Bronzeville, which is often referred to as the “Black Metropolis” and includes the Bronzeville Walk of Fame, honoring significant contributors to the African-American community in Chicago.
“I remember the school across the street from where I lived was closed. My parents did what they had to do to get me into a more affluent area, but I always wondered what happened to those other kids,” Powell pronounced. “Schools have closed in the south side since I was young. Police, not schools, get so much funding in those communities. Who is really benefitting from that?” The Chicago Police Department’s 2020 budget is $1.8 billion with another $153 million set aside for settlement cases.
“Chicago is a very segregated city. I know my mom was chased out of Canaryville (a predominantly Irish-American community) so we were not allowed to go through there,” he described. “Systems are allowing for the violence in Chicago. Projects are dismantled and people are displaced. I had cousins who had to join gangs to avoid getting beat up on their way to school. That was their method of protection. The police milk the chaos that has been created.”
“The things I saw growing up influenced where I chose to attend college. I could have gone to Marquette or Iowa, but I wanted to go to a historically Black college. I was in a fantasy for four years there,” he recollected.
Powell at Prairie View A&M
Competing in a Predominantly White Sport
Although he spent most of his youth in Chicago, he started playing tennis at a summer sports camp in Memphis. “I did well in other sports, but when it came to tennis, I’d launch the ball out of the court,” he laughed. “One of the camp counselors told me that in order to be good, I needed to take lessons. I told my parents I was interested and from there, I kept playing.”
Soon after, he experienced blatant racism. “I had a young coach and one time when I was hitting, he called me over, saying, ‘Come here, boy.’ My parents had warned me about this stuff,” he explained. “I thought he was a cool coach, but that really shaped my perception of white people. I became very skeptical and less trusting.”
He would often be the only Black player in junior tournaments, though he learned quickly that he could predict his first-round opponent if there was another Black player. “If there was another Black guy, I played him first. It happened three times in a row with Mandela Shepherd (who went on to play at Western Illinois University),” he recollected. “You sense a lot of things as you get older that you may not have noticed as a kid.”
Prairie View A&M won its conference championship in 2010 to qualify for the NCAA Division I Men’s Tennis Championship where it faced Texas A&M in the opening round. “There was a huge thunderstorm. Ole Miss was playing on the other side. The staff dried all of their courts, but only three of ours,” recalled Powell, who also remembered an incident with the police while in college. “We were driving to Walmart and a cop car was following us for 15 minutes. My teammate was nervous and we just knew we would be pulled over for some alleged violation. We pulled into a parking lot with a lot of cameras and were talking with a Hispanic cop, while a white cop was searching the car. That was a total violation of our rights.”
Powell playing at Prairie View A&M
Some things people said during his tennis career were explicitly racial, while others were more nuanced. “I would often get asked how I got to play tennis. I tried to tune out a lot of things, but then wondered a couple minutes later what they were really saying,” he commented.
When UChicago tennis travels, the student-athletes get in the van(s), which the coaches park near the Ratner Athletics Center. “We park our vans on the sidewalk, where our players load up their equipment. In spite of me being there with tennis racquets, I have had interactions with the UC police,” Powell mentioned. “One time, a policeman parked illegally, obstructing traffic, just to come over to me. He quickly jogged over with what I perceived as a clear attitude. I had to work out in my head what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. He claimed to be doing his due diligence.”
He vividly recalls what he calls a ‘creepy discussion’ while recruiting in Florida in 2018. “I was talking with this guy who seemed like a great upstanding citizen of this country. All of a sudden, he starts telling me that there will be race riots in March,” he described. “He told me to take a flight and go somewhere else before it happened. It made me wonder if someone was agitating a race war.”
Powell acknowledges that one racial incident in particular in the UChicago program occurred, but that it provided an opportunity for deeper conversations. “We had a couple players do something racist in a group Snapchat that wasn’t addressed until one of the other players showed it to his girlfriend, who showed it to a Black player on our women’s team,” he chronicled. “Another time, one of our players said that his parents ‘don’t want him to come home with a Black woman.’ His teammates were upset that he said that, but I was glad. It gave us the opportunity to talk about real issues.”
He is encouraged by head coach Jay Tee and his approach to race. “Jay really understands all the dynamics and has done a great job of recruiting a diverse team. Our team looks different than most teams,” he stated. “He is about implementing change through his actions. He is willing to help in any way he can.”
Powell with UChicago tennis head coach Jay Tee
One of the ways Powell tries to protect himself from harassment is by displaying a tennis racquet as much as possible. “I went to a gun range for the first time. Within two minutes of leaving, I was pulled over. I keep a tennis racquet in my back window on purpose. It helps, but I don’t want to have to keep doing that,” he remarked. “My rights are being alienated being pulled over for no reason other than that I am Black. I shouldn’t have to comply. What white supremacists consider a ‘right’ to protest with guns would be a death sentence for me.”
Any interaction with police is an unwelcome one. “I don’t even look cops in the eye. I just walk the other way. There is no community or neighborhood the way that policing is done,” he articulated. “Police only respond to crime. We want to reallocate those massive funds and put them in different avenues. We want to see communities being helped instead just of being benefitted from through mass incarceration.”
Systemic and Political Issues
“People are making money off the carceral system, not trying to solve the issues. Policing has been intertwined with capitalism since slavery,” Powell said. “From the federal government’s ‘War on Drugs,’ Bill Clinton battling for middle-class white people, and the imperialist agenda of George Bush, non-white people have been marginalized. These same constructs were used to disadvantage Italian and Irish people until they got under the umbrella of whiteness.”
Powell had high hopes when Chicago’s own Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. “My mom saw him frequently, as he lived a block away, and my godmother knew Michelle (Obama) since they were both Black lawyers,” he announced. “Then he implemented more of the Bush agenda using drone bombings in foreign countries. There was still a lot of gerrymandering (changing the electoral boundaries to favor one political party), and higher interest rates for Black business and home loans that happened in previous administrations. We have the data on how unfair the system is, but people have been too conditioned to be prejudiced to pay attention or care.”
Powell believes the victimization of Black people through U.S. policies is systemic. “MLK (Martin Luther King, Jr.) ‘played by the rules’ and was betrayed so he became more radicalized until he was murdered. The FBI murdered (Chicago Black Panther Party Chairman) Fred Hampton,” he explained. “There is a recurring theme. Poor people from all walks of life are being marginalized. Poor white people are not specifically oppressing Black people. It is the system that is doing that to all of us.”
Powell coaching during a match
Despite comparable marijuana usage rates, Black people are up to 10 times more like to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. (A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform). “I have cousins in jails for marijuana, which people are now legally making money from. We can’t build a family unit when you are incarcerating our fathers for things they shouldn’t be in prison for,” he expressed.
“It is also hard to think of bringing a child into this world and subjecting them to racism and police violence like Tamir Rice (12-year-old killed by police in Cleveland).”
In 2014, Powell traveled to Spain to visit his then girlfriend. “There were three other Black people on the flight. All of us were taken aside by TSA (Transportation Security Administration) agents,” he voiced. “They dumped all of the stuff out of my bag and asked me if I really played tennis. I said, ‘yes and I’m left-handed like (Rafael) Nadal. I was heated, but my father and grandfather taught me to always control my temper. If I get angry, I am that ‘angry, dangerous Black man.’ I have to put a nice mask on all the time no matter what is going on. I wish I could get angry and feel a little more alive and natural. We have all been putting on two faces for a long time.”
Two years later, Powell and friends went on vacation to South Africa. “We were on a safari tour in Kruger National Park when our tour guide said, ‘You guys are so articulate. You aren’t like those n-word(s) in Jo-Berg (Johannesburg).’ We were just about to see the lions and now we just can’t wait to get out,” he recounted. “We had prepared our minds and had a suspicion something racist would be said, but weren’t ready for it to hit us like that.”
Powell in Cape Town, South Africa
One of the things that struck him during his time in Africa was the fact that in the U.S., many people refer to Black people as ‘African-Americans.’ “Yet when I am in Africa, I am a foreigner. There is a cultural piece that I can appreciate, but I don’t know which tribe I am from,” he explained. “I got frustrated as a kid when people would talk about what nationality they were. Extraordinary things happen in your mind from not knowing who you are or where you came from. I wanted to know who I was.”
He has since begun to learn about his family history and background. “I have learned to appreciate being Black more and more as I have gotten older,” disclosed Powell. “Descendants of slaves have accomplished so much, but remain unrecognized for their achievements. We are not being taught about inventors or the Black Panther Party. The educational system is intentionally disconnected from Black history. I had to learn about everyone else’s culture, but not my own. I learned from my parents and from reading books on my own.”
Powell began protesting in 2015 and was hopeful it would no longer be necessary in 2020. “The things we are protesting for will benefit all Americans, but people are rejecting the ideals. There is a scarcity mindset we have as human beings that if someone has something, it means less for others. There are actually more than enough resources,” he made known. “I don’t want to have to march in 2020. I would like to focus on other parts of my life. This is not fun for me. What I want to do is play league tennis with Jay and some of our ex-players. I realize this is a pivotal time and part of my responsibility is to fight and keep going.”
He has been encouraged by seeing multiple different groups of supporters at protests. “I am happy other people are finally seeing what has been going on, but it is a state of emergency for the Black community. We can’t wait for people to get it together and we know we aren’t going to get immediate results,” he said. “We need to support Black-owned businesses and create our own economic system by creating our own businesses, grocery stores, sports leagues, etc.”
While he believes it is important to protest, he knows many people will never find it appropriate for Black people to do so. “Kap (Colin Kaepernick) kneeled and the country had a fit and said it was disrespectful. Kneeling is respectful. We did it in Catholic school,” Powell stated. “I went to a protest this summer where I felt like a token Black guy. It was more of a misfit protest. I can relate to that with some of my hip-hop music and vagabond personality so I respond to that well, but they weren’t there for the cause. Overall, more white allies are speaking up and that wasn’t happening in 2015. We have seen protests work in Minneapolis and we know it can work. It should be ingrained in our culture that we can effect change.”
He is concerned with the media’s portrayal of the protests. “The protests were referred to as ‘riots’ even though they were overwhelmingly peaceful. There are so many forces going against us that we don’t even realize,” Powell vocalized. “One of my friends was protesting in Chicago and said it was peaceful for 3-4 hours, but as soon as the sun went down, he saw people hitting a cop car and started recording it. It was mostly white people, while anarchists and agitators were handing bricks to Black kids. We know the real story and also the spin that is shown so that rural America points to ‘those Black people’ they are told are rioting.”
“I don’t know why people are just paying attention now,” he continued. “A lot of Black soldiers could not get the GI Bill (which provides educational and job training) even though they fought on the front lines. My father’s father fought the Japanese, but a Japanese POW (prisoner of war) wanted to know why he was fighting for a place where he wasn’t free.”
Powell said he consistently deals with the dual realities of being a tall, bearded (a look he went to in 2014 to mimic that of NBA star James Harden), Black man in this society and the code-switching that Black people have become accustomed to.
“I am always ready to react even when I am just walking around. I have to constantly react to who people think I am. My parents always taught me how to face it,” he communicated. “It adds to my anxiety and is hard to speak about. It’s hard to code-switch all the time, consciously adjusting the way I talk for everyone else.”
In her opinion piece, Code-Switching is Not Trying to Fit in to White Culture, It’s Surviving It, journalist and cultural critic Ida Harris cited George B. Ray’s definition of this code-switching: “In the text, Language and Interracial Communication in the United States: Speaking in Black and White, George B. Ray describes African-American code-switching as “a skill that holds benefits in relation to the way success is often measured in institutional and professional settings.”
There is a further disconnect with some of his relatives. “People see that you play tennis and come from a middle-class background and so I am seen as the privileged cousin or ‘so uppity.’ Yet my mother is from the projects and ended up attending Stanford,” he said. “I understand that while I am coaching tennis, they are doing other things in order to survive.”
“There are not a lot of people of color on campus and that shows a bigger issue. The people who get in already have access and resources, they have the means. The university does some things to help, but there are a lot of other contributing factors,” he explained. “There are sprinkles of Black people here and there. People act like they don’t deserve to be here.”
Though there are challenges in coaching student-athletes at one of the top universities, Powell also sees benefits. “It is tough coaching kids who are pulling all-nighters and doing homework in the lobbies of hotels,” he expressed. “At the same time, excelling at tennis and doing these incredible things in the classroom shows the culture of athletes here. They want to do more and want to accomplish more. Part of the culture to get better around racial issues already exists with that mentality.”
He found the days of the pandemic that coincided with the numerous public deaths of Black people particularly difficult to handle. “One way to cope and feel better emotionally is to suppress things for a while, focus on yourself and your family. That bit of escapism wasn’t there with the constant news and videos of the deaths at the same time as not being able to just go anywhere anytime like we could before the pandemic,” he described. “Even normal interactions changed during quarantine. Where was anybody going to go? That made me on edge already and add in the racial genocide… it is a lot.”
Advice for Other Coaches of Color
“Make sure you practice self-care. For me, that meant staying in Chicago. I have my family and friends here and have that security,” he stated. “I get to see my college coach at the ITA (Intercollegiate Tennis Association) Convention and other people coaching at HBCUs. We automatically link up and get connected. It can be very lonely.”
In addition to reaching out to other Black coaches, he recommends trying to recruit more Black players, which he sees as challenging, particularly at the Division III level. “The women’s side has so many good Black players, but they are looking at Division I, not D3. On the other end of the spectrum, a lot of Black players don’t have the rankings, not going through the same system as white players.”
Role of Allies
He would like to see allies begin with family. “First thing, talk to your relatives. We all have that family member who says racist stuff all the time. Hold them accountable. Speak up,” he suggested. “You probably won’t change that person’s mind, but you could affect the minds and hearts of the younger generation. Plant some seeds as they grow up.”
He recognizes there are some complicated dynamics, especially between Asian and Black people. “It is hard seeing non-white people discriminate against us. My mom went to school in Chinatown and was followed around all the time in stores,” he recorded. “I still get followed when I go to stores there. I speak some Mandarin to put them at ease. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but I get it. We are viewed as a ‘super predator’ and as dangerous.”
On the flip side, Powell spoke about Asian support of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. Activist Richard Aoki became a field marshal with the BPP and became well-known for using the term “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power” at a rally in Oakland for jailed BPP co-founder Huey Newton.
“We have always had people of other colors supporting us. The powers to be want to divide and conquer ethnic minorities,” he remarked. “When Japanese-Americans were put in internment camps after World War II, they moved Black people into their previous housing. That caused a lot of mistrust.”
In terms of what Black people and allies can achieve together, Powell is clear. “I want real stuff, not performative stuff like taking down confederate monuments,” he announced. “I know that these things are not going to completely change in my lifetime, but I am glad they are getting more attention. We can’t be afraid to talk about race. If we don’t, it helps racism survive.”