Brock student-athlete navigating identity, addressing racism in sport

The Brock Badgers are highlighting Black student-athlete and staff stories through a series of features as part of the University’s celebration of Black History Month/African Heritage Month in February. A list of events taking place throughout the month is available on ExperienceBU. Throughout February, Brock Sports and Recreation is raising funds for the Black/Indigenous Heritage Student-Athlete bursary through proceeds from an “All for Change” T-shirt, which is available online, and a portion of varsity home game ticket sales.

For Brock student-athlete Chihinga Palata, Black History Month/African Heritage Month is a poignant reminder to dig into her roots and rise above challenges she’s faced all her life.

Growing up without significant figures from her own culture, Palata values every relationship and community she forms with other people of colour.

“Black History Month for me is a reminder to continue connecting with my culture and my history,” said the fourth-year Medical Sciences student. “I acknowledge it by reaffirming that value and putting extra time into searching out knowledge I’m missing and fostering those relationships I rely on as a woman of colour.”

Palata’s early years were shaped by a blend of Angolan and Dutch heritage. Raised by her mother in Brantford, she navigated life as one of the few Black students in a predominantly white private elementary school and community.

It was during this time that she noticed disparities in the way she and her sister were treated while playing soccer.

“It took me a long while to realize that looking different meant people would react to me differently as well,” Palata said. “My sister and I noticed the same tackles or challenges our white teammates or opponents made were more likely to be penalized when we did them.”

After experiencing several challenging situations at home, including her parents’ separation, Palata relocated to live with her aunt’s family in rural southern Ontario.

While this pivotal move exposed her to a troubling degree of casual racism, it also led to university and finding solace in the sport of rugby.

The sport opened doors to success, with invitations to high-level camps, tours and tryouts. Recruited by one of her former Brock coaches, Palata has since entered the Rugby Ontario and Rugby Canada’s high-performance pathways.

Palata joined the Badgers in 2020 but didn’t compete because the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the sports season. The pandemic also affected Palata’s years in the under-20 age group as a developing provincial and national team player.

These interruptions were overshadowed by the obstacles Palata encountered as a woman of colour in varsity athletics, particularly in the predominantly white world of women’s rugby.

In the realm of sports, Palata emphasized the vital role of education and open dialogue to eliminate microaggressions and bridge cultural differences. This proactive approach is essential for fostering stronger connections between People of Colour and non-People of Colour, she said.

Palata positively acknowledges recent initiatives by Brock and the OUA for diversity in sports. Yet, she notes that a Person of Colour’s experience still relies heavily on how white individuals receive and react to those messages.

“There’s a group of Black athletes who inspire me. Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams have all emphasized the importance of mental health to their overall well-being and athletic performance,” Palata said. “They are a high-profile example of what prioritizing your complete well-being can bring to your game, and why taking time away from competition or sport can be beneficial.”

Despite her passion for rugby and the strides she made within the Brock Badgers, Palata has recently decided to step away from the varsity women’s rugby team.

In the midst of her ongoing pursuit of playing at the under-23 age group and dreaming of participating in the women’s premier league in England, Palata has made the difficult decision to shift her focus.

This decision comes after careful consideration and a deep introspection into her personal journey, highlighting the complex intersectionality she faces as a Black woman in the predominantly white world of women’s rugby.

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