In last week’s issue, the News + Record featured Dena Floyd, the athletic director at Woods Charter School, in a story on the intersection of racial injustice protests and sports.
In this …
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In last week’s issue, the Chatham News + Record featured Dena Floyd, the athletic director at Woods Charter School, in a story on the intersection of racial injustice protests and sports.
In this extended Q&A with the News + Record, Floyd, 38, touched on her experiences in soccer as a Black woman; using sports as a platform for tough conversations; and how her 5-year-old son, Jase, has changed the way she thinks about race, racism and implicit bias.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the role of sports in a moment like this one?
The beauty of sports in all of this is that we all come together. We all come together on this platform. And I think my kids and my staff (at Woods Charter) trust me. We can have these conversations because we know each other. There might be tough conversations, but why not? Why not have them?
I told the athletes at Florida and American University (whom she spoke to on a large alumni Zoom call organized her former UF coach, Becky Burleigh) that when I was at Florida, I got really fit. I wasn’t the fittest kid, but I wanted to play. Basically, they told me, ‘You’ve got to do X, Y and Z, or you're not going to play.’ Florida is hot, and they basically trained you like you were in boot camp at the time. I was uncomfortable, and a lot of times I didn’t want to do it. But guess what? I did it, because at the end of the day I wanted to play. So I tried to tell them, yes, it's uncomfortable to have that conversation with your teammate. Because, you know, you're Black and it's hard for you. You might not feel like they understand you. Or you're white, and you don't feel like you do the racist things everyone’s talking about. But at the end of the day, you need to have those conversations. And these are the best people to have them with, teammates. You're going to trust them. It’s best to be open about it.
It's not about politics. It's about knowing each other and trying to really understand each other. I want to understand why a white person doesn't understand why this is the way it is, you know? I think if you're willing to have this conversation and listen — like, really listen and not just yell at each other —then that's where you're going to have growth. I think the really important thing is having those important conversations and changing lives that way in your community.
How has racism, explicit or subtle, affected you personally throughout your life?
I think for me, being a Black female (growing up and playing soccer in the Richmond area), it was being different. I was one of the only ones — so being thicker, body-wise, and there might have been comments about my hair. Just things that were inappropriate. I wasn't looking for someone to be racist toward me or have that covert racism. I was young. I wasn't watchful. But now that I look back, maybe me having to work really, really, really hard and still sometimes not getting that spot, or my parents having to think about pulling me off a team if things didn't sit right … I’ll think, ‘Hey, that was kind of messed up.’ The most (prevalent thing) for me was growing up in a predominantly white community, and people not understanding you as a Black female.
I played club soccer in northern Virginia my last couple years. My coach was Asian. I still keep in contact with him. And I remember him saying to me, for whatever reason, ‘You're going to have to be better’ … It's not like I'm in a sport where it's predominantly Black. He's like, ‘You can’t mess up.’ I was like, ‘What? I’m so confused?’ He’s like, ‘No, not in the sense you can't mess up on the field. You can’t get in trouble (legally), because if you get in trouble, it’s going to be worse for you. (A college or pro team) isn’t going to push it under the rug.’ So, not in the senses of play or Xs and Os. He meant more in the sense of life.
And I did see that in work. I never did anything catastrophic, but I did see things like, ‘If I did that, I’d be fired.’ When I was at Stanford (in the mid-2000s), this girl was getting away with everything … but I felt like because she was a cute, petite white female, (nothing would happen). Those were the thoughts in my mind. I was in my early 20s, and other people thought it, too, not just black people: ‘How is she getting away with this?’ Where anyone else would have been fired.
How has your son changed things for you?
I think having my son has been the game-changer for me. My dad's Black, and obviously my brothers are Black. I was aware, but now I’m even hyper-aware (about my son) because you know, that's my seed. I'm very cautious of what he does. He’s 5, but I try to be like, ‘You can't do this.’ He’s a bigger kid, too. He's athletic. He actually already had an incident. This was last fall. He was 4 and playing soccer. He’s been around soccer all the time, obviously, and picked it up at an early age. He's pretty good — but he's huge. He’s tall. We went out for the local i9 (rec league) team and I decided to coach.
You practice and play right afterward, all in the same day. I realized (in the first practice) I should have put him in the next highest age group, but it was fine. He was of age for the 3- and 4-year-old group. Sure enough, when we get out to the game, he’s killing it. I have to sit him down (to even the game out). He's not ruthless in the sense that he's pushing people — he's just a big kid. The next weekend, we played this team and he bumped into this girl (after bumping a boy earlier in the game). Granted, he went for the ball. If it was a regular game, it wouldn't be considered a foul. But the girl fell over and she was crying. Her mom was furious. She picked up her daughter, walked over to the tent and basically told on us: ‘How old is he? He's too old.’ And thank God the i9 people had my back. They told her: ‘Look, it happens. It’s soccer. It’s a contact sport in a sense.’ They told her (my son) was of age. She didn't think he was the right age. Why would I want to play my son down already? Why would I want to get that advantage? So we’ve already had to deal with it in that sense.
At that point, so I wouldn’t get myself into an incident and because we play everyone twice, we just moved up to the 5- and 6-year-old age group. It was perfect for him: the size, the skill level, everything. But that’s kind of what goes in the back of my mind. He has to be perfect, you know? He has to get it together. He can't mess up in the classroom, because people are going to judge him. When he gets older (and taller), he's going to be considered a threat. He's going to be considered a threat even if he does everything right. That's the thing. All the males in my immediate family are very educated — college degrees, master’s degrees — and they still have to deal with these aggressions, this overt racism when they step out into the reality of the real world.
Do these current protests feel tangibly different than others in recent history?
I don't think it's any different (conceptually) — I think the times are different because of COVID. Everyone’s stuck at home watching the news. Everyone has a lot more time on their hands. If we were doing this and it was last year, I don't think it would have the same impact. It’s also an election year, so the news is covering that more. But because of COVID, we’re stopped, and these incidents happened back to back to back, that's why it's so prominent right now ... I don't think any of this would have happened if we weren’t in a standstill with school and work and COVID.
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