It was Parker Kilpatrick’s first week on the University of Texas Pom team when her hand shot up during the first team meeting. She had to know one thing.
Do I have to straighten my hair?
Kilpatrick, who will be junior this fall, was one of three black pom pomsDancers in a team of 23 for the 2020/2021 school year. Being the black girl in the room is something the native college station has gotten used to over the course of her years as she competed in what she referred to as the “white dominated art”. Kilpatrick looks back at old dance photos of himself and does not recognize the straight-haired man staring back. This wasn’t like that with UT, where her locks move with her every performance.
“‘We took you for who you were because we think you look the way you are, so we don’t want you to change,'” Kilpatrick’s trainer told her.
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Seeing Kilpatrick and other Black UT Spirit members hug their natural textures on the sidelines at Texas Longhorn sporting events makes Jordyn Marsh smile. To her, it’s a semblance of progress, a freedom she wasn’t able to fully enjoy when she appeared on UT’s pom roster in the 2013-2014 school year after moving from San Antonio.
Cheering and dancing are spheres that historically have consisted mostly of whites. The effects of systemic racism, such as unequal access to resources and black women refusing to meet cheering teams during the desegregation, are responsible for some of the inequality.
At UT – where training usually begins about a week before fall classes – former and current black members of the pom and cheer squads describe a world that has not been without problems and isolation, but is also making progress.
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“I want to be the black girl in the field”
For Marsh, marginalization took a different form in 2013. Under the weight of the white beauty standardsMarsh said she sometimes felt the pressure to straighten her curly hair for performances. She said teammates and coaches always loved their hair straight. Little did they know it was an hours and hours process to style their hair in this way that the Austin heat could easily undo.
“My hair is instant frizz when I straighten it,” Marsh said. “… How am I supposed to be outside for six hours? I say, ‘If my hair is to look nice, and outside, it gets curly.’ “
Just like now, in 2013 blacks made up the majority of athletes on the UT soccer, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball teams. Yet only four of the women who supported Longhorn sports teamsthat school year as part of the Pom squad were black. About the Cheer Squads – all-girl and co-ed – only fivePeople out of 57 were black.
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The numbers haven’t changed much since 2013. Only four out of 67 cheerleaders in UT’s girl and coed roster were black in 2020.when the university reported a black student population of 5.3%. This is an increase since the 2013-2014 school year when blacks made up 4.3% of the UT student population, according to the university’s statistical manual.
(Trainer Blair Brown, a former member of the UT Pom squad who has overseen the pom and cheer teams since 2018, declined to comment on the story, as did the UT Athletics media rep.)
Marsh said the fact that there were four black women on the 24-person Pom team that year was “a goddamn miracle.”
But they didn’t always enter the field at the same time because they had to try each other out for each game. Gianni Outram, Marsh’s teammate who danced on the Pom squad from 2013 to 2017, said she was the only black member present on many appearances throughout her UT career.She was from El Paso and was not used to being part of a predominantly white group.
“I felt very different from every single person on the team,” said Outram.
While Outram said she had a mostly positive experience with the pomTeam there was microaggressions. Some teammates assumed she was good at hip-hop dancing even though she came from a ballet studio. They asked her if she could teach them to work.
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Sarah Massey dealt with similar issues during her time on the Cheer Squad from 2016 to 2018 – once a teammatecompared her afro to a pompom – but she also had to be careful about spreading her opinion. When the protests against the national anthem began, the Dallaser-born woman said a friend asked her why she didn’t kneel at soccer games.
“I said, ‘The problem is that there aren’t enough of us out there and it’s just me. So when I’m kneeling and on the sidelines … it puts me in the position where I can be a target could ‘”said Massey. At the same time, every jubilee appearance was an opportunity.
“When I joined the team I said, ‘No matter what, I want to be that black girl on the field because I want other little black girls to come to the game and be like me,'” she said.
Ivory James, a current Houston UT cheerleader, has been the frontrunner girl at Longhorn sporting events for the past two years. She knows that little black girls are watching her, so she sometimes feels pressure to be the only black representation on the sidelines.
This hyper-visibility is something that potential black students want to avoid; James said an incoming freshman at a black college student welcome told her that while she was a cheerleader, she didn’t want to attend the UT.
It was something James understood.
“Based on our demographics, it’s just expected that something like this would have more whites,” she said.
The complexity of navigating through two worlds
There shouldn’t be a lack of diversity on campusthe only factor. The image of a stereotypical American cheerleader is white– Teenage movies and TV shows, Taylor Swift music videos, and a quick Google search add to this image – and for some in the black community, it is culture that surrounds them too. Any determination of compliance could potentially earn a black cheerleader the whitewashed label.
The complexity of navigating two worlds is something Hailey Scott understands. Scott, a Native Hutto, said some peoplein the black community have suggested that because they doesn’t wear an afro on the sidelines like James or Kilpatrick, she’s not proud of her identity.
“There is also a stigma that we shouldn’t wear fabric and should only wear our natural hair,” she said. “And I think we should be able to accept anything like any other culture.”
Scott said a coach fired her from a predominantly white middle school team because of a “bad attitude”, so she took a short break. Competitive all-star cheer that integrates stunts, dance and choreography into one routine,was too expensive – courses and other fees can run into thousands of dollars on the high end.
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The UT Spirit program does not charge its members a fee to join, but it does come with a substantial commitment. Marsh left the pom roster after a season because she thought it best to spend her time working rather than being able to afford life in Austin during training and games. Other teammates, she said, have the luxury of participating without worrying about financial burdens.
Marsh, now a dance instructor at Akins High School in South Austin, said a lack of funding is a significant barrier to entry for many who wish to attend cheering or dancing. According to 2019 data from the Federal Reserve website, the median and median wealth of American black families is less than 15 percent of that of white families.
“Who can afford these lessons and these training courses? It’s going to be people who are better off financially, and that tends to fall on … the white population, “Marsh said.
“A malleable organization”
Though Black’s representation is still minimal, Outram says that UT’s ghost squads look different now than they did when she danced for the pom troupe and straightened her curls during halftime breaks.
Last year’s jubilationTeam wasn’t perfect, said Scott, but it was the best she’s ever had. The upcoming senior is working to keep things moving forward as the team’s Diversity and Inclusion Operations Manager for the next season. Prior to the 2020-2021 school year, the UT Spirit program did not have a diversity and inclusion committee.
“I’m going to be implementing so much this year … just to add inclusivity to our team,” said Scott. “We’re struggling with this, but it’s not intended … It’s the lack of time, but you need that one person to force it there and that is me.”
Kilpatrick said scholarships are available to support members of the Black UT Spirit.For example, the Morgan Peppers Memorial Scholarship, hosted by Texas Exes, rewards a well-deserved Black UT cheerleader or Pom Squad member with a cash gift.
But the support goes beyond financial support, Kilpatrick said. Coaches checked their last summer after protests against racial injustice. A culture of diversity is forming in the program.
Nobody made her straighten her hair.
“It’s definitely a malleable team and organization,” said Kilpatrick. “… I think if you go in with confidence in who you are, they will see you shine.”