June 15, 2020 

George Washington players, assistant coach discuss systemic racism

“It's our responsibility to have those uncomfortable conversations,” says GW's Mayowa Taiwo.

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Note: These conversations took place before Rayshard Brooks, a Black man and father of four children, was killed by police last Friday night in Atlanta.

Mayowa Taiwo (left), Essence Brown (center), and Neila Luma (right) spoke to The Next about racism, police brutality, and recent protests. (Photo credit: GW Athletics)

Ever since George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis on May 25, Essence Brown, a rising sophomore guard at George Washington University, has felt “overwhelmed, frustrated, scared. Like, scared for everybody and scared for my brothers.”

Assistant coach Ganiyat Adeduntan described her own mix of feelings: “anger, disgust, and then just a feeling in my gut where I just feel sad.”

“[It’s] been really challenging to see those videos and to read these stories,” rising redshirt junior Neila Luma reflected, “because it’s really sad and it’s really frustrating, but it’s important to keep being informed.”

“It’s overwhelming and very real,” said rising redshirt sophomore Mayowa Taiwo.

Growing up, Luma and Taiwo attended predominantly white schools where topics such as civil rights, Black history, and police brutality were rarely discussed. But all four women remember several talks with their parents about racism and being Black in America.

For Luma, the conversations began when she was about seven years old and her family moved from a majority-Black neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, to a majority-White part of Pennsylvania. For Brown, whose mother is White and father is Black, they started around age ten, when she began to notice that people looked at her differently when she was with one parent or the other.

Adeduntan recalled the message her own parents shared with her starting around sixth grade: “No one’s ever going to be [able] to tear you down because you’re going to know what to do, what to say, how to act. Because you’re going to be smart, you’re going to be tactful … You’re never going to be an aggressor, you’re not gonna be angry, [and] you’re gonna approach it in the right way.”

They stressed that getting an education was “the best way to fight” prejudice, and Adeduntan took that to heart, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing as a student-athlete at Florida State and her doctorate in nursing practice from Northeastern.

When the coronavirus crisis forced George Washington to move all classes online in March, Adeduntan stayed in the DC area, while Luma, Taiwo, and Brown went to their families’ homes in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, respectively. WebEx calls became a frequent mode of communication for the team, and racial injustice and civil rights have been the focal point of conversation lately.

“It was very emotional but very important to hear everyone’s voice,” Luma said.

After Floyd’s death, Adeduntan, the only Black member of the coaching staff, reached out to her Black players right away. She wanted to let them know she was there for them, and she shared some of her own experiences growing up in Georgia.

“There’s no better way to have a connection with someone than to be in very similar or same shoes,” she said.

While all three players said that the entire coaching staff is supportive and easy to talk to, they acknowledged the impact of their conversations with Adeduntan. “She understands what it is to be a Black woman in America,” Luma said, “and it’s just really good to know that you have that support, especially on staff.” Brown added that Adeduntan’s presence on the coaching staff and the diversity on the roster were things she noticed and considered during the college recruiting process.

Adeduntan was initially nervous about how the conversations with the staff and the entire team would go and how much she would have to drive them forward, but her fears were quickly assuaged. She has appreciated her colleagues’ words, actions, and empathy and seen her players respond positively as well.

“It was important for our Black players to feel like they had a platform to speak up and our White players to be able to understand … some of their fears,” Adeduntan said. “And then to hear our White players fully be engaged in empathizing with them, and some of the things that they said really saddened me, but also made me hopeful. … They want to be a part of the change.”

On June 12, the program took a step forward by releasing a statement on social media. It pledged to create an anti-racist culture, continue to educate within and outside the program, vote and encourage others to vote, and “be productive with our speech” to encourage change.

“It’s our responsibility to have those uncomfortable conversations,” Taiwo told The Next, “and … we’ve been talking with each other.”

Brown added, “Having all of our teammates right now standing by us and making statements or signing petitions or just telling us that they … want to be part of the change, it does make you feel just a little less powerless.”

Thousands of other groups and individuals have also made statements in the news or on social media. This has contributed to all three student-athletes feeling “overwhelmed” at times, but it has also been a powerful way to hear from allies around the world.

Some of the statements that left lasting impressions included Barack Obama’s Medium article on effecting real change; WNBA player Natasha Cloud’s Players Tribune article, “Your Silence Is a Knee on My Neck”; author Kimberly Jones’ interview with David Jones Media; and a quote from Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, on 60 Minutes:

I don’t know of anything in the history of black people in this country, in which I’ve read some account in which it ended with, “And then they gave up.” That’s just not what we do. I know that we work for the future of our children, and our grandchildren, and their children.

On June 5, DC mayor Muriel Bowser made a statement in just a few words when she ordered the phrase “Black Lives Matter” to be painted on a street less than a quarter-mile from the White House. She also renamed a portion of the street Black Lives Matter Plaza. Adeduntan called the mayor’s actions “impeccable,” adding, “As a Black person, there’s that feeling of gratitude, [and] the feeling of, ‘Yes, we are seen.’ And … now the conversation is about us.”

The three student-athletes also praised Bowser for creating “something people can come together around,” but they wanted her to enact meaningful reforms, too. “I think it’s just a way to kind of bring about some peace in little increments, but … it’s not exactly what we’re asking for,” Taiwo explained.

Some people have defined “what we’re asking for” narrowly based on Floyd’s death: an end to police killing and racially profiling Black men. But it’s important to broaden the conversation to include people of all genders and, as Obama pointed out, change the practices of not just the police, but also elected officials and established institutions.

“I saw something that said, ‘What police do to Black men, hospitals do to Black women,’” Taiwo recalled. “… They just get racially profiled and that … changes the way the police [or hospital staff] treat them, and it’s not right.”

Recent research has shown that the maternal mortality rate is 2.5 times higher for Black women than for White women in the United States, and Black women are 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police. Adeduntan highlighted the deaths of Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor and said, “Women, too, get impacted. Maybe not in the same exact ways all the times, but the basis is still racism, injustice.”

Filled with a sense of outrage, purpose, and urgency, many people of all races have protested against Floyd’s murder and systemic racism. But the decision to protest is deeply personal—and in this day and age, people must consider not only the risk of violence, but also the risk of contracting the coronavirus, which all four women mentioned as a concern.

At the time of our interview, Brown was the only one who had been to a protest; she happened to see one nearby and decided to participate. Luma was planning to attend a single protest in the future, to show support while trying to stay healthy. And Taiwo and Adeduntan have gotten involved in other ways while social distancing, including educating themselves and others, signing petitions, and donating to political and human rights organizations.

Meanwhile, GW head coach Jen Rizzotti and assistant coach Kevin DeMille have both participated in protests. Brown appreciated seeing that from her coaches.

“I think we all feel super supported by the coaching staff right now,” Brown said. “It just makes it feel even better to know that they’re not just saying things; they’re actually taking action and really trying to be a part of the change.”

For Adeduntan and Luma in particular, their career paths are also providing unique perspectives on police brutality, racism, and the coronavirus. Adeduntan spent seven years as a nurse before deciding to coach full-time, and she admitted that “it has been very hard kind of looking from the outside in” at the pandemic. But her certifications are still active, and she is exploring ways to put her nursing skills to use during the pandemic while keeping her full-time job, perhaps by helping with contact tracing or pitching in as a nurse for a few hours per week.

Luma, on the other hand, is a criminal justice major and originally wanted to work in federal law enforcement. “That was always a big passion of mine, but my whole perspective changed this past year when I took criminal law,” she said. She now wants to attend law school to become a defense attorney and protect the rights of people of color.

All three student-athletes agreed that Floyd’s death has affected them differently as college students than previous police killings did when they were younger. Taiwo said, “It’s hitting different because I feel responsible. I feel like I’m not outside of the problem … It’s on me to educate myself.”

The massive public response—whether in the form of statements, protests, donations, or petitions—demonstrates that these student-athletes are not alone. Watching the video of Floyd dying likely galvanized many into action, and Adeduntan mused that the coronavirus pandemic may also give people more time to process and react.

For others, Floyd’s death may have been a breaking point. “This didn’t just happen two weeks ago, a month ago. This has been happening for years,” Adeduntan pointed out.

“A lot more people are becoming more educated and motivated to be a part of the change,” Brown said. “And I think that some changes will come from it. I don’t know how much change, but I’m optimistic.”

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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