Can cheerleading be a force against racism?
Buffalo All-Star Extreme, BASE, is a primarily Black competitive cheer group. On May 14, 2022, what started as a typical practice day turned into a day of fear and dread. A white supremacist went to a Tops supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, and killed 10 people. When this happened, BASE was practicing only a few blocks away.
A year after the horrific event, BASE members joined NPR to unravel and share parts of the story that were not disclosed in mainstream media. Through the podcast Embedded‘s episode “Buffalo Extreme: BASE,” 19-year-old Na’Kya McCann and other BASE members and alumni retell their stories.
BGN met with McCann via Zoom, and she shared the impact cheerleading has had on her life and her community. She also bravely recounted crucial moments of being near a racially charged mass shooting.
Can you describe the joy you get from cheerleading? Why did you join cheerleading? What does it mean to be a Black cheerleader?
The joy I get from cheerleading is sometimes unexplainable. I’m a natural-born performer; the adrenaline rush I get on stage is unmatched. We’re doing things that aren’t typical for a Black girl, reinforcing the idea that we can do anything. We often have mixed emotions when we’re competing. I get nervous, but overall it feels like [I’m] doing something I love.
I started cheerleading as a leisure hobby. I started doing cartwheels in my mom’s house. When I joined BASE, it became a part of my everyday life. Joining BASE put into perspective that I love this, and I want to be better at it.
For me, it’s hard to explain what it means to be a Black cheerleader because it’s so broad. Cheerleading is traditionally viewed as a sport for white girls. Being a Black girl in cheer, for me, means representation. Being a cheerleader shows other Black girls they can be like me and even better. I want these girls to be better.
On the podcast, you mentioned you’re an OG or an original BASE member. What does that mean to be an originator?
The girls now have many resources to help them improve. I feel so proud. It’s heartwarming because I started [as one of] the girls who didn’t have their own mats. We didn’t have a place to call home. It’s great to see that the love and passion we had is still going through BASE.
Source: Getty Images
What do you want the world to know about competitive cheerleading?
I want the world to know that it’s a sport. Cheerleading requires that you physically exert yourself, which makes it a sport. Competitive cheerleading is a sport, regardless of whether the team wins 10th or first place. It enhances your endurance and makes you stronger, but it also helps you be a better person.
When I started to cheer, my attitude was a little off, but after cheering, I can say that I’ve matured and am more responsible.
There are many all-Black cheer squads, and I hope they start getting more recognition and funding.
What do you want the world to know about competing as a Black cheerleader?
From 2013 to 2016, being a Black cheerleader exposed us to racism. I thought the Black vs. white narrative only existed in specific settings like work, but it followed us into cheerleading.
Competitive cheerleading is predominately white, and people were rude to me based on my appearance. As a result, I was insecure about my skin color and kinky hair. I was judged based on my appearance without them knowing my abilities. As we got older and started seeing more representation, I learned that we deserve to be there just as much as everyone else.
This concept of safety started within your cheer squad, who practiced in the Main Street gym two blocks from the shooting. How did the idea of safety change after the shooting?
The coaches taught us that BASE was a safe space. Yet after the shooting, the word “safety” slowly started to fade away. It became a word with no actions behind it because everyone was in shock. You can’t protect young girls if you don’t feel protected yourself. Even though they told us we were safe, we knew we weren’t. After being so close to the shooting, the word “safety” didn’t exist because we didn’t know what would happen next.
Source: Getty Images
On the podcast, you recount the day of the shooting, and you mentioned locking yourself and the team inside the gym. What was that moment like?
That moment was scary. We didn’t have a moment to flee because we didn’t know what would happen. So that fight-or-flight response turned into us pushing all the girls into a safe space within the gym with no windows, and we couldn’t tell them what was happening. When we moved them into that gym and locked the doors, the gym went silent. No one knew what to say, and that was scary.
It was a feeling that I didn’t ever want to feel again.
As a young person experiencing this event, you turned to adults to answer your questions, yet those adults didn’t have answers. What was that like?
Even though I sought answers from adults I spent my day-to-day life with, for instance, my mom, all she could say was, “I don’t know.” And as a child, you think that adults know everything; they’ve been here longer and have all the answers. Yet nobody knew the answers. Nobody knew what was next or how they felt.
As a child, you expect answers from adults. You expect a yes with an explanation. Asking questions and getting no answers meant I had to confide in myself or sometimes the internet.
How are your life and your community now? Do you feel like you’re healing? Do you think your community is recovering?
Doing the podcast has helped me do some healing. We have a bad problem within the Black community of swallowing our feelings, but since I did the podcast, I didn’t do that.
I’m finally getting the answers that I want; I’m finally getting the clarity that I need.
But I’m not completely healed.
I can’t speak for everyone, but as a Black community, we must take things in and move forward. We’ve been finding ways to distract ourselves. We’ve gained more spokespersons and activists within our community.
Is there anything else you want to share that we didn’t cover?
I hope that the podcast can help other people. I thought I shouldn’t do it because I didn’t lose anyone. But I did lose something; I lost myself, the concept of safety, and part of my freedom because now I know how unsafe it is to be a Black person in the United States.
I hope this podcast can reach other people who have been through what I’ve been through.
Look out for Episode 2 of the Embedded series, “Buffalo Extreme: BASE,” because it explores racism and how it affects children.
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Kiersten is a freelance writer and coach. As a writer, she has written for Travel Noire, Passion Passport, BAUCE mag, and various travel and lifestyle blogs. As a writer, her goal is to write content that inspires others to take action. As a coach, her goal is to empower women to be their most authentic selves. In her free time, you can find her dancing to any song any where.