*Editor’s note: This article includes a quote from a participant who uses a racial slur.
Last year, I declined to speak at the inaugural Tom Bass Seminar on Diversity in Equestrian Sports out of fear.
I feared public speaking and fumbling my words, and I feared disappointing minority voices by saying the wrong thing or not saying enough. And while I am a Black equestrian who has covered the elite level of sport for three years as a journalist, I validated my absence by telling myself I was underqualified.
This year, my insecurities revisited me when I received an invitation to speak on the seminar’s media panel, held virtually on Nov. 14. Rather than decline, I gave it some thought and found inspiration in a conversation I had with McLain Ward in June.
During our phone call, we spoke about our industry’s lack of diversity and the need for non-performative, long-term solutions. Ward admitted there were times when he, too, kept quiet out of the fear of saying the wrong thing, adding, “I jump horses over poles for a living. I don’t have all the answers.”
I kept this in mind when I joined 20-plus panelists during the seminar, which was moderated by event coordinator Melvin Cox of Sports Quest International. Over the course of four panels—domestic, youth, media and international—I was reminded that we all carry anxieties in some form.
During the domestic panel, Emily Dickson, the North American Multi-Species Marketing Coordinator for Alltech, asked about countering systemic racism without resorting to the white savior complex, a form of self-serving activism.
“I hope this is OK to ask, but as a white person, I recognize that there’s just so much for me to learn about systemic racism because I’ve never experienced it,” Dickson said. “I’m so grateful to be here, just listening to everyone’s stories and learning, and like [Saddle Up And Read founder] Caitlin [Gooch] mentioned earlier, what I think white people really need to be aware of is this white savior complex. I kind of just wanted to get some perspectives on what do we need to be aware of as white people to avoid that white savior complex in the equine industry and just in America in general?”
In response, para-dressage rider and panelist Mia Rodier-Dawallo spoke about her interracial relationship and how the book “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo has impacted her and her partner.
“My partner is a white man; I’m a brown woman,” said Rodier-Dawallo. “So, obviously, it’s like this huge dissonance between our levels of privilege, and I notice it every single day, and I think sort of he notices it too. He notices things that he never noticed before, so I passive-aggressively got him the book ‘White Fragility,’ and both of us have been reading it together. Even though it’s about my people, my race, my culture, people of color in general, I have learned so much from it on how to be a better communicator. More empathetic to white people who genuinely don’t know.”
Rodier-Dawallo told Dickson the best thing she can do to counter the white savior complex is listen to minority voices and embrace different perspectives.
“Sometimes, somebody will say something really racist or ignorant to me, and I’ll just be like, ‘Not today, OK. I don’t have the patience for this,’ ” Rodier-Dawallo added. “But then I’ve learned to take a step back and realize that I need to be more empathetic. I need to be better at explaining my perspective from a less heated situation. I think I just get so bombarded sometimes; it’s overwhelming. To put myself in your shoes, it’s the same thing with you. I’m sure you get bombarded so often, and you probably have so much guilt that it’s like this game between white people and people of color where everyone is kind of walking on eggshells.”
Near the end of the seminar, British panelists Julian Seaman, former press officer at the Badminton Horse Trials, and Sandra Murphy, owner of equine nutrition company Equidiet, spoke about their contrasting experiences with racism.
“I think we need to be on the positive, not on the negative, ‘Oh, nobody wants us.’ Yes, everybody wants you,” said Seaman. “I heard one or two contributors say, ‘Oh, people don’t want people of color in the sport.’ Certainly, in our country, it makes absolutely no difference at all. I mean, no difference. If you want to do it, come and do it. We’ll take you in and introduce you to everyone.”
Cox said he felt welcomed and respected in Seaman’s pressroom but that Seaman is the exception, not the rule. Murphy followed up.
“I totally disagree with you,” Murphy said to Seaman. “I know we’re both in the same country here, but you want to be in my shoes for the last 40 years. You tell me whether I’m not welcomed when I stand on the side of the line, when my daughter’s going around a ring, and I can hear people say, ‘Look at that nigger going around there.’ ”
As sensitive as the discussions may be, opportunities like the Tom Bass Seminar open the door for diverse groups of people to come together, hear each other out and reason. To engage in discussion doesn’t mean we’ve mastered the subject matter or are speaking from a place of authority. Rather, it’s a chance for us to learn more and bring about the structural changes we’d like to see.
Of the four panels, I was most inspired by the youth panel, which included Abriana Johnson and Caitlin Gooch, founders of the “Young Black Equestrians” podcast; Emily and Sarah Harris, founders of the educational equestrian platform “Sisters Horsing Around”; and show jumpers Sophie and Mimi Gochman.
Johnson spoke to the industry needing to grow from the grassroots level up.
“The focus is now on competing and being professionals, and if you look at the industry like a triangle, the base is getting smaller,” said Johnson. “It’s the elitist at the top, that’s who gets the focus, and that’s who gets the notoriety and the media attention and the money. So, having programs put into place that focus on the base of the industry, it allows it to grow to that top. You put the triangle upside down; it’s not going to balance very well.”
Sophie, who addressed white privilege in an article published on the Chronicle’s website in June, spoke about what the senior members of our community can do to facilitate change.
“After I wrote the article, I definitely got a lot of criticism from the old guard,” Sophie said. “I think that lack of diversity, it’s a systemic issue in the U.S., and I think that when we have discussions about it, it’s important to not get defensive. I think we’re all guilty of doing that, but to understand that just because we’re young, we’ve done our research, we’ve had our experiences, and we can still form intelligent opinions that are worthy of being heard. And that if you criticize an aspect of the sport, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m calling someone racist or whatnot. It’s just something that I think is an issue in America in general and the world, and that the horse world is just a byproduct of that.”
Tori Repole was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and immigrated to Florida at age 7. She developed a passion for journalism through writing and photographing horses, and she broke into equestrian media with her first published piece in 2017. While Repole, 25, did not attend college, she strengthened her experience and contacts before landing a full-time position with The Chronicle of the Horse in 2018. A formerly undocumented immigrant, Repole is now a nationally published writer and dedicates her free time to extracurricular projects, including photographing several assignments for the United Nations Development Program in 2019.