Opinion: US fencer subjected to racist abuse on Zoom call gets little support

Nzingha Prescod deserved better.

The Zoom call was meant to celebrate Prescod and her fencing teammates, who in 2018 became the first U.S. foil team to win a title at the world championships. For Prescod, it also was a chance to reflect on her career, having been forced to retire in January because of a degenerative hip condition.

Then the abuse started. Ugly, hateful, racist language directed at Prescod, the first African-American woman to win a medal at fencing’s world championships, and Brandon Dyett, who is USA Fencing’s sports performance manager and is also black.   

“I was about to be in tears,” Prescod recalled. “I said, `Are we ending our call? Because this is crazy.' "

Nzingha Prescod, third from left, and her teammates celebrate after winning at he world championships. (Photo: Peter Kohalmi, AFP via Getty Images)

As other participants watched in awkward or horrified silence, Prescod said a USA Fencing official told her call organizers were trying to remove the person, who hasn’t been identified. But the call continued for another hour, with racist messages continuing to appear intermittently in the chat.

Prescod said she struggled with what to do. She wanted to stay on the call with her teammates and members of the fencing community, who have come to feel like family after two decades in the sport. But to be called the worst slur imaginable, to be told she wasn’t worth anything because of the color of her skin – she, a two-time Olympian and four-time world medalist – was such a violation.

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“It was very upsetting. And this was in my space! Fencing is my comfort space,” Prescod said. “It was very violating and upsetting.”

With much of the country under shelter-at-home orders, video calls are replacing regular interactions. There have been interruptions by racists and anti-Semites on other calls – the hacks are common enough that they even have a name, “Zoombombing” – and, just a few days before the USA Fencing call, someone posted a slur hundreds of times during a fan chat with K’Andre Miller, who plays for the NHL’s New York Rangers and is black.

That anyone feels emboldened or entitled enough to utter those slurs is reprehensible though, sadly, unsurprising. Racism and discrimination are cornerstones of President Donald Trump’s administration, and Trump never misses an opportunity to make people of color feel unwelcome in a country where we nearly everyone of us were an “other” at one point.

But that it was left to Prescod to decide whether to continue with the call or disconnect is unacceptable.

“It was very confusing when I expected someone to stand up for me and no one did,” Prescod said.

USA Fencing has apologized to Prescod and Dyett, saying it should have been “better prepared to protect them from these attacks.” Prescod said she’s also working with USA Fencing to create a diversity inclusion campaign, to educate people in what is still largely a white sport about the black and brown experience.

That message, she hopes, will spread throughout the Olympic movement.

“I had a parent message me on Instagram who said, 'My son saw that and started crying and I had to pull him out of the chat,' " Prescod said. “You can’t demonstrate to young kids that that’s acceptable. That it’s acceptable to happen and acceptable for you to say nothing.”

And that is the larger lesson from this awful incident. Racism remains our most fundamental flaw, and it is not on people of color to “fix” that. Or explain why incidents like the one Prescod experienced are so devastating.

It is up to people of privilege – and by this, I mean white people – to look beyond their own experience and imagine what it is like to be judged negatively simply because of the color of your skin. Or your gender or who you love. To then speak up when discrimination occurs and educate when someone is ignorant. 

“There’s a lot of hurt in the black experience, whether we’re aware or not. And I feel lucky to be around people that care to learn about” it, Prescod said. ”It’s unfortunate that it transpired like this and that this is not an isolated issue in a predominantly white sport. But I do believe (USA Fencing) cares and will invest in making it a better, more inclusive and supportive atmosphere for people that look like me.”

She deserves that. So many others do, too. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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