Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad & Golfer Mariah Stackhouse on Being Trailblazers in Predominantly White Sports
Ibtihaj Muhammad, a sabre fencer who was the first American Muslim woman to win an Olympic medal, and Mariah Stackhouse, one of the few black golf players on the LPGA tour, are speaking out about being trailblazers in predominantly white sports.
The women joined leaders like Dr. Condoleezza Rice and Robin Roberts at the 2020 KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit on Wednesday to inspire other women in their fight to reach the top of their professions.
In an exclusive joint interview with PEOPLE, the athletes discuss the challenges they've faced, what it's like to be leading Black female athletes during a national movement for racial justice, and their drive to win.
"There was this period in time where African Americans were not allowed on the golf course or were not allowed to enter into fencing clubs. It wasn't that long ago, only a generation removed," says Muhammad, 34, who was the first U.S. woman to compete wearing a hijab at the 2016 Olympic Games. "So, yes I believe in celebrating [making history] in these non-traditional spaces in a predominantly white sport. But it's also an opportunity for us to acknowledge that we still have quite a distance to go to see true equality."
Both Muhammad and Stackhouse want to use their platforms to make change. Stackhouse says the next step is to win big.
"When we talk about firsts, the only thing that's left now is for one of us to have a victory on tour," says Stackhouse, 26, who led her Stanford University team to an NCAA Championship in 2015. "And so that's the next opportunity for us there."
The athletes have overcome a range of challenges.
"I learned from a very, very young age that my skin color and my hijab had the power to change how people treated me," says Muhammad. "Honestly, it broke my heart as a young person. I didn't understand it."
"And once I really understood the history of systemic oppression, the history of Black trauma, the history of xenophobia, I think that it allowed me to understand why I'm in this moment," she continues. "There's so much effort that goes into creating this path. One that's not just for me, but anybody who's ever been told no, and that they don't belong."
Stackhouse explains that one of the biggest challenges in becoming a professional golfer was the exorbitant cost.
"My family didn't come from generational wealth," she says. "And so, it was a struggle for us to get access to the equipment that I needed to play golf. I saw my parents kind of buckle down and do their best to figure out how to make sure that I had access to the game."
Even though she's a champion in her sport, Muhammad sees differences in the ways that male and female athletes are treated.
"You see the eye roll from the referees who are mostly male in sabre," Muhammad explains. "When they realize that they're given the task of officiating a women's event instead of the men's, it's like their energy kind of changes. Like they don't want to be there."
She says that women's games are sometimes monitored differently than men's. And women even have had to deal with inappropriate advances from referees in fencing.
"In order for us to see real change, we have to acknowledge that these things are not good," says Muhammad. "But I'm hoping that we see things change in the future."
Both women are inspired by the top athletes who are using their high-level status to push for gender equality and amplify the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. Stackhouse says that seeing Naomi Osaka and LeBron James, for example, take a stand "has been incredibly inspirational."
The two women have joined this chorus of voices, admitting that now it's more crucial to speak out than ever.
"There's such a major opportunity for us as Black athletes in our sport, to use our platform in meaningful ways," says Muhammad. "I don't play basketball. I don't play tennis. I certainly don't play golf. But I see myself in Mariah, like I see myself in Naomi and Serena. I see myself in LeBron. That gives me power. That gives me strength."
She says that watching Serena and Venus Williams dominate in tennis as a child changed her life.
"I truly believe that seeing Serena and Venus, with their braids and their beads in their hair, and being really unapologetic about their Black identity in a sport like tennis that was so similar to fencing," Muhammad says. "It allowed me to unconsciously grasp my aspiration as a professional athlete."
The star athlete is proud to know that she can inspire young girls in the same way.
"I can impart that [lesson] to young athletes, to young kids who were like me, like Mariah," she says. "This is for all of us. [So we can] believe in ourselves, believe in our journey and create space for others."
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