The WNBA is important for a lot of reasons, and if you follow Ari Chambers on Twitter, she’ll remind you of each and every one of those reasons on a regular basis.
As leagues like Major League Baseball stumble into figuring out what it looks like to advocate around racial injustice and allow their athletes to protest, the WNBA is firmly in its comfort zone. The women of the WNBA — the Black women of the WNBA — have been leading in this area for a long time. Years, in fact.
“We are the women who have been doing the work long before it was socially acceptable or cool,” New York Liberty point guard Layshia Clarendon wrote for The Undefeated earlier this month. “We are the trans, the non-binary, the gender non-conforming, the cis women, the gay women, all across the spectrum of what women can be – in a predominantly black league.”
If you’re a sports league or an athlete wondering what it looks like to advocate for social justice beyond performative gestures, look to the W for what to do.
This year, while other leagues focus broadly on the very basic fact that “Black Lives Matter,” the WNBA has a more specific, season-long campaign: they’re focusing on #SayHerName, the hashtag that was created to highlight and remember the Black women who have been killed by state violence. In 2016, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and lawyer Andrea Ritchie released a report examining the 70 cases of Black women who had been killed at the hands of police over the previous three years. A 2018 study found that 60 percent of Black women who are killed by police were unarmed.
“It is hard to educate the public about violence against Black women because it so rarely makes the news,” Michelle S. Jacobs, a professor of law at the University of Florida, wrote in The Violent State: Black Women's Invisible Struggle Against Police Violence. “There is a long-standing problem with media coverage, or the lack thereof, of crimes committed against Black women.”
While some professional teams are participating in the meme-ification of Breonna Taylor’s death, the W ran a minutes-long remembrance package for her, focused on her story, talked to and about her family, and lifted up her memory in each of Saturday’s three games.
While white MLB players were tepidly placing their hands on the shoulders of their kneeling Black teammates or kneeling before the anthem but standing while it plays, every single player in the WNBA walked off the floor and into the locker room before the national anthem. As Clarendon said after the game, “The kneeling has become performative.”
But Taylor was not the only Black woman whose name was lifted up by the WNBA this weekend. Before the first game of the season between the New York Liberty and Seattle Storm, Clarendon spoke a few words about why the league was focusing on #SayHerName.
“Black women are so often forgotten in the fight for justice, do not have people marching in the streets for them,” Clarendon said. “Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, and Breonna Taylor. We will be a voice for the voiceless.”
And with that list of names, the WNBA set themselves apart yet again: Rem’mie Fells was a 27-year-old Black trans woman who was killed in Philly last month.
Here’s the thing: if you’ve been paying any kind of attention at all, you know the high rates of violence that Black trans women face. They’re cited over and over again each time another one happens. But just in case you don’t know: of the trans people who were murdered in 2019, all but one were Black. As of earlier this month, 21 trans people had been murdered in the U.S., with the majority of them being Black trans women — 73% were transgender women of color, and 47% Black trans women specifically, according to the Philly Inquirer.
I created and designed these shoes to amplify and encourage others to learn and join us in the fight for JUSTICE. And with today being our first game, let’s remember why we’re doing this. To DEMAND justice for Breonna Taylor, Black women and girls. Black trans lives. And all black lives.. #sayhername #breonnataylor #arrestthecops #blacklivesmatter✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿July 26, 2020
In order to have a true movement for liberation, in this case, Black liberation, the community’s most vulnerable members must be centered. The WNBA is doing this by calling attention to the violence that Black women face at the hands of the state, and by ensuring that Black trans women are included, too.
The inclusion of Rem’mie Fells was not over-explained, it was not an addendum, it was not an aside. It was a matter of fact. It is probably not a coincidence that Clarendon, who has described themself as “not cisgender” and “gender nonconforming,” is leading the way on trans inclusion in this initiative.
It’s in moments like this that the WNBA reveals itself to be the league that is truly leading on issues related to social justice and inclusion. And they show how easy it is to make sure that every facet of a community is represented. With the inclusion of Rem’mie Fells, the WNBA lifts up Black trans women everywhere and tells the trans people watching at home, “This league is for you, too.”
Everyone else should be taking notes.
Day 2 of the season tips off at noon and there are three games happening today. Tune into the Wubble and support the league that supports their communities.