For several years now, Jen Fry, owner and CEO of the social justice education firm JenFryTalksLLC., has been making the trek from North Carolina— and now Michigan— to Texas to speak at the annual Black Student-Athlete Summit (BSA). Although she didn’t get to escape the snow for a quick trip to Austin this year, Fry was still able to deliver an empowering presentation to more than 1,200 virtual attendees titled “Confronting Whiteness Instead of Asking About Blackness.”
We caught up with Fry, a former student-athlete who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in geography at Michigan State University, to learn more about the concept of “Whiteness” in college athletics—and the steps Black student-athletes must take to counteract the systems that are working against them.
What is this term “Whiteness,” and why is it important to bring it into the open?
Whiteness is a term I refer to which are anti-Black systems that are very much at work in higher education, college athletics and the workforce. It is a system that is always at work which will make you feel as if you are hitting a wall, frustrate you and then create the thoughts of wanting to give up. There are ways in which whiteness is working without you even realizing it. Whiteness has you thinking that what you are going through is your fault, you have to do the extra work—and if you fail, it’s on you. I’m here to tell you that no, you do not have to do the work, and it is not your fault when these systems fail you.
Why is it important to understand and deconstruct this system?
We don’t understand or look at whiteness as a system, but it is a system that is always occurring. In order to allow Black student-athletes to flourish, we have to know not only what the system is, but how it works. For example, when you play a sport, you have to know the system your opponent is running in order to compete. So, it’s important for our Black student-athletes to understand this system and how it is built.
How can Black student-athletes push back against Whiteness?
First and foremost, Black student-athletes have to protect themselves—and that means protecting their spirit and soul. That also means understanding your boundaries and knowing when to say no—especially to the extra work that is so commonly put-on Black people.
The next thing is accountability. This is really critical. Schools will give diversity trainings, but will not hold the administration, coaches, or staff to be accountable to attending and interacting. When it comes to diversity trainings, you have to understand how it’s going to be implemented and if people are being held accountable. Who’s doing the diversity training? What are the consequences for those who skip sessions or don’t show up at all? Are they expected to interact? These are the questions that need to be asked in order to hold people accountable.
The third step is to start organizing and building a coalition within your school and with schools across the state. Organizing on a bigger level brings you more power—and it keeps others from having to rebuild every single time. Also, it allows you to know what other Black student-athletes at other schools are doing because the more information the better. You do not have to start from the ground up each time if you are gathering information from other Black student-athletes on how they solved problems or pushed an agenda forward.
Could you share some insight into some lessons you’ve learned at the BSA over the years?
This summit has really shown that the struggles I went through in school haven’t changed in decades. This is unfortunate, but it also allows us older people to give valuable information to current student-athletes on how to navigate the different experiences they are having, and to show them some pathways to overcoming their challenges. For example, it is very hard for a Black student-athlete to have a conversation about race with a predominately white team. When they come to the BSA, they get to be their authentic self without having to worry about code-switching to help people feel comfortable around them. They can be themselves and discuss things that potentially their other teammates and coaches don’t understand. Also, it really is like a family reunion. We get to see old friends, play spades or dominos at the hotel café and have conversations with people like Jemele Hill. I don’t think there is another place where you can have these experiences while also getting great career or educational advice to help you advance.
How have you, personally, benefitted from your experiences at the BSA?
The BSA is truly like coming back to a family reunion because of the support they have given me both in my educational journey and as a professional speaker. When I first came to this summit I knew I wanted to get my Ph.D., but I wasn’t sure in what or where. There were so many people who sat down with me to discuss options, what to look for, who could help me, where to apply and so on. That made my transition to a full-time student working on my Ph.D. a little easier than if I was alone. It was at the BSA where I met Dr. Akilah R. Carter-Francique, who became the co-chair of my committee and gave me consistent support throughout the Ph.D. process. The support everyone attending the BSA gives each other is such a special thing, and it really provides a built-in network of support that Black students and student-athletes aren’t used to having because they are at a PWI or maybe the only Black person on their team. It truly is a great environment that pushes and fosters Black excellence. It is an event that I look forward to each year, and I make a point to attend because I want to support it as much as it has supported me.