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Sun Up 'Til Sun Down - On Race & Gender and Coming of Age on the Playground

Updated: Jul 13, 2020

I took this photo on a work trip to Beaverton, Oregon. Fall 2019.

My generation was one of the last to play outside. The fading scars on both of my knees serve as both memory and a rite of passage stamps to an unforgettable experience forged in learning and unlearning and ultimately, a lens I would come to see the world through.

I attended Our Lord's Shepherd International School, a private primary school back home in Nigeria. This was where my socialization with sport began.

The girls played on the swings, slides, and merry go ‘round. We also played oga, a Nigeria hand, clap and step game played 1v.1 or in teams.

When we played on teams, team captains vied to get the best oga players, the popular kids also vied to pick their popular friends. And as we played, you could see the stark difference in class by looking at kids’ shoes.

The boys were different. They made paper guns and played some version of cops and robbers. My brother's good friend, Ifemeluma got really creative with his gun making, he once made a machine gun out of loose leaf paper! I was so impressed I asked him to make me one. My brother and I would continue playing cops and robbers at home; making machine gun sounds while ducking, and rolling (lols, I digress!)

The boys also played football (soccer). They were so competitive, some games came down to tears! I can still remember how wild we’d all look by end of lunch time — the boys’ black shoes mired in dry red sand and their baby blue shirts drenched in sweat; the girls were, still expected to look in tact. Female school staff, especially, reinforced this unwritten rule.

Later I’d learn in America, these rigid structured gender roles were very similar —layered and intersectional. In America, it was race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexuality, etc. Back home, it was class, gender, religious sect, and depending on where you grew up, tribe.

I was introduced to basketball in the 1990s via the Chicago Bulls and the knockoff jerseys my dad would buy for my siblings and I from his trips to Asia. My dad built a business that raised my entire family out of abject poverty by importing clothing from Italy and later Asia to Nigeria. This is a story for another day.

W/my dad before heading to the park. Summer 2002.

In JS1 (equivalent of 6th grade), my brother spent the summer with his godbrothers in Abuja (our capital city) and at the end of the summer, he came home with a basketball. I was so elated, I treated the ball like a pet. I even took it for runs around our compound, dribbling and trying new tricks I’d seen on TV.

Later that year, we had a student whose family had just moved back from America. He was a basketball fan and his parents offered to build a basketball court for our school. Just like that, the concrete tennis court was converted into a basketball court.

The boys were excited. I was too, but by secondary school, the girls just didn’t play on the playgrounds anymore and gender roles were even more rigid. Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, and Brandy cassette tapes and obsession with black lip lined glossy lips replaced the slides and the swings. We were also “too grown” to play oga, new 6th grade girls playing oga on the first day of school was definitely a sight of ridicule for the older girls.

My brother at our local park. Summer 2001.

That summer, we'd leave for America. The following summer, my brother and I would spend almost every day at our local park. We would make the uphill hike to the park and shoot hoops for hours and try new moves we’d seen on And1 Mixtape Tour on ESPN. We craved fun, we craved friendship and we craved community in our new country. We’d end up meeting other kids in our neighborhood at the park.

It was also at the park that I came to understand racial and gender dynamics in America. The "pretty girls" rarely stepped on the playground; they walked by, hung out on the swings, like we did in primary school. But they didn’t like to get sweaty or want to mess up their hair. Most importantly, they didn’t want to appear too strong. As teenagers, they understood and had made peace with complying with this expectation of what makes a woman desirable. This is why I'm a big advocate of complimenting young girls beyond their looks -- shine light on their talents, their inner strength because these qualities are essential as they navigate the world.

The boys treated the “more desirable” girls like magical fairies that they needed to woo. They talked to them differently, they were most kind to them. When the girls weren’t around, the boys were some times vulgar, competitive and had full scale locker room talk. Athletic girls were even further down the spectrum of femininity. This was unsettling as I enjoyed playing basketball as much as I enjoyed playing with dolls and sewing cute dresses for my dolls, and reading. For a long time, I was unwilling to separate or give up parts of identity in favor of one.

As I spent more time in male-dominated spaces that sport most times is, locker room talk became normalized. Some of the music we listened to didn’t help either, rather it reinforced these norms and as kids, we could not separate art from real life.

Junior Season, WVHS, 2004
WVHS. Junior year, 2004. Where are my socks...😏

Our neighborhood was mostly African American and hispanic and a few white kids. Most families in the area had moved from the city to the suburbs. And while away from the economic strife and crime that plagued NYC in the nineties, blackness was still associated with a one-dimensional image that as teenagers, we all wanted to fit into. We wore streetwear brands and brand name sneakers and most white kids wore Abercrombie & Fitch. It was almost as though America had this prescriptive meaning of what it meant to be black and there was this unspoken pressure to fit into this mould. From the music we listened to the TV shows we watched to how we dressed.

Our school however, was predominantly white and for the most part, race relations was OK, at least on the surface. However, the one-dimensional blackness and homogenous white American narrative, characteristic of small town America still pervaded our educational experience. On my high school basketball team, I was by far an outsider (haaa). I was also one of the better players on the team but I did not belong. I felt misunderstood, and I responded by keeping to myself. This is why diversity training is very important in schools, on teams, the workplace, or any space where diverse people are working together towards a shared purpose. I'm sure my teammates were decent people, they had a one-dimensional worldview that's common in small town America. This worldview excludes voices that do not fit the American, western narrative. America is a melting pot and there's so much value to be gained in tapping into our blend of cultures.

These combined experiences would shape my worldview as an African woman in America. Being born in a society where your skin color was not necessarily seen as the first layer of your identity to growing up in a society where the color of your skin is associated with a history of oppression was startling. For me, coming from an Igbo culture that highly values reincarnation and ancestral reverence, I always felt a dual identity - my Nigerian one and American one. As a teen, I felt the two were mutually exclusive mostly because I wanted to subscribe to America's confines of blackness.

As an adult, I am still unpacking these experiences and unlearning and relearning new norms and marrying my multiple identities. Similarly, the same way I had to fix and unlearn my broken shooting form in college (😆), I'm challenging norms that are inherently ingrained in exclusion. I am questioning roots of norms that I've always accepted as truth. Most importantly, I am thankful for the conversation that the recent racial tension in America has sparked especially within the black community. From black femininity to colourism, we have so much to rethink and "un-normalize" as a culture. I believe that sporting spaces can challenge wider systemic discrimination that leads to the further othering of marginalized peoples. In sport, we find people from various backgrounds who bring talent along with different stories. There's so much to be gained from accepting, including, and amplifying these unique human stories.

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