Dana Bivens: ‘Inaction is Silence’

In summer 2020, we launched a 1st Annual $5,000+ Diversity Scholarship with the support of generous donors, inviting minority equestrians to contribute to the discussion of diversity and inclusion in equestrian sport. It is the mission of this annual bursary, which we intend to expand in coming years, to call for, encourage, elevate and give a platform to minority voices in a space where they are underrepresented.

How do we build a more diverse, inclusive and accessible sport? In the coming weeks, we will explore this question alongside many of the 27 Scholarship recipients as they share with us their essays in full. Collectively, their perspectives coalesce into a body of work that will no doubt help inform a viable path forward for equestrian sport, and we are committed to connecting their actionable ideas with the public as well as leaders and stakeholders of the sport.

Today we welcome Dana Bivens.  More voices: Leilani Jackson | Julie Upshur | Aki Joy Maruyama | Jen Spencer | Jordyn Hale | Dawn Edgerton-Cameron | Madison Buening | Caden Barrera | Deonte Sewell | Anastasia Curwood 

Photo by Brant Gamma.

Like many little girls, I became enamored with horses at a very young age.  Horse crazy doesn’t even begin to describe it.  I dreamed about ponies, and riding, and wide-open spaces, and all of the imagery associated with the equine lifestyle. Riding was foreign to my parents and extended family, but my parents took me for lessons when I was four, and the rest is history.  Twenty-eight years later I still ride and compete.  And for 28 years, I have yet to meet a single equestrian who looks like me.  This is a sobering and isolating truth, which speaks to how homogenous our sport is and how this lack of diversity limits our potential to expand audiences, grow equestrian communities, generate revenue and support, and to make the joys of riding and horses available to everyone.

My experience in the eventing community has been predominantly positive.  Among my equestrian peers, merit is based on talent and hard work, and one is rewarded for the sacrifice put in and the time spent learning to be not only a good rider, but a good horseman or horsewoman.  I am in awe by the dedication and skill of so many of my peers and enjoy the camaraderie and openness that eventing offers, especially compared to some other equestrian sports.

The conversation on diversity within our community has, however, been lacking.  It is an uncomfortable subject, which requires the individual to assess their own privilege, address inherent bias, and to challenge the viewpoints of those who may be held in high regard or who garner respect. The national discourse on this issue has forced us all to take stock of our own positions regarding race, class, and privilege.  The equestrian community is thankfully participating in this conversation and my hope is that we can have an open and honest discussion to learn from our own mistakes, to become more inclusive and, to prioritize equality.

How can we combat racism within our sport? 

There can be no change in silence and inaction.  The first steps to combating racism are to be mindful and aware of the latent bias we possess, to actively work to change this bias, and to be outspoken when we witness racism within our community.  Racism comes in many forms and prejudice is a learned, and sometimes unconscious, behavior that takes time to unlearn.

Members of the minority community must also hold others accountable and to be proud of who we are, our personal stories, and our heritage.  This has been an area in which I have struggled in the past and hope to improve in the future.

For years, I taught lessons and rode horses as my full-time job.  I would travel to local farms and interact with any number of equestrians in the area.  Many of my clients did not share my political beliefs and this led me to implement a policy of neutrality while working.  I felt it was unprofessional to mix business and political or social commentary, and as a result I kept my views private.  Unfortunately, this behavior led me to extend my neutrality to other issues and not to engage in areas where I should have.

When discussing relationships and dating, one of my clients, who was around my age, told me she could “Never bring a black guy home to her parents.”  I remember pausing, looking at her and asking, “What do you mean? You know I am part African American right?”  Her response was perhaps more stunning, as she stated, “Oh, but you don’t count. You are a credit to your race.” As though my profession or character exonerated me from any associated negativity attached to the African American community.  I should have challenged this thought, but I did not.  I stood dumbfounded, surprised people still thought like this and did nothing to defend my heritage or to combat the racism I had just experienced.

In light of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and other equality movements, I see now that I should have engaged with those who perpetuated stereotypes or blatantly made their beliefs over people of color (POCs) known.  Racism must not be a political issue.  Equality does not depend on your political leanings.  And I should not have been afraid to respond to prejudice.  I confess, however, that at the time I felt impotent and dependent on the business of my clients to continue my career, so I did not engage.  The BLM movement has made this discussion mainstream and has encouraged many to vocalize their experiences and challenges and this has made me realize that it is my responsibility to challenge these stereotypes no matter the venue and no matter the situation. I will defend my right to equality and defend that right for others even if it puts strain on business and personal relationships.  I encourage all members of the minority community, as well as supporters from the majority, to do the same. There can be no change in silence.  Inaction is silence.

Photo by Brant Gamma.

How do we diversify?

I remember times when my father, who is African American, accompanied me to competitions to watch and drive the horse trailer and be a typical horse show dad.  More times than I can remember people asked if he was my groom rather than wondering if we had some other relationship.  Because he was black, my peers assumed he was employed by someone at the show, rather than the father and supporter of an aspiring equestrian.   It dawned on me at a young age that we looked more like the help than the riders, and for years I felt ashamed of my appearance because I did not look like the successful equestrians whom I idolized.

Inclusion in the equestrian community must come from changing the image of what it means to be an “equestrian.”  Growing up, I did not know a single equestrian who was African American.  No one at the shows or at the barn looked like me.  The resounding image of the successful equestrian is white, affluent, and athletic.  Fortunately, in this sport we enjoy greater equality among the genders, so I did have many female role models to emulate.  But seeing another African American at the top of the leader boards or on the cover of equestrian magazines would help to evolve the image of the successful equestrian to include members of other racial and socioeconomic groups.

There are many equestrian groups out there who bring horses to urban communities and draw in non-traditional audiences.  We need more of these programs in our community and more support from external donors to make this a reality.  Thank you to those who bring horses to kids who would never have otherwise experienced horseback riding.  And thank you to Eventing Nation for making this scholarship a possibility.  This type of support is key to changing our current trajectory and opening the door for more to join our community.

Self-reflection is key.

We all need to recognize how minor things will affect how another views the world.  The insidious nature of small acts and their potential to invite hatred into the world can permanently and profoundly influence the recipient of this distasteful treatment.  The impact of racism and the feeling of hurt and impotence that cruel words can create is second to no other type of cruelty that I have experienced.  It is fundamentally debasing and degrades the victim based on a physical attribute.  Additionally, it places the responsibility of “overcoming” this allegedly negative quality on the victim.  I must prove to you, white person, that I am worthy of your time.

When I was in college, I dated a man whose parents were openly racist.  When our relationship became public, they told my boyfriend at the time, “We thought we raised you better” and that people of different races shouldn’t reproduce as it was unnatural.  Additionally, when they came for his college graduation, they prevented me from sitting with them in the auditorium, and actively excluded me from conversations and events.  This experience was so unbelievably hurtful that it still brings tears to my eyes.  They did not take the time to get to know who I was but rather made an assumption based on my skin color.  Their actions said the color of my skin made me inferior to them, a lesser person, not worthy of their time nor their attention.  Finally, I felt so powerless to combat this viewpoint, and angry at myself for feeling as though it was my responsibility to change their minds when they were in the wrong.  The most hurtful part of this experience was that when I brought it to the attention of others, they argued that “Some people just think that way.” Unfortunately, this explanation was seen as sufficient for dismissing open hostility toward an entire race of people and that being entitled to one’s opinion justified such blatant acts of hatred.  The lack of support from others during this experience eroded my trust in non-POCs to stand up for what is right in the face of such prejudice.

Sadly, many of you have felt the profound sting of being judged for a personal characteristic such as your race, gender, religion, or merely your opinions.  To be prejudged and dismissed as inferior for a personal attribute, particularly one that is immutable, is fundamentally debasing and an experience I wish for no one.  This a palpable reminder for why we must take care in what we say and remember that even the smallest words can create undue harm when coming from a place of hate or fear.  Victims of racism or prejudice often view their world through that lens and it taints their relationships and colors their perceptions not only of themselves, but of other groups.  We have the opportunity to create a place of acceptance for many, and I know that this amazing community of riders has the power and the will to do it.

Let’s move forward together.

If we work to change our image and to promote diversity, we will draw more participants into our sport.  This will lead to more students and clients for trainers, more owners who support aspiring riders, and a wider fan base to boost attendance and viewership at equestrian events.  It also means more kids will experience the same joy of riding and benefit from the same opportunities for growth and personal development that changed my life.  I am encouraged by the ongoing efforts to promote diversity in all areas of society. We are all privileged to live through a time of inspiring growth in social and economic opportunity, but we also cannot miss this chance to continually improve the things we love. I love riding, and I would love to share my passion with anyone who will listen. Today, that means reaching a community that we don’t often see around the stable and sparking the same passion and love that inspired each of us to the sport. Find ways to share your love for riding with a broader community and help new faces light up with the joy we all find in the saddle.

Nation Media wishes to thank Barry and Cyndy Oliff, Katherine Coleman and Hannah Hawkins for their financial support of this Scholarship. We also wish to thank our readers for their support, both of this endeavor and in advance for all the important work still to come.

Get involved! Dana ends her essay by issuing a challenge: that we find ways to share our love for riding with a broader community who might not otherwise have access. She talks about equestrian groups who bring horses to urban communities, and note that we need more programs like these and more support from donors. 

There is currently no comprehensive directory available online of urban equestrian outreach programs. Let’s start one, to make these programs more accessible to those who wish to get involved as users, volunteers or donors. Here’s a list of programs that I’m aware of — if you know of others, please let us know in the Facebook comments so we can add them. 

Could your stable support an outreach effort? This doesn’t have to be a full-fledged riding lesson program — it could be a monthly open barn, wherein you invite community groups to visit and learn about horses, or whatever works for you. Get creative!