Black History Month with LDC 

By Elizabeth John

It’s the last day of Black History Month and here at LDC, we wanted to shed some light on some of the experiences that have been faced by our Black Cheerleaders across the programme. Over the last month, we asked athletes to talk to us about their first impressions of the sport and to speak on common themes they have identified.

“I was always interested in cheer thanks to Bring It On and seeing how boss those cheerleaders were and the level of skill in routines. Having a gymnastics background I knew that I could definitely be one of those fierce tumblers on the cheer team. As a black cheerleader at uni, I sometimes felt a bit left behind especially on socials, as this sport can be quite cliquey. I never really felt like I fit in on a social level. I would assume it was down to me being new, but when I look around and I’m the only black female cheerleader and I’m now in my 2nd year of cheer, it makes me think that my race possibly puts up a type of guard between me and the other non-black cheerleaders.”

Being black in a mainly non-black space can be quite an adjustment for some, especially with the added element of the cliquey nature of the sport.

“To me, being a black woman and also a cheerleader is a superpower. It reminds me of my capabilities and it inspires me to do my best even when the going gets tough. For example, it’s no secret that cheer is an expensive sport; there were often times I would use my lunch money to pay for cheer so I wouldn’t feel like i’m burdening my parents with another expense. I started cheering at 13 on a local community team, so having team members that looked like me, and being able to relate to cheer related problems such as ‘omg, how are we going to do our hair for comp?!’ were things we could easily discuss and resolve. 

When I got to uni, I was also lucky to have black teammates with whom I was able to relate to, but this is where I began to realise the raw reality of being black and a cheerleader. I’ve dealt with issues such as injuries/ pain being dismissed, but having to watch other teammates of another race be coddled and taken more seriously or ridiculous uniform expectations (e.g. attend a tanning session – in a group photo, one of my teammates said to me “I must look so pale standing next to you”). Despite these situations, I’ve learned how to overcome such by voicing when things make me uncomfortable and also by explaining to my teammates the reasons for doing certain things a certain way (like wearing a headscarf after doing my hair so it stays flat) if they were interested in knowing. One of my favourite parts of cheerleading is the team aspect because the result of working together with others, putting your all into the routine and just having fun really warms my heart, as well as the fact that through this teamwork I’ve made friends for life at cheer, and sometimes getting ready is fun too, as it can be an endless source of banter.”

It is no secret that part of the underlying bias towards black people is the pseudoscience of us not feeling pain. I can’t say how many times my injuries have been overlooked and I have just been expected to get over it, whereas whole practices have been paused when my teammates have been injured. Obviously it is hard to have these conversations with people, especially if you are just trying to fit in and make friends but for some reason you just can’t shake the feeling that something is off. This is why I am so proud to be a part of the LDC team – it is full of remarkable people who are great listeners and are actively trying to make the sport as inclusive as it could possibly be. This is what spurred the decision to create this post in the first place – ensuring our athletes that we care about their stories and want to learn from them what we could do to ensure that we are inclusive.

“I came from a predominately black team in school. Black teachers and a couple black coaches meant I never really had to face many issues on this front. However, one thing I would say was upsetting was at competitions our coaches forced us to wear clip ins and we weren’t allowed to have our hair natural, which I and many others used to hate and we would always complain about. I don’t know if it was to ‘fit in’ or have us all look alike but either way was unacceptable to me since I never used to wear weave or wigs or clip ins and always had my hair natural. I also used to feel betrayed as black hair should be celebrated because it’s amazing and then to have my own people, black women tell me to cover and change it, it just never sat right with me.  Then at comps there used to be just comments from other teams that you don’t really realise at the time. 

You want to feel like you fit in and have people around you who look like you. I never cared in my first year because of my true passion for the sport, and I tend to get on with everyone and anyone, but I understand that for people it can be daunting to be the only black girl in a squad.”

The issue of hair has historically always been a pain point – as a coach myself, I can understand the desire for uniformity. However, when you create a team with different ethnicities, these are things you need to take into consideration. The shade of red you want for lipstick, the style of hair you want, the colour nail polish you’d like – these all look different on different skin tones.

“I don’t think i have ever met a black cheerleader who has not had a team member jokingly say after fake tanning ‘omg I’m nearly as dark as you’ or in my experience ‘my goal is to get my tan as dark as you’  and then having to fake laugh but inside being like ‘hmmm, did I just hear that?’.

I think since starting cheer, it has improved a lot! Gone is the awful makeup that is not inclusive or flattening for all skin tones, I also feel like there is (in my experience) a lot more freedom in hairstyles. One thing I have always enjoyed is getting ready on comp day with other friends or being at training and sharing the differences in my getting ready for comp routine (usually triggered by me wearing a colour satin wrap to keep my hair from puffing up in the humidity of comp arenas) to some of my teammates and them asking questions on products and steps taken because they are genuinely interested.”

Even though it is normally said in jest, almost every black cheerleader has that eye-roll moment where a teammate comments on how their skin looks in comparison to yours. Again, it’s hard to bring these conversations up when you’re trying to fit in and make friends.

If there is something that I have noticed, it’s that there is safety in numbers. I have met so many black people who have such an interest in cheerleading, but are scared to pursue the sport because of the lack of representation of people who look like them. At LDC, I’m taken aback everyday by the diversity amongst our teams and the fact that they are happy and willing to speak up and shed light on these issues.