Natalie Achonwa closes her blinds as her friends come over for a casual Saturday night get-together at her home in Indianapolis. She turns the music up to welcome them in, but not too loud because she doesn’t want to attract any unwanted attention. It’s not that Achonwa is up to no good, it’s that she’s Black and she’s afraid.
She’s afraid that the Black men she’s having over might be perceived as a threat if someone knocks on the door. She’s worried that something could happen and suddenly one of her friends is on the floor, in handcuffs, begging for his life.
“If anybody knocks on the door, don't come to the door,” she tells her friends.
“I'll go to the door with you,” she recalls her White friend saying.
It doesn’t matter that Achonwa is a WNBA player for the Indiana Fever, the reigning WNBA Community Assist Award winner, or a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. It doesn’t matter that the men she’s with are good men, who give back to their communities, she says. They’re all 6-foot-3 to 6-foot-7, strong and Black, and that too often makes them appear scary.
“That’s the part that makes it feel so real,” she says. “When I see an image of a Black man that has been killed by police or when I watched the George Floyd video, that's what makes me tear up. The thought that that could have been my brother, my father, my friends, my boyfriend that could have been killed. I think that’s the part that scares me, that keeps me up at night.”
“It’s that discrimination,” she continues. “That racism, it doesn't matter, it doesn’t matter that I went to one of the best universities in the world, it doesn't matter where I came from, it doesn't matter how I was raised, it doesn't matter my social economics background.”
She pauses for a moment, allowing her emotions to calm as she seems to reflect on the nature of systemic racism.
“Discrimination doesn't discriminate. You're Black,” she says. “That’s the scary part.”
The past few weeks have been exhausting, for both Achonwa and fellow Canadian WNBA star Kia Nurse. Not only have they been shut out of playing basketball due to the coronavirus, but they’ve watched as the world reacts to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.
Nurse, like Achonwa, can’t help but see her own family and friends when she watches the video of George Floyd’s killing. That fear is something that tears at her. She said she worries whenever her boyfriend is late to come home. He’s 6-foot-1 and athletic. “A former football player,” she said. So, she worries he might be pulled over by the cops for something relatively minor, and his nerves, size, and the color of his skin could make him seem like a threat.
“I know he’s smart,” she said. “I know he's not doing anything that he shouldn't be doing, but you never know if that's enough.”
She’s afraid for her unborn children that she one day hopes to have. They’ll probably be dark-skinned, darker than her, she said, and that’s concerning.
“I don’t know when they stop being cute,” she said. “I don't know when I can't protect them anymore. I don't know when I'm going to have to have the conversation with them about how to stay alive.
“That’s frightening. That scares the crap out of me every single day.”
Then there’s the other side of the past few weeks. Around the world people have begun protesting for racial justice and equality. People have learned to use their voices and to educate others. It’s something both women hope continues not just in the coming days and weeks, but long after the protests die down and media attention shifts toward new topics.
“Whether you're White, Black, whoever, I hope that you take this chance to educate yourselves, to vote, sign petitions, donate, change policies, that we use this global call for action for good and to actually make change,” Achonwa said.
When Nurse was in university at UConn, she said she had a professor that used to tell his students not to be a blind sheep.
She said she didn’t understand it at the time. She questioned him and he asked her if she always sat in the same seat in class.
“Yes,” she responded. “This is university, we have unassigned, assigned seats. Everybody knows that you don't take someone else’s.”
That was the problem in the professor’s eyes. If you always sit in the same seat you’re always surrounded by the same people, usually your closest friends with similar interests, beliefs, and backgrounds.
Nurse said she pushed back on the professor. She told him she didn’t want to move seats because she didn’t think other people would be genuine with her and she feared they might be too stuck in their beliefs to welcome her into their group.
Now Nurse is a different person. She realizes that if change is going to happen it’s going to take everyone becoming more comfortable being uncomfortable.
“That’s how you learn,” she said. “That’s how you spread knowledge. That’s how you help people understand. And then they go do it again and it becomes kind of like a big cycle.”
Today, she might react differently to that professor.
“Yeah,” she said. “I wouldn't mind leaving seats.”