by Kelsey Harper
While stationed at a military base in Arizona, Samantha Mack was introduced to roller derby. Originally inspired by the for-women, by-women nature of the sport, she saw the need to create a positive and safe space for Black skaters.
Her introduction to derby was completely accidental.
“It’s something that I wasn’t expecting. I didn’t really realize that roller derby existed. I had seen it on TV, but it never clicked in my head that [what I was watching] was actually roller derby,” Mack recalls.
Her pre-conceived notion of the sport was, like many, based on a stereotype.
“I thought it was like wrestling on skates, so that’s what I was expecting when a friend invited me to go and watch because his girlfriend was playing.”
For Mack, who was already a recreational inline skater, it was love at first sight.
“Literally, at the first game I was like; how do I get into this sport, how do I do this,” she shares.
Roller derby has since become more than a just sport to play and has provided Mack with empowering life-experiences on and off the track. Those experiences have been both uplifting and challenging, but nonetheless formative.
“My initial investment into derby was because I was literally the only woman in my work area. I needed a space that was woman-based, woman-exclusive,” she explains.
At the time, Mack was stationed at Davis-Mountain Air Force base in Tucson, Arizona.
“There are two things in my life that pretty much encompass me, that’s roller derby and the military,” she says.
Mack always knew that she would be facing a choice when she turned 18.
“My mom was like, you’re either going to school or you’re joining the military,” she explains.
“I had [been offered] a couple of scholarships to go to school, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to feel like I had to make a decision when I didn’t know what I wanted to be, or what I wanted to experience as I got older.”
She chose the military with humble and noble intentions.
“For me, I just wanted to serve,” says Mack.
“I wasn’t like - I’m going to go out and save America and change lives - it was just a really great way for me to experience the world and do something important.”
“My plan was to be in the military for a few years and see what happens after that.”
Eight years later, Mack wouldn’t change her decision.
"Now I know the direction I want to go in. It seems late, but I wouldn’t trade the military over going to school right away because it gave me such a different understanding of people and getting to know a lot more outside of myself,” she says.
This understanding came in stark contrast to the nurturing and inclusive environment that she grew up in. Born in Atlanta, Mack comes from a large family who made it very clear that love is unconditional.
“Growing up it was never a sense of me having to come out. I am one of the very few fortunate people whose family made it very apparent at a young age that being homosexual or any type of LGTBQ+ was ok, and it was normal,” she shares.
“When I hear people’s coming out stories, I always felt like I was missing something because I never had that. My mom straight up was like, that’s good.”
“So, I lived in this bubble of 'everybody’s great no matter what your abilities are' and that’s who I was surrounded by.”
Her mother’s teachings have had a lasting impression.
“My mom has always raised us to be incredibly independent and to think critically about what we’re doing. I've always been a go-getter, fast-thinking, fast pace and make a lot of mistakes really early and then figure it out from there,” she shares.
“Joining [the Air Force] made me a lot less naïve, and I think that’s something that my mom knew that I needed.”
Her mother proved prescient, as Mack quickly realized that the outside world can be intolerant.
“When I joined the military, I actually got a chance to meet people that were incredibly close-minded, and to be honest; racist, sexist, homophobic, all kinds of things,” she says.
“It was a really hard thing for me. Being Black [was] hard, being a woman [was] hard, being gay [was] hard; all that stuff is just hard.”
Central, in her view, is the issue of respect.
She couldn’t reconcile the fact that people who demanded her respect, refused to offer it in return without consequence.
“I never understood why you feel that you have to treat me like I’m a terrible human being in order for me to respect you,” she reflects.
“I met all kinds of people that join the military for all kinds of reasons. [Unfortunately], you get people that have never had respect, so they don’t know how to give respect, and they just demand it.”
This type of behavior was new for Mack, and she coped instinctively.
“It just made me angry,” she says
“If you’re not respectful to me, I don’t understand why you feel that I should be respectful to you.”
“I’m very emotionally driven, and I think that was something else that my mom thought the military would help me with.”
Grounded by a strong foundation and clear convictions, Mack honors the military’s chain of command and uses her experiences productively to gain new perspectives.
One such experience was defining.
“I remember very specifically having a conversation with a person who did not know I was gay. He was belittling and super homophobic about another person that we worked with,” Mack explains.
Making the situation more complicated was the fact that she and her fellow airman had become good friends during their deployment, spending a great deal of time alone together in the months prior to their conversation.
“He spewed all of this hateful language and I just let him speak for about an hour and a half. He told me about how, in his hometown, he had beaten up people that were gay and how he just didn’t respect them,” Mack says.
“There was a point that I started to be afraid and I thought to myself; do I tell this person that I’m gay? It was crazy that it had never come up before because I never thought about it.”
She decided to tell him the next day, saying: ‘I understand where you’re coming from, but I want you to know that I’m gay.’
“He didn’t talk to me for two weeks."
“Then, he came back and said he never realized that he was being such a terrible person. He apologized to me, and we had this crazy deep conversation about how he grew up homophobic.”
“I can’t tell you that he’s not homophobic anymore, but we had a strong conversation and to me that was very important."
Their friendship, and Mack’s courage, helped change her co-worker’s perspective in a way that will surely radiate beyond him. Facing up to the opportunity to both seek understanding and demand to be understood, is the type of everyday battle that Mack sees in the military, in roller derby, and in life.
“I’m very upfront with things that make me uncomfortable and I’ve always been that way,” she explains.
“I choose my battles. It’s more battles than probably most people would, but it doesn’t matter because if you feel strongly about something, you say something.”
“It’s incredibly exhausting and it’s extremely difficult to be confrontational about things that are not ok. I go home crying way more times than I would like to admit. I’m frustrated about it, I talk to my wife about it, I talk to my mom, I talk to my friends, and then we do it again the next day because if you don’t say anything - if you continue to let things slide - then nothing gets done.“
For the toll it takes on her, Mack takes solace in the positive impact she has on those who struggle in silence.
“The exhausting part gets paid back to me when quiet people come up and say, ‘I heard what you said, I truly appreciate it, I feel this way too.’ They feel more comfortable knowing that I’m in the room with them,” she shares.
This type of genuine and real-time advocacy requires confidence, assertiveness, leadership, and, in Mack’s words, aggressiveness.
“Being aggressive is a way that I support. [Labels] are ok because there’s at least one person in the room that knows that I’m not going to stand for racist jokes, sexual jokes - I’m not going to stand for any of that stuff.”
For Mack, her introduction to roller derby was a dichotomy of salvation and toxicity that reflects the world we live in.
“[Derby] is incredibly freeing because when I skate - when I’m practicing with people that have the same goal as me - it’s different. We all skate with the same purpose,” she begins.
“I’m able to put everything that I feel outside the track away when I’m with my team on the track, and it’s always been that way.”
“Then, I started to realize that a lot of changes that need to be made in the U.S. also need to be made in derby as well.”
Like many large organizations, sports or otherwise, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) is a made up of predominately white executives and staff. While they have made an ‘explicit commitment to improving diversity and inclusion,’ Mack asserts that the lack of diverse representation has kept them from relating to, or educating themselves on, the problems that people of color face within the sport.
“What has always bothered me is that people [within roller derby] find it so easy to relate to LGTBQ+ deserving human rights and human decency - and you can see that without being gay, you can see that while being an ally - but you can’t see that same thing for people of color,” she says.
“So, when we have racist incidents that happen at games, people don’t know how to respond because they’re not comfortable. But if something homophobic were to happen, there’s rules, regulations, bans, all kinds of things in place already.”
“Where’s that same energy for the problems people of color are facing?”
The weight of it all had reached the point that, in 2017, Mack planned to quit the sport after RollerCon. Held annually in Las Vegas, RollerCon is a global convention that brings skaters of all disciplines together to celebrate their sport and skate.
At the convention, in what was supposed to be one of her final games, Mack played in the Black Roller Derby Network Game, which is exclusive to high-level Black skaters. The experience was life-altering.
"I burst into tears,” she shares.
“It was just what I needed.”
“When you get the feeling of skating with a full team of people that look like you - that are just as fierce and just as amazing - and you get to see [these same] people doing things that you can’t do yet, it’s so inspiring.”
So, when her friend Ganesa Ferguson came to her with the idea of creating a team of Black-only skaters, the decision to join the founding committee was easy.
“I wanted to give that feeling to all the Black skaters - to give them motivation to keep skating,” says Mack.
They called their team Black Diaspora Roller Derby, and by definition, would unite its members from anywhere in the world. Mack, Ferguson, and a third co-founder Marquishia Winters, were on a mission.
“The reason we created the Black Diaspora team is to provide a safe space for Black skaters to come and skate together,” she explains.
“It’s been very transformative, having this team and hearing the stories. I thought it was just me, but every Black skater has that same experience.”
Team Black Diaspora is, as much a community as it is an opportunity to skate, and they welcome all skill levels.
“We have over 250 members, so it’s technically the biggest roller derby team that exists,” says Mack.
“It’s been glorious.”
Because they’re not sanctioned by any formal organization, they can play games wherever they want, with whomever they want, anywhere in the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an obvious effect on the team’s ability to play and host tournaments, but that hasn’t stopped them from continuing to nurture a culture that, hopefully, keeps Black skaters in their sport.
“There’s been a very strong conversation about whether Black skaters are going to go back to roller derby after COVID. It’s really difficult to skate in a community that you know is not made for you,” Mack explains.
Beyond the direct impact she’s having through the Black Diaspora team, Mack hopes that the wider roller derby community is taking the opportunity to listen and learn during their time away from the sport, and from the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I hope that people are taking the time to educate themselves on what people have been saying, so when derby does come back, it comes back with more information and more insight,” she says.
“The sport truly is for everyone. There will always be a need for women-exclusive spaces, but roller derby is literally for everyone – children, men, non-binary, people on any part of the gender spectrum.”
“I think [roller derby] has a very long way to go to actually being inclusive, but what they’re wanting to accomplish is a sport that includes everyone.”
The path toward inclusivity, to Mack, comes down to one word: effective.
This sentiment transcends what might be trending in a moment, and the use of protests, rollouts, and social media posts for public clout. Certainly, she agrees that more conversation and action are good, as long as they’re effective.
“All I ask is that people think about what they’re doing. There are questions that a lot of people are missing," she explains.
“Are you being effective in expressing what you want people to know?”
“Have you educated yourself on what you’re doing?”
“How can you be more effective in your community?”
Her questions are meant to inspire small, genuine actions that directly impact personal change and enlightenment.
As motivation, she offers a sobering reminder;
“It’s a privilege to educate yourself on racism than to live it every day.”
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