By Kieran Heffernan
Shaïnah Joseph’s experience as a Black athlete has varied.
Joseph, who is from Ottawa, is a member of Canada’s national women’s volleyball team. Her playing career has taken her all around the world.
While she’s a new signee to the Ageo Medics of Japan’s top professional league, the V Premier League, Joseph’s career began locally, playing in high school at Franco-Cite and with the Ottawa Mavericks at the club level.
Here in the nation’s capital she was raised by her Black aunt and white uncle, which she says gave her a different experience on race than someone raised by two Black parents.
“Growing up, I didn’t really see racism. I kind of went through life a little bit, not ignorant, but kind of ignorant,” she said.
She remembers in high school that along with other Black students being called “Oreos,” a racially charged term.
“They would say that you’re Black on the outside but white on the inside, and I’m like, ‘What is that supposed to mean?’”
Though she was often the only Black girl on her volleyball teams growing up, the uniqueness of her situation was not something she often thought about.
“I was very fortunate. I never had anybody who discriminated (against) me or treated me differently because of my race. So I was pretty sheltered in that sense,” she said, adding, “I didn’t know how to be Black.”
It wasn’t until she attended the University of Florida and played for the Gators that she felt she was truly immersed in Black culture.
“I learned about what it is to be Black, like listening to the right music. I never listened to rap music until I got to college,” she said.
Friends she made who were Black went on to teach her about movies, style, and important figures and activists in the Black community. They even told her how “Black people have more attitude, they’re more spicy.”
“They always said Canadians are really nice, and I am really nice still, but sometimes I have my little spicy side and it comes out.”
Something that surprised her when she moved to Florida was how proud Black people are of their heritage.
“They tell you, ‘Hey I’m Black,’ and I’m like, ‘Okay?” she said. “I never really assumed I have to tell people I’m Black because I’m like, it’s obvious, but over there they say it, they shout it, and it’s almost kind of like a culture.”
Now Joseph said she feels like she’s more a part of that culture as well. She jokes around with the other Black players on the national team about how they need to stick together, and says she now feels more drawn to Black people as well.
“Now I think I’m attracted to other Black people in the sense of I want to hang out with them, I want to be with my people,” she explained. “When I was younger, not that I wasn’t attracted to it, but I didn’t know it. So I kind of stayed away from it. But now it’s like I see Black people, I’m like, ‘Hey, what’s up, how’s it going, let’s talk, let’s have a conversation.’”
Although Joseph herself was never really treated differently while at university either, she became aware of the realities of being a Black athlete in the American South.
She recalls having one friend who dated a white woman whose parents were racist. The parents, Joseph recollected, told her Black friend that because he was a football player – a Gator – they had no problem with him.
“I’m like no, it’s not different. He’s still Black at the end of the day. Just because he’s an athlete for a top Division 1 school doesn’t mean that it’s different,” she said.
She also said she had to “be aware” and “stay woke” just living in Gainesville, where the university is located.
“I was always conscientious of if I’m ever going to have an encounter with (a police) officer, I have to be careful. I always spoke proper English and I always made sure I told them I was Canadian too.”
After graduating from Florida, Joseph went to play for Plovdiv Maritza VK in Bulgaria, where there are very few Black people.
She recalled an interaction with a woman once at a gas station. The woman seemed surprised and excited, Joseph said. Being in Bulgaria, Joseph couldn’t understand what the woman was saying, but her friends told her it was because the lady had never seen a Black person before.
“And then she asked to touch my hair,” Joseph laughed. “Some Black people would be like, don’t touch my hair, that’s so rude, but then for me it was kind of a cool experience. I was like wow, I’m her first Black person she’s ever met.”
Playing in Taiwan and the Philippines was a similarly interesting experience for Joseph.
“They embraced me, they wanted to be like me almost,” she said. “They’re like okay, what do people say? The way that I talk, they would want to talk the same way. Then they’re like, ‘Shainah, tell me about your music, show me music.’ They would always want to know about my culture and everything so I thought that was really cool.”
Once again joining a new team – this time in Japan – Joseph is setting off on another new experience and opportunity to gain perspective on her own identity and culture.