For four years, Courtnie Williamson, a graduate back on UNC’s field hockey team, was the sole Black athlete among her teammates.
“I really felt a sense of being alone, a little bit of isolation,” Williamson said.
For most of her college career, she felt as if there wasn’t a space for her to discuss race and other social issues or express her feelings as a Black athlete on a majority-white team.
“The athlete community feels like a real small school in a sense, and spending so much time being a part of that and less time, because of it, being a part of the huge Carolina community, you feel the lack of diversity,” Williamson said.
But when Williamson started regularly meeting with other UNC athletes of color over Zoom, she realized that she wasn't alone in her feelings. The group that hosts these meetings, the BIPOC Student-Athlete Collective, aims to provide a space for athletes like Williamson to share their experiences.
The collective started back in May 2020 as protests over the police killing of George Floyd started to boil over across the country. Associate athletic director Cricket Lane, with the help of Williamson, decided to bring together UNC’s Black athletes so they could discuss their emotions during the turbulent time.
“These were all of our Black student-athletes, just to provide them a place to talk, to process what was going on,” Lane said. “I think there was obviously heightened sensitivity everywhere, so it just made sense for us to come together.”
The meetings have continued through the 2020-2021 school year and expanded to include all athletes of color, partially in response to the increased awareness of anti-Asian hate. While the group still hosts its regular discussion-based meetings, they’ve also looked for ways to turn their words into action.
“Our first meeting was quite long,” Lane said. “It was probably close to two hours of just talking, then our subsequent meetings were, ‘OK, now what are we going to do?’”
The group was instrumental in planning and promoting the athlete-organized march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in August. It's also hosted panels for teams and staff about social issues, and emphasized allyship and education initiatives.
Daniel McArthur, a white fifth-year on UNC’s track and field team, has been especially active in the collective from an allyship perspective.
“It’s really a humanity issue, it’s a social issue, it’s an ethical issue,” McArthur said. “There’s a lot of issues involved with this and it shouldn’t just be based on skin color. It should be a human issue, and I think that’s why I think allyship is so important to me.”
Lane said it was important to have this space for athletes of color because of the unique challenges that they face, as well as the influence that they hold over the campus community.
“I think student-athletes have a platform that many Black students on campus don’t have, and they can use that platform to help draw awareness to things that are going on,” Lane said. “There are certain things that Black students are dealing with that other students don’t have to, and I think that’s multiplied when you’re a student-athlete.”
Inspired by her work with the collective, Williamson helped launch Beyond Our Game with a Black field hockey player from Duke, Darcy Bourne. This company helps provide career services for collegiate athletes in minority communities. Williamson said the BIPOC Student-Athlete Collective was a launchpad for her own personal activism.
“I know it’s been a huge area of support for me in just trying to find out how I can be the change that I’m hoping for,” Williamson said.