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ONYX Presents: A Conversation With Diahann Billings-Burford

Diahann Billings-Burford is working to improve race relations while inspiring leaders in sports to produce positive change and achieve social justice.

ONYX host Monica McNutt recently had the opportunity to sit down with Diahann Billings-Burford, CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), a nonprofit that empowers the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice, and improve race relations. 


She earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and a law degree from Columbia University, and has worked in different posts in education, law, and government. Below are just a few highlights from the insightful and inspiring conversation with Diahann Billings-Burford.

What do you love about being a black woman in sports?

“I’ve always loved sports, and so one of the things we discuss at RISE is racial work at the identity piece. So being an athlete, being a fan of sports is just a part of who I am, a part of who my family was. So to me, that love extends literally to  just myself, to a part of who I am. And then I think being a black woman in sports in particular, we hold an interesting role here, you know, especially with so many of the most prominent athletes being black men. … We hold them, we bare life to black men and to black women. … I love sports because it’s a part of my life. It’s a part of me being a person. It’s a part of me being a parent. … I don’t know what there’s not to love about being a black woman in sports, except that I don’t think we have found our rightful space in professional sport yet, but I believe that’s coming.”

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The sports space in 2020 has been a historic year. What are you most proud of when you look across the landscape and the way that both collegiate athletes and professional athletes are amplifying their voices and using their platforms?

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“I would say they’re different. I am actually most proud of a number of professional athletes making an even greater distinction. It’s not just about using their platform. We all talk about … all athletes should use their platforms, and they should, but they’re making a greater distinction between their jobs and themselves.  I think what we’re seeing is athletes coming to their jobs as their full selves. So I am totally excited about that. …

With the collegiate athlete, I feel a little bit different in that I find that more collegiate athletes are making that choice … to educate themselves. And with the younger generations’ mindset and with truly educating themselves, I think what we’re seeing there is what is really what we’re about to transform into as a society. I want to also just temper this. I am not a Pollyanna. I also think it’s very difficult. Many collegiate athletes are so focused on being an athlete. They are not doing that work because it really isn’t that much space for it; you’d have to make it. So we could definitely do more in that space, but it’s a challenge.”

Because this is a space where we are celebrating black women, who are some women that you either looked at as a young person, or even now, who do you admire in this space? 

“I have always been a fan, even from when they were little, of Venus and Serena. I think both of them are just awesome…. Talk about that work ethic, that commitment to just excellence, … facing obstacles… when you look back at the beginning of their careers and them having to deal with discriminatory comments. Not acknowledging that from a merit standpoint these people were amazing athletes and they just had to keep performing right in the face of discrimination and face of obstacles.”

We always ask our guests to give us three words that they would encourage someone listening, whether it be a young woman or whether it be a white man, who’s interested in better understanding this work. Three words that you would ask them to hold onto as they navigate their journey through sports, and in this case, in terms of achieving a more equitable society.

“I would say the first one you alluded to is hope. If we give up hope we’re not going to get there. Right? So we just got to hold onto hope. We’ve got to figure out different ways to hold on to it when we feel like we’re losing it. So hope, introspection, and determination. … We all live in systems of oppression. And I love that you said this is not just about black women, this is about everybody. We all are literally being raised in these same systems. … if we’re going to be better tomorrow than we are today, it actually has to start with introspection. The problems are not all external. If we don’t fix us, we won’t fix the process. We won’t fix the system. … that’s why I think introspection. I mean there’s no getting at this work without being introspective.”

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