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What’s Going On: Exploring Systemic Racism Through the Eyes of a Saratogian Who Has Experienced It

Owner of Renew360 Coaching Deshaya Williams talks candidly about how systemic racism stunted her promising career in collegiate coaching.

Throughout history, Saratoga has been quite progressive in terms of race relations - but that doesn't mean overt or systemic racism don't exist here.

Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series that we’ll be publishing on saratogaliving.com under the heading “What’s Going On,” tackling subjects like the black experience, systemic racism, the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent spate of police brutality cases, among other topics. Read more about the series’ chrysalis here.

I’m sitting here inspecting the long, laminated photograph I was given in 1993 to mark my year in the seventh grade. We were the inaugural class at Maple Avenue Middle School in Saratoga Springs and part of the “masterminds team,” a cross-section of the overall student body that included more than 120 students, split amongst a handful of teachers. And the lack of diversity in the picture (you’re only seeing part of it below) is simply breathtaking; in a tiny cluster near the bottom lefthand side of the wide-angle shot are just three black students—one of them, my childhood friend Tianta C. Youngblood. I was 13 years old and largely oblivious to the fact that the near-homogeneity in my class and classrooms meant something. How was it that nearly all of those kids looked exactly like me? And more importantly, why was this the case?

‘Saratoga Living’ Editorial Director Will Levith at bottom right; Tianta C. Youngblood, third from left, second row from bottom.

As I mentioned in my previous story, I consider myself one of the lucky ones, having had a black friend growing up here in Saratoga. It taught me, however young and under-educated I might have been at the time, that black people were really just people worthy of neighborly respect and friendship. But my childhood friendship didn’t fill in all the blanks. How could it? My public school education certainly didn’t either. I don’t remember learning much of anything about slavery, the Underground Railroad, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan or the Civil Rights Movement, not to the degree that would’ve had any sort of impact on my young mind. Most importantly, having one black friend and a reductive education didn’t teach me that America still had a nagging cyst of an equality and racism problem, one that had never really gone away and one that would follow my friend around for the rest of her life.

But there wasn’t a lack of opportunities for me to put two and two together before getting to middle school. When I was just 11, I watched a black man get viciously beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers on national TV (it was a family tradition of ours to watch the national news together after dinner every night). This was in 1991, long before the days of police body cams and smartphone videos. His name was Rodney King, and I couldn’t help but wonder why something like that had been allowed to happen, and what the men carrying out the act were trying to prove. It just didn’t seem right. A year later, LA dissolved into mayhem, after the four police officers who carried out the beating on King were acquitted of all wrongdoing. That, too, made the national news, and it was, maybe, the first time I was exposed to a system where black lives seemed to matter a lot less than white people’s did. A whole city needed to be destroyed to prove it, too. That got people’s attention.

Then in 1995, two years removed from that middle school photo, I remember listening to the OJ Simpson trial verdict through a classmate’s headphones on his small Walkman radio. When it was revealed that Simpson was not guilty, I remember there being a commotion of students talking all at once, and our teacher just shushing us; it hadn’t occurred to him that a historic moment like that one might have been worthwhile to discuss with his students. It was an American government class, after all. The general consensus among my white peers had been that Simpson was guilty of murder; I never thought to ask Tianta how she felt. Later, when TV channels replayed the verdict being read, I couldn’t wrap my young mind around why so many black people were filmed cheering and crying at the result. Wasn’t it obvious to them that Simpson had murdered his ex-wife and her friend? It didn’t occur to me to think about it from a black person’s perspective. The verdict must’ve felt downright liberating, especially for the black community in LA at the time, one that had dealt with unchecked systemic racism and police brutality for decades. At least on that day, at least one black life mattered.

Three years after the Simpson verdict, I was a senior at Saratoga Springs High School, only one year removed from the harsh rigors and realities of college, and none the wiser about the ways of the world. How could I have been? Rap music had hit the mainstream by ’98, and I remember driving around town in my white friend’s car, listening to the Notorious B.I.G., thinking that this must be what the black experience felt like. I know, I know. In fact, I was just another privileged white kid, living in an upper-middle-class white town, repeating lyrics that I couldn’t relate to or understand.

Now, remember that trio of black kids that had been in my middle school class photo just five years prior? By 1998, the number of teenagers that looked like them had, maybe, tripled (we had 450 students in our graduating class, if I remember correctly). By that point, besides Tianta, I had gotten to know few other black kids my age. That was partly due to the obvious: Saratoga’s ever-small black population hadn’t afforded me that luxury. But it was also because I was, generally speaking, a pretty awkward kid in high school; I didn’t have much by way of social skills and got really anxious in large groups of people. That’s nothing abnormal, developmentally or psychologically, for a high school kid, I feel. But just imagine if I was a black student, experiencing that same awkwardness. Would I have been a pariah? Would teachers have treated me differently? Could I have been targeted as a “problem”? Could that have even gotten me suspended? That’s why it’s amazing that somehow, someway, I was able to know Deshaya Williams. We weren’t close friends by a longshot, but I distinctly remember her going out of her way to be friendly towards me—and just about everybody else in our class, for that matter. She had this larger-than-life personality, calm demeanor and was one of our high school’s most promising student-athletes (she threw the shot put and discus for our track-and-field team). It’s through Deshaya’s eyes that you’ll be guided through the next chapter of our “What’s Going On” series.

***

While Saratoga certainly has had a history of progressiveness when it comes to race relations—black jockeys, grooms and stable hands were employed at Saratoga Race Course as early as the 1880s and 1890s (five of those jockeys raced here and are currently enshrined in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame); Hattie’s Chicken Shack, which opened in 1938, was one of the first black-woman-owned businesses of its kind in the region (that’s no longer the case, but its groundbreaking roots cannot be denied); Caffè Lena, the longest continuously operating folk venue in America, booked a black man as its first headlining act in 1960; and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center chose Harry Belafonte, a noted Civil Rights activist, to be its first nonclassical concert in 1967—it has (and always had) a minuscule black population to show for it. And I think that’s why racism still exists here today, whether it be either the overt or systemic kind. (You read about instances of systemic racism in my interview with Tianta.) Without a black population ever equal to or greater than the white one in this city—and in turn, a level of respect and love for that population among white people—I fear that “otherness” will always translate to prejudice and in some cases, hate. It reminds me of that famous quote by former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela from his book, Long Walk to Freedom: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Some Saratogians have learned to hate but can easily replace that with love. All they have to do is open their heart.

Whether I was aware of it or not at the time, racism did exist in Saratoga when Deshaya and I were in high school together. “One of the things me and my sister talk about often is that we didn’t realize or have the words to articulate when we may have been seeing racial things happening to us,” she says. “Things that people would say, and at the ages we were, we would just laugh it off. Now that we’re older and have been educated in different areas, we’re like, Oh, that was inappropriate.” One particular Saratoga ethos that bothered Deshaya was when the people she hung out with would say, “We don’t see color.” In other words, you might as well be white. “That’s a problem,” she says. “I needed you to see me. I wanted you to see me, but I wanted you to accept me and let it not be a problem for you. Those are conversations I couldn’t have at that age.” She says that was partly because she was so laser-focused on athletics and getting into college. “I didn’t do a lot of the mental work around Saratoga being a non-diverse area,” she says. “It wasn’t until I left and was like, Oh, wow, there were 10 of us in our graduating class that looked like me.”

Former Saratoga High champion athlete and collegiate coach Deshaya Williams owns Renew360 Coaching, which is based just outside of Schenectady.

The year before we met in senior high school, Deshaya tells me that she had an epiphany of sorts on the state of the black experience in Saratoga. That summer, the Saratoga Jazz Festival had been in town. “I had never really seen it, because [my family] usually lived on the outskirts,” says Deshaya. “And my mom didn’t let us do lots of things. I never rode the city bus until I was 17.” It was actually that exact day that Deshaya was first allowed to ride the bus into Saratoga, and she remembers rolling downtown, getting off the bus and immediately being awestruck by what she saw. She ran to the nearest payphone and called home. “I was like, ‘Mom, there are so many black people in Saratoga! What is going on?’ I was not used to being around my own people, except if it was own family. It was unusual to me.” Nearly a decade later, that moment, still etched in her mind, led Deshaya to decide to move down to South Carolina after graduating from college. She wanted to experience what she had for that one fleeting moment in Downtown Saratoga when she was 17; she says she wanted to be around her people all the time.

I suppose calling Deshaya’s athletic career “promising” is a bit of an understatement. After graduating from high school—and racking up records at Saratoga High—she went on to star on Penn State University’s (PSU’s) track-and-field team, winning an NCAA individual title and becoming a three-time All-American, eventually competing in the US Olympic Trials in 2000 and 2004. She also earned her bachelor’s in human development and family studies at PSU and then her master’s in higher education there, garnering a second master’s in divinity at Erskine Theological Seminary (the other reason why she landed in South Carolina). Ultimately, she went on to a stellar career as a collegiate coach, honing her craft at Clemson University; the State University of New York at Fredonia; St. Lawrence University; and the University at Albany.

Now, take a second and imagine what kind of doors that résumé would have opened for a white athlete. Depending on where that person might’ve been headed after his or her athletic career ended, he or she might’ve already been named the head coach of a Division I program or been in the running for an executive position at a major corporation. But Deshaya tells me that, despite all of her many accolades, she constantly had to battle systemic racism, every step of the way. “One of the things I’m trying to unlearn is that I have to work doubly as hard as the next person to get half of what they have,” says Deshaya. “That is frustrating to me, because I’m always living in the ‘not enough,’ because I have to work so hard to get it.” She eventually left the world of college athletics and started her own business, Renew360 Coaching, “because of the trauma that I felt in the athletic world as a coach, trying to do what was right for my student-athletes.” (Based near Schenectady, Renew360 offers a range of services, including nanny referrals; doula services; and fitness, yoga and life coaching services.) It was a constant struggle, she says, to get certain people to acknowledge her intelligence and know-how in the college sports arena. “I just kept hitting bricks of people who wouldn’t see me [and] wouldn’t hear me, and I think that that’s one of the things you’re seeing after George Floyd. We’ve always not been heard—and I say ‘we’ as a whole black and brown community.”

Since removing herself from the system, Deshaya’s been able to blossom in her role as a business owner and coach, and it’s provided her with a new platform to effect positive change for the community and her clientele—in ways beyond her traditional services. Deshaya says she was working with a family recently, whose eight-year-old daughter looked at her one day and said, apropos of nothing, “I’ve never seen anybody black like you before.” Deshaya didn’t see that as an instance of racism, but rather, one in which she could give the little girl a chance to talk it out. “Her mom was mortified, but I’m like, she is developmentally asking and saying exactly what she should say,” says Deshaya. “Ask the question, get the answers. This was your perception, ask the question, and you can learn that that’s not the case. It gives me the opportunity to have those conversations with young people [and] their parents, as things come up—especially with Black Lives Matter going on—and so if something comes up for them, I’m one of those people that’s like, ‘Ask me the question that you think is stupid; ask me that question, so that you don’t get out in public and say something crazy, and someone else looks at you as though you’re ignorant, and you don’t have the chance to combat it, because they don’t know you.”

As our conversation got deeper and more philosophical, I realized that I was talking to someone with a master’s degree in divinity. (She had also served as a youth pastor in the past.) Not being a religious person myself, I wondered if Deshaya’s spirituality had offered her any solace in the month or so following George Floyd’s murder. Seeing the video for the first time, Deshaya says she “was very frightened, [thinking] that could be my brother, who lives in Saratoga right now.” That, and the fact that the officer who was killing Floyd didn’t seem to be affected by it in the least. “It just breaks my heart,” she says. “What is happening to this world? Why do we think this is OK? Anyone who watches it and defends it, I just have no understanding for that. My father was a police officer in Rochester for 30-plus years, and many years ago, I asked him if he’d ever [shot anyone]; it was a very rough area, right in Downtown Rochester. He [said that he’d] never discharged his gun, because he knew how to deescalate a situation, and he saw the people as human. I think police officers have a duty, but they need to be retrained. Something has to give, because our lives matter.”

Deshaya tells me that her spirituality hasn’t so much offered her comfort as it has hope. It boils down to not only having the ability to pray on something, but also to take action, she says. “In my understanding of faith and my divinity degree, it was really about looking at how G-d fought for those that were oppressed. Whatever that ‘do something’ is for you, however you can fix you, whether it’s marching or doing a fundraiser, whether it’s helping elevate voices, whether it’s [through Black Lives Matter]—whatever it is—we have to do something more than just pray. I’m a prayer; I believe in prayer. I think one of the things that people forget about Martin Luther King, Jr. is that, beyond just walking, he also called [out] when [people] were doing wrong. He didn’t just let them [get away with it]; he used scripture to show them how they were wrong in what they were doing. Then he walked and sat and did those things peacefully, but he also used action. And he was put in jail, many, many times. He took the consequences of whatever that was. We’re all G-d’s people, and we have to see each other that way.” Amen.

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Will Levith

Will Levith is Editorial Director at Saratoga Living and Capital Region Living magazine. He's a native Saratogian and graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. His work has been published by Esquire, Playboy, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Health, RealClearLife and many others. He lives in Troy with his wife, Laura, and dog, Esopus.

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