In just his four short months of being alive, I can tell when my son Nico needs me. I can hear it in his cry when he just wants to be held by Mommy. Every time I hear it - it doesn’t matter what else is going on - I run to him. It makes me cringe to think that I may be slow to respond, that I may not be there exactly when he needs me. I would move mountains to make sure he never sheds a tear. His cries pale in comparison to the horror of seeing my son struggle to breathe.
Nico was born pre-maturely. He spent 8 days in the NICU and during that time I watched helplessly as my tiny, newborn baby fought for every breath. It nearly broke me.
George Floyd fought to breathe while the knee of a police officer squeezed his neck. As he gasped for air and fought to live, he called for his mother.
George Floyd died because of the color of his skin. George Floyd was once someone’s Nico.
You may be wondering what this has to do with sport. Why on a Team USA post are you reading about racial inequality and social injustice? After all, we’re athletes who represent Team USA. Shouldn’t we just stick to sports? Hopefully by the end of my story you’ll understand how impossible that task is.
These stories I share are by no means all my encounters with racism (you’ll have to wait for the book for that), but just a few short stories to share about what it’s like to be black in America.
Racial inequality cares not what uniform you’re wearing- it strikes us all, inside and outside of sport.
I was five years old when I was first called the “n-word.”
We were living in Chicago at the time and I went to the house of two of the neighborhood kids, two white boys, and asked if they wanted to play with me and the rest of the children in the neighborhood. Instead of a simple “no,” the one of the boys picked up a rock and threw it at me. The other went to pick up a stick, while his brother started yelling the “n-word” at me. I turned and ran, but the boys gave chase, continuing to hurl sticks and stones at me and repeat the racial slur. We ran past several houses, some of which the occupants saw what was happening, yet did nothing. Eventually, I got away, but as you can see, it’s a day I would never forget.
That day led to my first “the talk”- a talk that most black families are all too familiar with.
A talk that usually begins with, “some people in this world will not like you because of the color of your skin,” and then delves into what to do when the police approach you because they will. It finishes with a, “never let anyone hold you back, your skin is beautiful, and I love you.”
By the way, I am biracial. My mother is white and my father is black, but with my caramel brown skin and naturally tightly curled hair, the world has always seen me as black and therefore I’ve always seen myself the same.
In second grade my family moved to Georgia and my athletic prowess started to show. On the playground I started out pacing many of the boys. I could hold my own on the kickball field. My father was a former professional football player, so I saw my improving athleticism as a result of his genetics, but I was told otherwise.
“No wonder you’re winning- you’re black which means you have extra muscles,” confidently stated one little boy on the playground after I beat him in a race.
This would be a phrase that would be repeated throughout my sporting career. By the time my seven-year-old brain took it as truth and I went home to ask my parents to help me find my extra muscles.
Another opportunity for “the talk.”
When I first started playing softball at the age of eight I was horrible, but I quickly started figuring it out with a lot of hard work and the help of long days on the field with my parents.
As I continued to improve, I set my sights on playing shortstop; what I thought was the best position on the field.
When I expressed this to one of my coaches, I was told “Black people don’t play shortstop, you belong in the outfield.”
You see, shortstop is seen as a skilled position and from his perspective black athletes lacked the brain power for this position. This perception of black athletes would follow me throughout my career. However, from that day forward my mother started coaching me, and I would eventually earn a college scholarship as a shortstop.
I had always believed that once I reached the elite level of sport people wouldn’t care about the color of your skin.
When I entered the sport of bobsled, I realized how wrong that idea was. In bobsled, there are only a few sled manufacturers who make the fastest sleds in the world. Fortunately, in the US we have BMW and other partners to who help create our but without these partners, we would need to buy sleds from these few manufacturers.
Sled technology is huge. Races are won and lost on equipment so as pilots we are always searching for the top sleds.
As a black pilot, I’m able to buy most sleds in the world except one- and that one manufacturer currently makes one of the fastest sleds on tour. But I wouldn’t buy it even if I could.
This one manufacturer refuses to sell to black pilots and has been quoted saying “if I wanted to see a monkey drive a sled, I’d go to the zoo.”
For me, it doesn’t matter how fast he’s able to make a sled, I’d give up a gold medal before driving a sled made by him. And yet there currently sits one of these sleds in the Team USA garage, serving as a constant reminder to me where people who look like me stand in this sport.
Just prior to the Olympics, a scandal hit the bobsled community. A coach was fired for racism and sexism. One of the coaches was recorded saying several racist statements and although I didn’t race for this country and had never been coached by these coaches, my name was drug through the mud.
The basic premise was that there were no good black drivers and that black athletes needed to stay in the back of the sled as they simply lacked the mental capacity to drive. Furthermore, the coach felt the need to specifically bring up my name several times, and this after I had won an Olympic medal and two world championships as a pilot, and even earned a spot on the US Men’s team as a 4-man pilot.
Regardless of my medal tally, the color of my skin apparently was the determinant of whether or not I was a skilled bobsled pilot.
No amount of Olympic medals - or at least the ones I’ve won thus far- can save you from experiencing racism.
My husband Nic and I lived and trained for a few years in Arizona prior to moving to Colorado Springs to train at the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center. As we started on our relocation journey, we witnessed cars speeding past us. Nic always drives five miles under the speed limit due to prior run ins with police officers. In this particular section of Arizona, there weren’t many people who looked like Nic and I.
Unfortunately, his cautious driving didn’t prevent us from getting pulled over.
As we pulled to the side of the road, I quickly grabbed our licenses and registration out the glove box, placed them on the dash, and we stuck our hands up and out the window - as we had been taught from a young age.
The police officer came up to Nic’s window and asked where we were going. We told him we were moving to Colorado Springs to train at the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center as we are Olympic athletes.
He then looked into the car and said he pulled us over because our GPS was in the wrong location (I have since looked up any AZ laws about GPS location and this was untrue). He then demanded our license and registration, which we provided, before going back to his squad vehicle.
When he returned, he stated that our insurance company had called the police and said we didn’t have coverage (also untrue). He then said he was taking our license plate. He went to the back of our car, took off the license plate and then told us we could still get pulled over again because we didn’t’ have a license plate, so good luck!
We started on our way to the next DMV we could find, driving slower than ever. When we finally were able to get into the DMV office, we explained our story. The clerk looked up our plate and was baffled, none of what the officer had said was true.
Our only crime was driving while black.
Next time you get in the car, ask yourself if you feel completely confident that you’re going to get wherever it is you're going without getting pulled over simply because of the color of your skin. You may never have thought of it this way before, but THAT is a privilege that many black people don’t get to enjoy.
It ridiculous. It’s outrageous. It’s true.
I don’t share these stories searching for sympathy or to portray myself as a victim. I love the color of my skin and I’m a proud black woman.
So why am I sharing this? I think there is a misconception that racism only occurs to certain types of black people. That’s not true.
Despite your level of education or achievement, it affects us all - there is no escape.
As black athletes, race is intertwined in our sporting lives as well as our daily lives. I have been seen as ‘less than’ my entire life simply because of the color of my skin, regardless of what I’ve achieved on and off the field of play.
My job now, just like any parent, is to ensure my son has a better life than I do. Part of that is to do what I can to make a change, such that hopefully he is never judged by the color of his skin. That’s a lofty goal, but an important one to never give up on. I think it starts with sharing our stories and trying to help people understand that change is needed. If my story can prevent one person from viewing my son as a threat, then I’ll share as many stories as I can.
So now what? I have shared a few disturbing stories, thanks for reading them, but what happens now?
I want to be more than just these stories. I want to be part of driving conversation and understanding that might lead to lasting change, so I’m creating a workshop to do three things:
- Share more of these stories to raise awareness. Not only my stories, but those of others. So, if you’ve got one to share, hit me up on Instagram and let me hear it: @elanameyerstaylor
- To shine a light on the biases at the root of these stories.
- To present more inclusive, alternative behaviors in response those biases.
I believe those three things; awareness, understanding the bias, and adopting more inclusive behaviors will help bring about the changes needed such that Nico will grow into a world where he can breathe freely and live in peace.