‘The perfect storm’: Mbogo Mwangi speaks on race in America today, and how the lacrosse community needs to do better

Tuesday, June 30, 2020 - 11:55pm

Mbogo Mwangi guarding now-sophomore midfielder Jake Bonomi back in high school.

Mbogo Mwangi guarding now-sophomore midfielder Jake Bonomi back in high school. Buy this photo
Photo courtesy of Mbogo Mwangi

Growing up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Mbogo Mwangi never dealt with race as an issue. 

St. Stephen of Hungary, the private Catholic school that the junior defenseman attended, was a microcosm of New York City’s melting pot. Because Mwangi and his classmates all came from different ethnic backgrounds, race became a moot point. No one was ever treated differently because of how they looked or dressed.

But in 2011, his family left the city for Radnor, Penn., a predominantly white, affluent suburban community on Philadelphia’s Main Line. That was where Mwangi first learned that he would not go through life without being judged by the color of his skin.

Transferring to Radnor Middle School, a school that was 99 percent white, Mwangi struggled with cases of subtle racism daily. People touched his hair. Curious eyes glanced over at him during his history teacher’s measly day-and-a-half lecture on racism and slavery. He was excluded from social events because his classmates feared their parents would be mad that he looked or dressed “differently.” 

“As a black kid growing up in this environment, you are slowly, calmly and subtly reminded that you are different because of the color of your skin, and you will be treated differently because of that,” Mwangi told The Daily. “It’s difficult, because when you don’t have anyone that looks like you around you, there’s nobody to really talk to. You don’t go home and talk about the issues you have with your parents because (the issues) are so small. … They are just kind of this undertone that walks around with you with every single interaction that you have.”

Sometimes, it wasn’t so subtle.

He remembers playing a game with a ball on a trampoline in eighth grade with three of his closest friends at the time. When the ball fell out and onto the ground, one of Mwangi’s friends suggested that he go get the ball. When he refused, the friend called him his slave and the n-word. 

It was the first time anyone had called Mwangi that word.

“In that moment, it was as if I was in a Matrix-type space where it was just all white around me and I was just kind of shook to the core,” Mwangi said. “It was one of those moments that I’ll never forget. … It seems like time kind of stops. You go within yourself and just start to question everything. It doesn’t seem real. And until you have had an experience like that, I can’t really explain what it means.”

The Main Line is one of the hottest lacrosse breeding grounds in the country, and all of Mwangi’s friends at the time were playing the game. He thought it seemed like fun, so he decided to give it a shot.

But even Mwangi’s first encounter with lacrosse was touched by racism. Playing a sport where only 4.4 percent of its NCAA Division I student athletes were black in 2019, he was judged by the color of his skin from the instant he stepped on the field.

Mwangi had never even picked up a stick before, so he naturally struggled at his first tryout for Radnor Youth Lacrosse. Unable to pick up ground balls with his stick, he crouched down every time the ball came towards him and picked it up with his hand.

“I was the worst out there obviously,” Mwangi remembered. “It was very evident that I was definitely out of my element.”

The next day, one of Mwangi’s classmates came up to him and asked him why he went to the tryouts. Instead of offering words of encouragement, his classmate suggested that Mwangi should go play basketball instead because “he’d probably be better at that.”

“As a Black person in America, you kind of learn what people mean when they say certain stuff,” Mwangi said. “That was one of those things when (I realized) that I’m not going to be able to play this sport without my race being a part of it.”

Mwangi stuck with lacrosse, and as he grew older, his skills developed rapidly.

Still, he was treated differently on the lacrosse field due to the color of his skin. Opponents yelled racial slurs at him on the field. He was cut from his summer club lacrosse team twice, suspiciously in favor of players Mwangi deemed less talented, before finally making it on his third try. When he decided to attend the Haverford School, an all-boys prep school and lacrosse powerhouse near Radnor, many people told him that he wasn’t good enough to go there and that he would never play.

But Mwangi used Black professional lacrosse players like Kyle Harrison, the first Black man to win NCAA lacrosse’s Tewaaraton Award, as his inspiration to keep pushing forward. Any comments that doubted his ability or stake in the game were absorbed and used as motivation. Harrison’s legacy showed Mwangi what was attainable for Black men who play lacrosse.

When Mwangi arrived at Haverford, he met his best friend, Isaiah, who is half-Black. For the first time since leaving Manhattan, he finally felt like he had someone to talk about the racial injustices he was dealing with. 

For the first time since moving, he found someone like him.

“Having my best friend also be Black helped with (all that) because (I was) with someone who (looked) like me,” Mwangi said. “We dealt with the issue of subconsciously being reminded that you’re not gonna be like everyone else (together).”

And on the lacrosse field, Mwangi saw the merits of his hard work pay off. The Fords won three consecutive Inter-Academic League championships during his four years on the team. In 2018, Michigan coach Kevin Conry offered Mwangi a spot on the Wolverines’ men’s lacrosse team, making him the only player from his middle school class that would go on to play Division I lacrosse.

Defenseman Mbogo Mwangi has dealt with racism since he moved out of Manhattan.

Defenseman Mbogo Mwangi has dealt with racism since he moved out of Manhattan. Buy this photo
Photo courtesy of Mbogo Mwangi

***

Two weeks ago, Mwangi led a Zoom video call with his coaches and teammates. The topic of conversation surrounded the issue of race in America, a response to the murder of George Floyd and ongoing Black Lives Matter protests.

Having felt the burden of racism on his shoulders his entire life, he finally felt like he had an opportunity to speak on the issue.

“I never really thought that I’d have a platform to speak on this,” Mwangi said. “Prior to everything going on, if you would’ve asked me if I would be the one to stand up and speak to a group of people that I trusted and are my friends about the idea of race, I would’ve told you that you were lying.”

Over Zoom, Mwangi shared his experiences as a Black man. After explaining how he gets pulled over by the police in his friends’ neighborhoods back home; after revealing that he has had job applications ignored because of his name; after pouring his heart out about how this is an issue of human rights, not politics, Mwangi hoped his coaches and teammates would begin to take the time to listen, to educate themselves and to pursue a more active role in the fight for racial justice.

Mwangi spoke of the idea of a “perfect storm,” in which the culmination of three “waves” have allowed the previously apathetic white population to become cognizant of the ongoing racial injustice that has festered in the United States for 400-plus years. 

Mwangi’s first wave was the product of COVID-19 and the disproportionate mortality rate between Black and white Americans exacerbated by disparities in healthcare access and employment opportunities. 

The second and third waves were based on the police’s double standard in managing its altercations with Black and white individuals: The absence of aggression towards armed, white protestors who stormed state capital buildings in opposition to stay-at-home orders versus the brute force used in Floyd’s murder and recent BLM protests.

“(The white population has) embraced it as part of their fight,” Mwangi said. “For so long, it’s been our fight to burden, but this perfect storm illustrates that after what has happened, you cannot dispute that the systems that enable racism are alive and well. Their involvement is what is allowing for this change to happen, and for it to happen so loudly.”

Despite his positivity regarding the status of white activism, Mwangi was dissatisfied with his teammates’ response to recent racially-focused events prior to the Zoom call. Many of them reached out to him personally but had not been vocal on social media.

“They’ve expressed their views to me, and that’s been good,” Mwangi said. “But at the end of the day, I’m not the one who needs to hear that they’re with me. I need them to let their white friends and family members know that they stand with me. … For me, to have someone text me and ask if I’m okay, that’s nice, but it doesn’t solve the problem.”

According to Mwangi, his white teammates have a larger platform because of the color of their skin, so they need to use their privilege to take on a more significant role in the movement.

“White people have a voice, and they are heard, unlike Black people,” Mwangi said. “Being silent is being compliant. By not saying anything, you are saying something, and it’s loud. It speaks volumes. … Their involvement is crucial to any change happening.”

Mwangi huddling with Michigan teammates.

Mwangi huddling with Michigan teammates. Buy this photo
Photo courtesy of Mbogo Mwangi

***

The topic and issue of racial equality in lacrosse extends far beyond the scope of Michigan’s team.

Concerns about diversity in the sport and socioeconomic barriers to playing have long been ignored. Despite the game’s origins in Native American culture, it has been captured by the stereotype of the ‘lax bro:’ a white preppy kid with long hair who comes from an affluent background.

“The history of (lacrosse) has been stripped away and the game has become this separate entity,” Mwangi believes. “There needs to be an active effort to increase the diversity of the game, grow the game more and educate ourselves on the history of the game. Because it didn’t start at white prep schools; it’s much deeper than that. To many groups of people, it’s a way of life. … So we need to respect that wholeheartedly in order to play the game the way it was intended to be played.”

Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States. In 2018, nearly 1.1 million boys and girls played in a youth lacrosse league. In the state of Michigan, lacrosse saw the greatest increase in participation rate of any high school sport in 2019.

Yet the game’s growth has not been equitable. 

Many communities, particularly in cities, have been unable to adopt the sport because of its incredibly high associated costs. In Philadelphia, only ten out of 42 city public high schools had a varsity lacrosse program in 2019. In Washington D.C., only two schools had programs.

While many high school football programs are funded by the schools themselves, and playing basketball only requires a pair of shoes and a ball, purchasing lacrosse equipment can cost hundreds of dollars per person. Since very few schools provide lacrosse equipment for their student athletes, it is often up to the individual to buy their own gear — an enormous financial burden to middle and low-income households.

Aware of his own privileges to be able to afford his lacrosse equipment, Mwangi also acknowledged the high cost of playing for a summer club team. The club teams provide access to summer tournaments and showcases, where the majority of college recruiting is done. The inability to afford membership dues for one of these club teams could make or break a player’s chances of playing at the collegiate level.

In spite of these hurdles, several groups across the country are working to boost racial and socioeconomic diversity in lacrosse.

Liam McIlroy is the head coach of the boy’s lacrosse team at Cass Tech, the only Detroit public high school currently offering lacrosse as a varsity sport. Last May, after watching his student athletes fall in love with the game during their debut season, McIlroy joined forces with Christianne Malone, a longtime advocate for lacrosse in Detroit, to co-found Detroit United Lacrosse — a club dedicated to growing lacrosse in the city by giving male and female student athletes a platform to develop their skills outside of the regular season through summer tournaments and recruiting showcases.

“We’re building community, not only with playing experience, but also the fact that when we go to different tournaments, showcases and scrimmages we are the only team that is a majority team of color,” McIlroy said. “We represent a very diverse cultural team. (And) we are going to continue to work with the players that we have and help them build their own root systems in their neighborhoods and find their own identity within the game.”

After only one season of existence, Detroit United has had five of its student athletes commit to play lacrosse in college — all five having never played lacrosse one year prior.

Respectively, America and the lacrosse community have a long way to go to reverse the tides of institutionalized racism and inequality. But right now, as Mwangi says, the perfect storm has presented both with an opportunity to make a difference.

Whether or not they will, though, is up to them.