I distinctly remember the first time I felt like I fit in as a fencer. It was an unseasonably cold day in May toward the end of my junior year in high school, and my mom and I had taken the train from our home in Maplewood, New Jersey, to Penn Station. We made our way to the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a huge sports center in midtown, entering to the sounds of fencing blades clashing and the smell of hard-earned sweat.
It was the largest fencing club I’d ever been in, and almost everyone there was some shade of brown. Dozens of kids were getting fencing lessons from coaches who were also brown. It was such a stark contrast to what I was used to seeing in my past three years of practicing the sport. I felt like a five-year-old at Disneyland: fencers who looked like me. Coaches who looked like me. To walk into a room full of fencers and not feel like the odd one out, to not feel eyes surveying my body, pausing on my hijab, wondering if my race or religion would prove an impediment to my success on the strip, seemed like a dream. I could feel the tension in my shoulders release as an immediate sense of belonging settled over me. I couldn’t wait to train there after school.
During my high-school fencing career, I could anticipate the stares that would follow me around a fencing match. Because it’s such a niche and predominantly white sport, I often felt all eyes land on me when I walked into a gymnasium for the first time. It’s glaringly obvious when you’re the only black person with a hijab in the tournament. Most of the time, I couldn’t wait to fence, so I could put on my mask and blend in with the other athletes.
When I was growing up, my parents made an extra effort to make sure that their children felt represented and like they belonged. But I was quite well-versed in being the odd girl out in fencing and beyond — the only black girl, the only Muslim girl, the only hijabi. My mom was a teacher and often brought home books about African American history (something severely lacking in my high school’s curriculum), and we were allowed to have only brown dolls, which meant I’d often come home from the toy store empty-handed because I already owned the one or two they had in stock. I’d even sew little hijabs for my dolls to make them look more like me.
No matter how much I wanted to fit in, or how hard I tried to find evidence that I did belong, my hijab signaled that I was different and I’d never be just like everyone else. When I got to university, the staring continued; I couldn’t help but think that people were looking at me, wondering what I was doing in their world.
I’ve never gotten used to the stares. When I got to a fencing match, I had to remind myself that once my mask was on, I could prove how good of an athlete I was. If people were surprised to see someone who looked like me on the strip, let them be surprised — and then amazed when they saw that I could hold my own.
Seeing past other people’s expectations and preconceived notions of me became one of my biggest challenges. That was compounded by the extra obstacles that came with fencing as a Muslim woman, like belligerent TSA agents pointing to my hijab and saying “Off, or no flight” while traveling to training camps. There weren’t any other hijab-wearing Muslim women at the elite levels of sports who I could look up to or who could inspire my quest to become a world-class athlete. I had to chart my own path and maximize my expectations for myself. It was clear no one else could do that for me.