When Othello Richards returned to BYU in 2000 after his mission, a friend introduced him to another student. After introductions, the student asked Richards what sport he played and if that was why he came to BYU.
“She assumed that because I was black and at BYU that I played a sport,” Richards said.
Although Richards did run track and field at BYU, he was at BYU on a multicultural scholarship for his academics.
Richards said many students assumed black students were at BYU to play a sport rather than to get an education.
Richards grew up in Virginia, so when he came to BYU for his undergrad in 1997, he said things were very different in Utah. He remembers walking through the mall in Orem and being followed, and people eyeing him to make sure he didn’t steal anything.
Despite some of the challenges he faced, Richards said overall his experience as a student at BYU was positive.
In reflecting on Black History Month, two BYU students shared their experiences of being a black athlete at BYU.
BYU senior Desiree Mitchell has been on the BYU Cheer Squad for four years.
Mitchell said because she is the only black cheerleader out on the field or court, fans notice her first because she stands out.
“People are always curious to talk to me and see where I’m from, which is kind of funny because I’m just from Utah,” Mitchell said. “But they always want to talk to me. I kind of stand out in their minds, which has been really good sometimes.”
Mitchell said things at BYU have gotten better over time, but sometimes Mormons can be in a bubble that isn’t very diverse. According to Mitchell, because of this bubble, some Mormons don’t know how to react to people who are different than them.
Mitchell said she remembers as a freshman when a boy in class said she was lucky to be black because then she could get into any school, and that was the only reason she got into BYU.
“(It) was so dumb,” Mitchell said. “But nothing like that really happens anymore, at least to me.”
Mitchell said even though there aren’t very many black students at BYU, over the course of her academic career, people at BYU have become more tolerant and aware of racial issues on campus.
“Now, I feel like it’s something that’s really positive and people are just very open to it,” Mitchell said.
According to Mitchell, being cautious, respectful and considerate of other people, plus being around people who are different, can help.
BYU junior and football receiver Micah Simon said he has “only had good, positive experiences here.”
Being from Texas and not a member of the LDS Church, Simon said coming to BYU was different because he didn’t know much about it. Regardless of these factors, Simon said he wouldn’t change his decision.
“I felt like this was the best spot for me,” Simon said. “And I haven’t had any regrets about coming here, even with all the different coaching changes and things of that nature. I’ve felt like my time here has been good, and I wouldn’t change it.”
Simon said black or non-LDS athletes “need to come here to experience it for themselves with their families.”
“Don’t just listen to everything you hear about BYU from other people,” Simon said.
Richards returned to BYU to teach in the School of Communications in 2014. Richards said being a black professor at BYU wasn’t anything different for him.
“For me, I didn’t feel any different. I didn’t feel special,” Richards said. “But I think for a couple black students, they were glad to have a black professor.”
Richards said some black students felt like having a black professor gave them someone to relate to, someone who understands them.
“I look at people as people. I don’t look at people and see a color at all. So it doesn’t matter if I’m teaching all whites, if I’m teaching all blacks, Asians, whatever ethnicity. I just see people as who they are,” Richards said. “But for some people, it means something special to them to have an African American professor.”
For Mitchell, her college experience has made Black History Month more important to her.
“(It’s) started to become something that’s more important and more a time of reflection,” Mitchell said.
Simon said Black History Month reminds him of the sacrifices people have made “to make the life I live good.”