How roller skating sent me on a journey of healing and self-empowerment as a black queer woman
First, I want to share an old post of mine from the summer of 2020, after about a year of skating when my outlook on life was starting to drastically change for the better:
“Every time I challenge myself to learn a new move, my confidence grows. When I unlock something new, I feel validation and pride in myself. Feeling proud of myself feels very new, and also the best feeling in the world. I skate when I’m bored, happy, sad, high or low energy. I’ve met beautiful people in the skate community online and in person who challenge me and accept me. I use skating as a way to express myself not only through dance, but also in experimentation with clothing and fashion. Queer skaters, especially black skaters and their swag on wheels has inspired me to experiment with what type of clothing makes me feel good when on wheels. I’m at the point where I feel safer and more powerful when I have my skates on. Almost every time I skate, I feel grounded and energized after. I’m having so much fun with it and I’m excited to continue this journey of learning and growing. My favorite thing to do with skating when I’m by myself is pop on any random song and just freestyle in my kitchen or on the tennis courts by my house. I’m looking forward to rinks opening back up. I usually skate to music from the 70s 80s and 90s... disco, R&B, and hip hop.”
In 2016 I was in graduate school for Music Therapy. At one point during my studies, I took some time off from school because I wanted to travel a bit and take a break. I was feeling stuck and overwhelmed with the seemingly never-ending assignments and emotionally draining fieldwork. I had imposter syndrome and thought maybe I wasn’t cut out for this degree or career. While I was away, I realized that my passion for music therapy was still very strong and so I eventually went back to finish my studies. Although I was very happy to be back, the semester that I returned was extremely difficult.
After traveling I returned with new perspectives and new priorities which caused a sort of identity crisis. This caused me to cut off a long-term romantic partnership and self-isolate. I was having trouble functioning day to day at my music therapy internship, and so I started seeing a therapist on campus who helped remind me of different coping tools such as going outside for walks. So, one day after being in the library for several hours I reminded myself to get up and take a walk outside. As I was walking, I passed a man who was roller skating in a nearby parking lot. I remember watching him skate while I’m so overwhelmed with anxiety from my assignments and thinking to myself, wow, he looks so happy and free, and right away I started to tear up with joy for this person. Joy and freedom were two feelings that I desperately wanted in that moment. I was so moved and inspired that I decided right there that I was going to learn how to skate.
At first, I was new to skating and inspired to learn and watch others. I didn’t know anything about skate culture, I was just having fun and doing my own thing. Unfortunately, it did not take long for that innocence to fade, as I quickly learned the hard way that some men at the skatepark and roller rinks feel entitled to people's bodies. I would roll into places showing a lot of skin because it was summer and very hot, and because I’m an adult and can wear whatever I please. Still, certain people took that as an invitation to touch, follow me, or bother me in some way. At this point in my journey, I didn’t have any skate friends, so it was very discouraging. However, I didn’t let this stop me from continuing to go out and learn.
After a few months I started to make some skate friends to lean on for support. I was also gaining confidence in my skate abilities. I was becoming more aware as well of how other skaters viewed me, especially skaters who were very advanced and doing this their whole lives. Sometimes I would have to remind myself that skating in general does not have to be a competition or a popularity contest. For me I wanted it to be about the pure enjoyment of feeling like I’m flying and having the wind on my face. The feeling of joy and freedom. As I continued on, I started to overcome my fear of judgment from other skaters. I also gained a lot of power through learning about the black history of roller skating and how deeply it is rooted in blackness. During this stage I was working at a roller rink in an area where not many black skaters were popping in. It took a bit of effort to find other skaters who looked like me, but eventually I was able to.
During this time, I had an Instagram page where I tracked my skate progress and watched footage of myself in order to make improvements. I noticed that my Instagram feed was only white skaters. This was okay for a while because I was still learning and enjoying the content, however after some time I wanted to see myself represented more. I started to curate my feed and was able to meet some interesting online black personalities who inspired me to try roller dance. Before this I was enjoying roller skating in the streets and at skate parks and sometimes rinks. Now my main motivation in learning to skate became putting choreography on wheels. I have many years of dance training, but never expected to put it on wheels. I actually stepped away from dance for a few years after my mentor and lifelong dance teacher passed away and I hadn’t been able to enjoy dancing since. For a while it was impossible to enjoy dancing. After discovering the world of roller dance and rhythm skating, I found that this hobby became a way for me to see and experience dance in a different light. It allowed me to find my love and joy of dance again in a new challenging, creative, and freeing way. This was really an incredible gift that roller skating brought me.
Eventually as I continued improving my skills, my Instagram page started to grow. I was openly queer on my page and a lot of my posts had to do with my blackness too, and so I started to get hate from the bigoted side of the internet. As my page got more and more traction during the time when Black Lives Matter protests were very high, my account would constantly get banned and flagged for bullying by people who didn’t agree with my posts. I also learned first-hand that the Instagram algorithm was not built to uplift black queer people at all. I would witness influencers who didn’t look like me get their content pushed and shared while people with dark skin were getting pushed aside, silenced and punished.
For example, if a white skater posted themself dancing or working out in a sports bra, they would get a brand deal and praise. So then why is it that once I gained more followers, when I would post my skate workouts with me in a sports bra minding my business just recording for my own motivation and progress, my page would constantly get banned? My page constantly got flagged and suspended for nudity. People were reporting me to Instagram and even though I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I would get punished for other people’s discomfort with black people showing skin. My black friends who are heavier got flagged even more often. This was a very rude awakening as I was experiencing the policing of black bodies online. The hardest part about this was how white creators would not acknowledge that it was an issue, and why should they if they are benefitting? This was when I completely curated my feed. Unless we were connected outside of Instagram or we had a dialogue going on in the direct messages already, I unfollowed anyone who wasn’t a queer person of color. A few friends that I did happen to still follow but didn’t fit that description, at times I would mute their posts so that I only saw black skaters that day. Just having the power to do this on Instagram felt very empowering. I disconnected from people who made me feel bad about myself, whether intentional by them or not. I unfollowed those accounts that left me feeling drained and upset after seeing their feed, the ones I only followed because they were following me. The feed was so oversaturated with white influencers being boosted up and this made it harder to organically come across queer, black content and pages that interested me.
This is a form of black erasure, which is a big issue in the skate community because roller skating is rooted in blackness. Yet, we are being pushed aside when it comes to who gets celebrated on social media. Social media is a major way that people get their information, so it’s really important that representation is happening. However, Instagram does not care about representation unless it’s going to make them more money. The only time brands or bigger white influencers would reach out to me and want to lift me up was during black history month. After the month was over, the same pages who claimed to be supporting me would post very insensitive and racist content with complete disregard to the black community, such as “all lives matter” posts. For this reason, I had to start blocking and unfollowing many pages. This ability to curate my online feed was also a reminder that it is okay to do this with people I see in person too, although ending an in-person relationship was a lot harder for me than pressing unfollow and never having to worry about seeing them again. With practice, it got easier to cut people off and now I find that I have to check myself at times and reevaluate when I feel the urge to do this.
Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, I was getting a lot of support from allies and people in my online community. This is when my Instagram account really blew up. I was sharing informational posts and it was clear that people wanted to support black creators who were pushing out content surrounding Black Lives Matter. Although for the most part I was overwhelmed with what felt like genuine support, I knew that a click or a follow was simply a quick, performative action, one where a person could say “I did something”. The evidence I witnessed of performative allyship was disheartening. Still, I was thriving because I now had a nice sized community of skaters who regularly would come to me and to each other with questions and stories about skating and mental health too as I was also doing music therapy advocacy on my page. In order to give my input and help others learn, I started to do more roller-skating tutorials. It was hard not to get addicted to the dopamine highs that followed the likes, comments, views and shares. In order to not worry about those things as much, I made sure to only film and check my social media on certain days and times.
Although I was thriving on social media, it was difficult to find moments of joy due to the political climate. I was not skating as much. Every day I would ask myself questions like, “why do I even like skating?” or “how can you post footage of yourself having fun when your people are being murdered out here?!”. When I’d post a video of myself skating and smiling, I would get hate comments from all different demographics claiming that I am being insensitive by posting anything besides social justice information like I had previously posted. I would drive to the park, lace up my skates, then take them off right away and go back home out of guilt and shame for trying to experience joy during this time.
As I asked myself why I skate, I would go back and forth on the pros and cons. The main pro was that it gave me a feeling of complete freedom. This was powerful for me because of the connection to the lack of freedom I felt and still feel as a black queer person in my society. The feelings of freedom were very motivating, however during this time it did not outweigh the cons, which included public harassment by way of catcalling as well as police officers following me because they can’t mind their business when a group of black people are outside expressing joy and having fun. Frankly I did not feel safe to go outside at all. For these reasons, I started skating in my kitchen. By coincidence, it was a convenient time to isolate myself because by now we were just going into lockdown as the Covid-19 pandemic just began.
After a few months, I started to find joy and my skate flow again through freestyle jam skating in my house. Due to having to stay inside during quarantine, I was forced to take a pause on my ramp skating progress, and it was an opportunity to dive more into dance skating. I started exploring different ways of moving within a small space, which is when my inspiration and creativity really started to pick up.
Currently I am at a stage where I am coming to realizations about myself and making connections between roller skate lessons and everyday life lessons. One word that comes to mind is perseverance. Skating reminds me that I have tools and skills that make me happy and allow me to enjoy life even amidst the chaos and wrongdoings of the world, and that it’s okay to still have moments of enjoying life even while bad things are happening to you and around you.
For reasons of privacy and personal safety I ended up having to delete my original Instagram account and start fresh. Through my new social media account, I am meeting and speaking with so many other black and queer people, and these conversations make me proud to be who I am despite what feels like constant hurdles surrounding being able to live freely. I want to give myself permission to flow through life without trying to control it. I’m giving myself space now to flow through different queer expressions and identities. I’m giving myself permission to let go and feel joy and share it with others without fear, shame or guilt. Judging by the odd reactions I would get online, I learned that being black, queer and happy is a radical political act in itself. I really don’t think it should be like this, I feel I should be able to feel good without it being this huge ordeal. The hashtag black joy comes to mind. I like this hashtag and use it on social media when I want to see more black joy around me in the wake of black trauma constantly being in the news. I want it to be normal for black queer people to feel joy and at ease.
As I write this post, I realize I’ve mentioned the cops and white people with a negative light. I’m hyper aware of this because I know that bashing other people is not the best way to create change in community. At the same time, I have a lifetime of anger surrounding how I’ve been treated. I know some of this might be uncomfortable to read, however this is a reminder that when I’m speaking or venting about this, I don’t mean “all”. A lot of times when I speak about my experiences the response from white people is “not all of us are like that”, or “not all cops are bad”. And to that I agree! This is my personal story and experiences and feelings I go through. If you are offended and only take away something negative from this post, I encourage you to think about why you are so bothered by a black queer woman’s personal story, truth and existence.
I moved to Phoenixville last year and I know that without having the skating outlet in my life for the last couple years I likely would not have had the confidence and self-empowerment in me to make the decision to move. I saw an opportunity, I knew the change would be good for me, but the question in my head was whether or not I deserved it. Thanks to the self-empowerment and self-esteem that came with my skate journey, I was riding a wave of prioritizing my happiness, which led me to make the change and move.
Once I moved into town, I felt inclined to stay inside because moving to a new place is scary. After a few weeks I decided to go walking around to find a park and went skating. On my way walking back into town by chance I met people from Project Healing Hive! The cute stickers convinced me to look into it more and get involved. The programs, resources and people in this organization right away made me feel incredibly welcomed. This town that felt so new quickly felt like a home. My roller skates help me to feel joyful and free, and skating helps me to get out of my head during stressful moments. Skating outside one day even led me to Project Healing Hive, which I am so grateful for. I wonder where my roller skates will lead me next on my journey of healing, empowerment and self-identity.
If you are interested learning about the black history of roller skating and significance skating has for the black and queer community, here are a few resources to get you started:
*2018 film: United Skates (HBO)
“Credited with incubating East Coast hip-hop and West Coast rap, America's roller rinks have long been bastions of regional African-American culture, music and dance. As rinks shutter across the country, a few activists mount a last stand.”
*2022 Article: For Black Women, Roller Skating Is The Ultimate Form Of Self-Expression
“The word “therapeutic” comes up when Lywood talks about skating, too. “It's the best way to spend time with myself. You realize how much power you have, to see yourself progress from not being able to do [a move] and now it comes to you like it's nothing," she explains. "It's a really empowering experience”
*2016 Article: Why is Roller Derby Important to So Many Wueer Women?”
“The roller derby community provided me with queer community before I even realized that I was looking for it. I was partnered with a man when I began playing roller derby. Over time, as I began to understand my sexuality differently, I was always able to be open with my teammates. Talking with them about their journeys helped me understand myself better. Coming out as a lesbian was just not a big deal in derby ― my teammates celebrated with me ― so that gave me confidence to come out to others as well”