With Anna Zimmermann and Raye Neil | October 30, 2023
Today we talked with UConn lacrosse player Raye Neil about her experiences with being the minority in a primarily white sport and what it has been like as a black female athlete to compete at a high level.
Anna Zimmermann: Hello and welcome. My name is Anna Zimmermann, and today I have guest Ray Neil with me.
Raye Neil: Hi, Anna. I’m so excited to be here.
Anna Zimmermann: I’m so happy to have you.
Raye Neil: Yay. But yeah, my name is Raye. I’m a senior on the women’s lacrosse team. I have the pleasure of playing with Anna every day, and I’m really excited to talk to her a little bit more about my past with the sport and everything.
Anna Zimmermann: Good. Okay, so today we’re going to be talking about the struggles and hurdles of being a competitive athlete as a black female athlete in a predominantly white sport. And I know that you have a lot of experience with this, obviously, and I also know that you’re really open and passionate about it. I know you’re on the social issues committee on the team, so, we hear a lot about what’s going on in the world and what’s going on in just our small community of lacrosse. So when did you start playing lacrosse?
Raye Neil: well, funny story, the first time I picked up a stick, my parents made me do, like, a clinic thing when I was in kindergarten, but it was one where everyone got a boys stick, so I actually absolutely hated it. And then I stepped away for five more years, and then I actually started playing when I was in fourth grade, so I was like ten years old, I think.
Anna Zimmermann: Okay, where are you from again?
Raye Neil: New Hampshire.
Anna Zimmermann: New Hampshire. Is lacrosse big there?
Raye Neil: No, I was lucky that the area that I was in, I’m from Exeter, New Hampshire, and that seacoast region of New Hampshire, it’s pretty prominent, so I had a lot of people to look up to. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Block sisters, they played at Syracuse, but they were from the town over next to that. Like, my area was pretty big in lacrosse, but not so much the whole state. Yeah, it was hard to find.
Anna Zimmermann: And I know that that’s part of the issue with lacrosse is just like a lack of outreach. There’s not a huge — it’s growing, the community is growing, the sports growing. But it is tough because I know whether it be like, lower income areas or even just like a lack of knowledge, I know a lot of people, whether it be like, out west or even south, really like the variety of people that come into lacrosse. And I know that there’s just a lack of diversity in general, whether it be like, where you’re from. But I actually saw a statistic that said, like, 86% of all lacrosse players are white. And I think the statistic for black people is 3.4% of all collegiate, like, through all divisions. So I was wondering, how that’s affected you. What has your experience been with that?
Raye Neil: Yeah, absolutely. you’re definitely right. It’s not a very diverse sport necessarily. And like you said, there’s definitely a lot of people who are working and pushing to embrace that diversity, because there are people of color who do want to play the sport and who, like you said, maybe just don’t have access to it or maybe aren’t familiar with it. So it’s definitely been a journey. I’ve learned a lot being a black woman playing lacrosse, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Absolutely. but yeah, so like you said, when I was young, I was fortunate enough to have a really close friend who was also biracial with a white mom and a black dad. So we fonded over a lot of things. We also loved the sport of lacrosse, which was really awesome, but there was never someone in my area who I could look up to as a black or even a person of color playing the sport of lacrosse. And that was men and women. And obviously that was also kind of the case in college. Yeah, there were a few people every once in a while, but it took a long time for there to be consistently faces of color in our sport, which is okay. But it’s just so interesting to me since it did start out as a Native American sport, I know, and now it’s completely shifted into a predominantly white sport. So I am very happy that there were organizations like Harlem Lacrosse and others that are working to get the sport back, to people of color. But at first, I don’t think I really thought about how I was different or that my skin color could be used against me, I guess, within the play. But I think I’m really fortunate for the way that I was raised and the way that my parents taught me. Eventually I did learn that I was viewed as different, which is okay, and I came to terms with that, I think, but it did make a defensive mindset about myself. So I’m already always ready to protect myself, always thinking that random people are thinking the worst of me, and little things like that. so there was one time in high school, I was on a team and it was just like a one tournament team that we had to try out for. And there was this one girl that I didn’t really get the best vibe from, but nothing too crazy. And then I would just hear little whispers or comments and stuff. And I just don’t think that that necessarily happens to everyone. And it might not have been a racist situation, but immediately my my month to that because I don’t know, that just how I was raised. And then I would talk about it with my parents after and they’d be like, yeah, I noticed that too. Which just kind of confirmed for me that okay, maybe that wasn’t someone who’s going to be my best friend, but that’s okay. So I think that was the first time in a truly lacrosse setting that I was like, whoa, I need to be aware of my surroundings. yeah. I never wanted to be too aggressive. I never wanted to be overly swinging or overly crazy with my checks or anything, just because I knew people could use it against me. And I didn’t like that idea.
Anna Zimmermann: Have you ever had an experience where that did happen?
Raye Neil: Probably depends on who you ask, in my perspective, yes. just, like, little things too. People made comments about my hair, like, my goggles, like, making sure they’re around my hair and stuff. I’m like, well, it’s on my head, like everyone else’s, actually. yeah, so it’s definitely been crazy. Or I feel like we’ll do back to back plays and someone can do the same exact thing as me, and then I’m the one getting the foul, so I always keep it in the back of my mind also.
Anna Zimmermann: Yeah. and I thought that it was also interesting how you talked about lacrosse originally originating from Native American culture, because now it’s considered the white sport or, like, the frat boy sport, you know what I mean? It’s just like this culture around douchey white guys beating each other with a stick, and the culture is so much richer and so much deeper than that, and it’s become so lost on the people who play the game and view the game. And I wanted to talk about the instances of severe discrimination in the sport, and I know just over the past two years, the instances that have happened with the Howard’s women’s lacrosse team. Do you know details of that story?
Raye Neil: I believe they were pulled over on a school bus, which in itself is kind of crazy. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a school bus being pulled over unless there was something visibly wrong with the driver from the outside of the vehicle. So just that alone was really crazy to me. And then I believe immediately it seemed like the police officers were looking for drugs and looking through everyone’s bags without really a warrant. Yeah.
Anna Zimmermann: It just escalated for no reason very quickly. Yeah. And then there was also the case in which the Howard’s women’s across team faced racially motivated verbal slurs and assault when they were walking onto the field before game. Obviously, these things are really horrible to hear about from anybody’s perspective, whoever you are, those are really horrible. That just shouldn’t happen to anybody. But I know it’s almost in the same way that a man will never understand what a woman goes through. It’s like, how did those things affect you personally? Whether it be, like, your mental health, like the conversations you were having with your family, or the way that it impacted your community or your perspective, or even just the way you go about yourself. Because I know that instances like those can kind of cause you to step back and have tough conversations with yourself and almost question the way that you’re just going about your normal life.
Raye Neil: absolutely. I think kind of how you were saying earlier, it definitely made me take a step back and it definitely was a gut check moment. i, think I’ve been fortunate, or I know that I’ve been fortunate to not have faced such direct discrimination surrounded by this sport. so just to think about how safe I feel with our team and with our coaches and when we’re traveling, I feel safe because there’s 40 of us, there’s so many of us. We’re on a Yukon provided bus, we’re traveling through the airport with all our gear. Like everyone knows who we are. I feel safe. So to have that boundary be crossed so violently and so quickly really made me take a step back and I just had to reevaluate. It almost feels like you can never truly just be settled because there’s always going to be someone lurking in the corner. who thinks you don’t deserve to be here, thinks you have no right to playing the sport or whatever it might be. or thinks you’re carrying drugs just because you’re black.
Anna Zimmermann: That’s just very confusing.
Raye Neil: Especially girls, who go to Howard, who are very smart, very capable, very athletic. They play a sport. If you were to look at their stereotypical, all of their other characteristics, most people wouldn’t go assume, wouldn’t jump to drugs, but since they are black, that is why. So it’s just definitely a gut check and just makes you sit and think. I think again, I’m fortunate that our team is very supportive and welcoming and I’ve never felt like that on our team. So it could have been really easy for me to put up walls with my teammates, but I already felt like I had those connections form where I was able to talk about it freely and understand people’s perspectives. Yeah. Is there always the fear that maybe someone disagrees with me? Sure. But I have trust in my teammates and my coaches. That’s not the situation here.
Anna Zimmermann: Yeah. M well, that’s awesome that your team and our team has created this atmosphere that allows you to feel like you can be like your authentic self and you don’t have to. And I know that it’s different in every situation and, it’s easier in sometimes rather than others, but having a safe environment like that where you don’t feel like, oh gosh, maybe I shouldn’t say this or maybe I shouldn’t bring up this issue that is really important to me, to our team. Because what if they don’t understand? Or what if they don’t want to understand? And I think that, you’ve done a great job of creating awareness and creating just conversations about things like that in a way that someone who’s white wouldn’t be able to because it’s very eye opening to have, your perspective and Alana’s perspective and Raya’s perspective. I think that they’re all really important voices that need to be heard. And you speaking up and talking about those things is really important. Again, to promote the diversity in the sport and promote acceptance and just knowledge, because just some people just simply aren’t aware. So I think that you’re doing great things. so what’s been your biggest hurdle, either internally or externally, while competing competitively in a predominantly white sport?
Raye Neil: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I feel like along with the things that every collegiate athlete faces, just, like, little things, like eating enough, sleeping enough, making sure that you are showing up on time and managing your classes and everything like that. Definitely all those things. But I, think when I was younger, I almost had a sense of impostor syndrome. Almost. Yeah, I love the sport, and, yeah, I might be scoring goals in 8th grade or whatever it is, but no one on the left or the right looks like me. So it’s like, why am I here? Why do I feel like I can take it to the next step when the people next to me don’t feel the same? It was just a lot of questioning, I think. And again, I really am a big advocate for, visibility, and having role models that look like you goes a really long way. So I think, yeah, I had my friend who was my age, which was awesome, and I bounced so many things off of her all the time. But there wasn’t really anyone that I can remember until I came to college, which was Cindy Watson. Shout out to that I could truly look up to and be what she knows how I feel on the day to day. She knows how I feel in lacrosse. She’s been through similar experiences to me. And if I had a bad day, I knew I could turn to her simply because she just understood things at a deeper level. So I think kind of that idea of imposter syndrome and just, like, wondering why I deserve to be here, I guess. But then it took a while, but I think I got over that. And I understand that I do deserve to be here. And I’ve worked hard to be here. And just because might not have looked like everyone on the left and right of me in high school, that might not have necessarily been because of lacrosse. I also grew up in New Hampshire.
Anna Zimmermann: Which well, obviously, it’s not your job to fix. This is something that is very much a community issue, and it goes much deeper within I don’t know what you would call not like the system of lacrosse, but what would you say?
Raye Neil: yeah, I know what you mean.
Anna Zimmermann: Yeah. Okay, let me think of a better way to phrase this. what would be advice that you would give to either a younger you or a young girl who looks up to you who’s in the same position that you were when you were her age?
Raye Neil: that’s a sweet question. I definitely think just being willing to talk, I think, can go a really long way. I’m very grateful for the position that I’m in currently and with our team. Thank you for saying all those nice things about me being willing to talk to each talk to everyone. But I think it’s awesome that the only reason that I feel like I can talk to people is how receptive everyone is. And in high school, I was never as vocal about these type of topics, even though it’s always been a strong passion of mine. So I think, yeah, I might have felt, like, isolated maybe in high school, but I also wasn’t telling people that I felt that way or I wasn’t talking about what my perspective was on the field or anything like that. So I think if I could go back, I would like to just open my mouth a little bit more and share with people what I’m going through, because I’ve seen here, everyone is more than willing to learn and willing to help me through those things, but I have to be the one to start that conversation. And like you said, it’s not necessarily my job to fix, but everyone wants to help, so the more conversations, the better. So that would probably be my advice to younger girls. But also, we’re also hopefully in a time where we do have people to look up to and yeah, there’s still a lot more work to go, but find those role models and stick with them because they will motivate you more than I think I realized when I was younger.
Anna Zimmermann: Yeah. Awesome. It was great to talk to you about this today, and I’m really glad that we were able to sit down and have this conversation. So I appreciate your openness.
Raye Neil: Yeah, thank you so much for taking your time. It really means a lot to me, and I know it would mean a lot to everyone else, too. Just the fact that you even thought of this as a topic is really cool. Thank you.
Anna Zimmermann: Awesome. Well, thank you. And bleed blue. Everyone. All right.
Raye Neil: Thanks for coming in.
Anna Zimmermann: Ray. Neil, that was awesome.
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