Two members of Brandeis Athletics participate in UAA series on race and racism

The University Athletic Association (UAA) has released a series titled, “Conversations on Race and Racism”—highlighting current and former coaches, players and administration and their individual experiences with race and racism—and two members of Brandeis athletics were invited to share their stories.  

Lauren Haynie, the Director of Athletics, and Pauri Pandian, the Head Coach of the Men’s and Women’s Tennis teams, have used this platform to not only describe their narratives, but also with the hopes of sparking future conversations and moving to dismantle the inherent structural racism that has been present throughout history and continues today. Since August of 2020, the UAA has shared over 12 personal stories, each detailing intimate anecdotes of encountering prejudice and racism both on and off the playing field, as well as inside and outside of the conference itself. 

“No individual or collective statement can adequately express the frustration, outrage, fear, hurt, sorrow, helplessness, guilt many of us feel as we seek to understand the systemic roots of this evil within our society and the degree to which we have become and remain blind to the everyday reality of its existence,” said Dick Rasmussen, Executive Vice President of the UAA, in a press release from late June that announced the establishment of the series. 

“Stories, personal stories, however, are powerful,” he continued. “They have the ability to touch us, move us, and inspire us to act.” It is this idea that ultimately led to the conception of this series, as Rasmussen notes that hearing personal stories, whether they come from those we know closely or others whom we do not, can be quite impactful in terms of recognizing and better understanding the long-withstanding racism that invades every aspect of our society.

These stories are authentic, genuine and exist in their purest form, being told directly by those who embody these experiences. Participants were invited to engage in a personal fashion and were able to take their story in any direction they saw fit. As Pandian shared in a message to the Hoot, “My understanding was that everyone contributing a piece to this series was given wide latitude to write what they felt passionate about, or to share their experience in life, athletics, career, or family. I felt like in this piece, I wanted to share my experience in life, as that is what I could speak most clearly and honestly about.” 

For Haynie, a similar approach was taken, as she felt compelled to share her original story in this way “…because there are very few opportunities to share personal insights on race and the way that it impacts my work and my life. The stories of people of color need to be highlighted and uplifted, and this was one small way for me to play a part in telling these stories.”

Pandian began his account with memories from childhood, pointing out the harsh contrast that existed between living the idealized American Dream on the one hand, and encountering blatant instances of racism from those around him on the other. His parents immigrated to the United States from India in the 1970s, and instilled the value of meritocracy in both him and his sister at a very young age. 

“I believed that every person could achieve anything in this country with hard work, dedication, and humility. I believed that limits didn’t exist. Despite small instances of feeling like an outsider, I felt like my individuality was honored. I felt like my town, my school, my community supported me,” said Pandian in telling his story to the UAA. “It took two planes flying into the World Trade Center to attune me to the stark reality that my community always saw me as different, they just didn’t always vocalize it.”

Haynie recalls a powerful shift like this as well during young adulthood. “College was an enormous shock for me because it was really the first time I experienced being ‘the only one in the room. I was suddenly very conscious that I was expected to speak for all members of my race instead of simply from my own perspective,” she wrote in her article

Throughout her childhood, Haynie attended racially diverse elementary and high schools in the Washington D.C. area. Since attending Penn State as an undergraduate, however, Haynie has encountered many instances, across both higher education and athletics, in which she was the only person of color in the room, resulting in countless microaggressions and disbelief regarding her reality.

“More than anything, when people of color are questioned about whether their experience of discrimination, it is real, it is harmful … I know when I am treated differently because of my skin color. Simply believe me,” Haynie conveyed to the UAA.

For both Pandian and Haynie, these experiences have not been isolated or unique, but rather have occurred repeatedly throughout the course of their personal and professional lives, extending far beyond just their early years. In unpacking their stories, both individuals have reflected on the shortfalls occurring now in our own campus community, recognizing the need for change right here at Brandeis. 

When asked what message she wanted to share with others regarding race and racism in college athletics, Haynie replied, “the entire athletics community [at Brandeis and beyond] should know that we are not immune to racism in sports. We are not inoculated because we often work together in reaching the same competitive goals.” 

But, Haynie is quite hopeful in charting a different path and believes that the athletic community gives us an excellent platform to do so. She then proposed the notion that, “we are unique in that our pursuits often put each other in proximity, and if we are willing to lean in, engage with each other, and have honest conversations, we have the opportunity to make meaningful connections that can be transformative.” 

Pandian echoed this, adding that “ultimately, everyone needs to know that these issues aren’t going to solve themselves … [but] on college sports teams, because team culture and close bonds among teammates are priorities, we are well equipped to have open, honest conversations about these topics.”

Despite calling for change now, the department itself has had its own troubled history with race and racism. In May of 2017, “six students came forward with a formal complaint against basketball coach Brian Meehan alleging nepotism, racial discrimination and emotionally abusive conduct,” accoding to an earlier article from the Brandeis Hoot. However, Meehan was not fired by the university until April 2018, over a year after the initial allegations were made by members of the team. Brandeis has received much criticism regarding how they handled his termination, and the lasting effects that his actions had on the men’s basketball program and the department as a whole.

Today, Brandeis Athletics has taken a new direction. More discussions about race and racism have been taking place, starting this summer after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd. Individual teams met over Zoom with Aseem Rastogi, Assistant Coach of the Women’s Basketball team, who facilitated structured conversations about this event and the many other racial injustices that have occurred over the past few months. 

Throughout the fall semester, Rastogi is leading Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) sessions for all of Brandeis Athletics, including student-athletes, coaches and staff. “Essentially, our collective work is focused on education, advocacy and representation,” commented Haynie. 

The efforts do not conclude after these initial DEI sessions, as Haynie says that “Out of that work, we will build a list of commitments to advocacy for causes that are important to student-athletes, coaches and staff.” She also mentioned a department-wide initiative to reexamine recruitment practices that will ideally result in a more diverse and representative student-athlete population. 

In order to effectively accomplish such goals and make necessary changes, Haynie concludes that “again, essential to these efforts is our ability to have honest, direct conversations about race and creating an anti-racist, inclusive culture.” In participating in this series, both she and Pandian have done just that, setting an example for the rest of the athletic and greater Brandeis community to follow.

With sharing his story, Pandian hopes that his narrative will serve as a starting place, bringing conversations about race and racism to the forefront of people’s minds. “My hope is that anyone who reads it learns … about my experience, reflects on their own, and makes adjustments to better the lives of [others] in whatever ways feel tangible to them,” he expressed. 

“My hope is that people feel inspired to continue to educate themselves about how racism is an inescapable part of every facet of our society. The more that people understand how that plays out in their own area of study and eventual careers, the more they can engage in anti-racist behavior in their respective fields.”

As a whole, the Brandeis campus has a long way to go. Talking about race and racism, both inside and outside the context of sport, is only the first step in making much needed change. Along with the rest of our country, we have a responsibility and a duty to lead the way. Haynie believes that Brandeis Athletics is up for the challenge.

“I have been heartened by the enthusiasm demonstrated by our students and staff to truly engage in this work,” she added. “There seems to be a collective understanding that creating the inclusive environment we want to see will require continued work, re-examination and likely missteps.” 

The road does not simply end here. These two personal stories, as well as the others shared by the UAA, serve as a testament for the work that still needs to be done. Although DEI training is occurring, education is taking place and resources are being shared, we must also take the time to step back, listen and ultimately believe the stories that people of color choose to share. Engaging in dialogue, educating ourselves and actively using anti-racist tactics are not one-time feats, but are rather a part of a continued process that must be constantly employed. Haynie, Pandian and other members of the Brandeis Athletics community have demonstrated this. It is now our turn to do the same.

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