[best hair straightener for curly hair]Black cheerleaders at University of Texas navigate a sport where representation is rare
It was Parker Kilpatrick’s first week on the University of Texas pom squad when her hand shot up during the inaugural team meeting. She needed to know one thing.
Do I have to straighten my hair?
Kilpatrick, who will be a junior this fall, was one of three Black pomdancers on a team of 23 for the 2020-2021 school year. Being the Black girl in the room is something the College Station?native became accustomed to throughout her years participating in competitive dance, what she described as a “white-dominated art.” Kilpatrick looks back on old dance photos of herself and doesn’t recognize the straight-haired person staring back. This hasn’t been so at UT, where her curls move along with her during each performance.
“‘We took you as you were because we think you look amazing as you are, so we don’t want you to change,’” Kilpatrick’s coaches told her.
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Seeing Kilpatrick and other Black UT Spirit members embrace their natural textures on the sidelines at Texas Longhorn athletic events makes Jordyn Marsh smile. To her, it marks some semblance of progress, a freedom she didn’t feel she could fully enjoy when she performed on UT’s pom squad during the 2013-2014 school year after moving from San Antonio.?
Cheer and dance are spheres that have historically been made up of mostly white people.?The effects of systemic racism, such as unequal access to resources and the denial of Black women onto cheer teams during desegregation, account for some of the disparity.?
?At UT — where practice?typically?start 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 one that’s making progress, too.
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For Marsh, exclusion took a different form in 2013. Under the weight of white beauty standards,Marsh said she sometimes felt pressure?to straighten her curly hair for performances. She said teammates and coaches always loved her hair straight. Little did they know, styling her hair that way was an hours-long process that could easily be undone by the Austin heat.
“My hair instantly frizzes as I straighten it,” Marsh said. “… How am I going to be outside for six hours? I’m like, ‘If you want my hair to look nice, and outside, then it’s going to be curly.’”
Just as they do now, Black people made up a majority of the athletes on the UT football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball teams?in 2013. Yet, only four of the women who supported Longhorn sports teamsthat school year as part of the pom squad were Black. Across the cheer squads — all-girl and co-ed — just fivepeople out of 57?were Black.
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The numbers haven’t changed much since 2013. Just four out of 67 cheerleaders on UT’s all-girl and co-ed squads were Black in 2020,when the university reported a 5.3% Black student population. This is an increase since the 2013-2014 school year, when Black people comprised 4.3% of the UT undergraduate student population, according to the university’s statistical handbook.
(Coach Blair Brown, a former member of the UT pom squad who has?overseen the pom and cheer teams?since 2018,?declined to comment for this story, as did media representative for UT Athletics.)
Marsh said the fact that four Black women were on the 24-member pom squad that year was “a goddamn miracle.”
But they didn’t always take the field at the same time, because they had to try out for each game. Gianni Outram, Marsh’s teammate who danced on the pom squad from 2013-2017, said that at many performances throughout her UT career, she was the only Black member present.Hailing from El Paso,?she wasn’t used to being part of a predominantly white group.
“I did feel very different from every single human on the team,” Outram said.
While Outram said she had a mostly positive experience on the pomteam, there were microaggressions. Some teammates assumed she was good at hip-hop dancing, despite the fact that she came from a ballet-focused studio. They asked her if she could teach them how to twerk.
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Sarah Massey dealt with similar issues during her time on the cheer squad from 2016-2018 — once a teammatelikened her Afro to a pompom — but she also had to be careful about broadcasting her opinions. When national anthem protests began, the Dallas native said one friend asked her why she wasn’t kneeling at football games.
“I said, ‘The problem is, there’s not enough of us out there, and it’s only me, so if I kneel, and I’m on the sideline … it puts me in the position where I could be a target,’” Massey said. At the same time, each cheer performance 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 want to be like me,’” she said.
Ivory James, a current UT cheerleader from Houston, has become the girl with the ‘fro at Longhorn athletic events over the last two years.?She knows little Black girls are watching her, so sometimes, being the only Black representation on the sidelines creates pressure for her.
That hyper-visibility is something prospective Black students might want to avoid;?James said an incoming freshman at a Black student welcome event told her that while she was a cheerleader, she didn’t want to participate at UT.
It was?something James understood.
“Because of our demographics, it’s just kind of expected that things like that would have more white people,” she said.
A lack of diversity on campus may not bethe only factor. The picture of a stereotypical American cheerleader is white— teen movies and TV shows, Taylor Swift music videos and a quick Google search reinforce that image —?and to some in the Black community, so is the culture surrounding it. Any detection of conformity could potentially earn a Black cheerleader the “whitewashed”?label.
The complexity of navigating two worlds is something Hailey Scott understands. Scott, a Hutto native, said some peoplein the Black community have suggested that because she?doesn’t sport an Afro on the sidelines like James or Kilpatrick, she is not proud of her identity.
“There is also a stigma that we shouldn’t be wearing weave and we should just wear our natural hair,” she said. “And I feel like we should be able to embrace anything just like any other culture.”
Scott said a coach dismissed her from a predominantly white middle school cheer team for having a “bad attitude,” so she took a brief hiatus. Competitive All-Star cheer, which incorporates stunts, dance and choreography into a routine,was too expensive — classes and other fees can be up to thousands of dollars on the high end.
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The UT Spirit program doesn’t require a fee for its members to participate, but it does entail a significant commitment. Marsh?left the pom squad after one season because she thought it best to spend her time?working to afford living in Austin rather than?at practices and games.?Other teammates, she said, had the luxury to participate without worrying about financial burdens.
Now a dance instructor at Akins High School in South Austin, Marsh said a shortage of financial resources is a significant barrier to entry for?many who want to participate in cheer or dance. According to 2019 data from the Federal Reserve website, American Black families’ median and mean wealth is less than 15 percent that of white families.
“Who’s able to afford these lessons and these trainings? It’s going to be people who are better off financially and that tends to fall towards …?the white population,” Marsh said.
Though Black representation is still minimal, Outram said UT’s spirit squads seem different now than when she danced for the pom squad and straightened her curls during halftime breaks.
This past year’s cheerteam wasn’t perfect, Scott said, but it was the best she’s been on. The upcoming senior is working to progress things further as the team’s diversity and inclusion operations manager for next season. Prior to the 2020-2021 school year, a diversity and inclusion committee didn’t exist in the UT Spirit program.
”I’m going to implement so much this year … just to include inclusivity in our team,” Scott said. “We do struggle with that, but it’s not intentional … It’s the lack of time, but they need that one person that’s going to force it in there, and that’s going to be me.”
Kilpatrick said scholarships are available to support Black UT Spirit members.The Morgan Peppers Memorial Scholarship?hosted through Texas Exes, for example, rewards a deserving Black UT cheerleader or pom squad member with a monetary gift.?
But support?has transcended financial assistance, Kilpatrick said. Coaches checked in on her last summer in the wake of protests against racial injustice. A culture of diversity in the program is molding into form.
No one has made her straighten her hair.
“It’s definitely a malleable team and a malleable organization,” Kilpatrick said. “… I think if you walk in with confidence in who you are, then they’re going to see you shine.”