Barrel racer Megan Wilson of Stephenville, Texas, shared how she’s working to celebrate diversity in the Western industry.
How did you start taking action?
“I created my own page Meg.Studios as an outlet to get my feelings out, express myself and relieve some stress. In May 2020, I put together my www.meganreneewilson.com, and part of it is diversity consulting. I want to get my certification of diversity so I can train businesses specifically in the Western and rodeo industries to teach them the do’s and don’ts as far as photo shoots and diversifying their media.”
What has your experience been like as a person of color in the rodeo industry?
“I got my first horse when I was a junior in high school. I was on my own; I just watched other girls warm up and copied them and learned. I college rodeoed in Oklahoma, and then I moved to Stephenville. That’s when I met my ex-boyfriend, and he was on the rodeo circuit, so really my first experiences with it in the professional sense was going on the road with him, and that opened my eyes to a lot. Every time we went out, he was treated a lot differently than even I was, and it was shocking as far as contractors treating him differently, rodeo officials, being out on the road and getting pulled over. I got my own jobs in Western fashion, and I was treated differently [than the other models]. That fueled me and inspired me to go out and do my own thing. I know everyone’s not like that, but these are just experiences that God put me through personally that opened my eyes to things.”
What is most hurtful to you about the conversations surrounding race in the industry you love?
“It’s hard in the Western industry to be heard or to be seen. A lot of people have their set minds. I hear a lot that, ‘Racism doesn’t exist,’ and I hear it a lot in the Western community. But this is where we experience it the most, so I guess in a way it’s denial and a fear of looking at themselves and their own flaws, but at the end of the day we are all human and we all make mistakes. We aren’t going to find healing or move on unless we accept it and look at ourselves and say, ‘I haven’t been right about this, maybe I should listen to someone who doesn’t look like me or think like me, and we can move on.’ Because at the end of the day, we just want them to join the party so we can all party together. We should be comfortable to talk about race, because it’s not going anywhere.”
How can we make the conversation around race more comfortable? Or is it OK for it to be uncomfortable?
“It’s totally OK to be uncomfortable with it. We have to learn to be OK with being uncomfortable; it’s part of growth, and it’s part of life. You’re not going to get anywhere if you stay in your comfort zone; there’s cliché sayings about that, but it’s true. For me, I grew up in a really small town in Kansas, and Stephenville is the biggest town I’ve ever lived in, but I know there’s a whole different world I have not been exposed to. It’s 2020—we have the Internet, and we are literally connected to everywhere in the world. I like to grow in ways by what I watch on Netflix. Listening to music in different languages and just talking to different people and exposing yourself to different worlds. It’s great to travel different places, but we don’t all have that chance, especially if you have horses. But there are ways you can expand your mind by being online. Your Instagram feed—if it’s all the same thing, white cowgirls and models with their horses, then that’s all you see and that’s all you’re going to have in your mind. I would start by diversifying what you see and what you listen to. Listen with a different perspective.”
People tend to think of racism as racial slurs or very obvious and intentional discrimination. But what are some examples of how racism is ingrained in ways we might not notice?
“I think that’s an issue in the Western community is a rudimentary view of racism as people going around saying the N-word, but that’s not always what it is. Most of the time, it’s what you call systemic racism and that effects people of color in housing, bank loans, in the workplace, in healthcare, in education. There’s a long history of that. We used to and we still do have some laws that were invented to keep Black people out of certain neighborhoods. When you see Black people in ghettos and in the inner city, it’s because during Jim Crow they weren’t allowed to purchase houses in certain areas. Land owners would kick them out, even if they had good credit, so they had nowhere else to go besides ghettos, and they also couldn’t find jobs. Even if they were qualified, people weren’t giving them jobs. If you live in the ghettos you have to take transportation to work and it’s a long commute, and when people are poor and oppressed that brings out mental illnesses and social issues and that all results in violence, and then you don’t have equal education and your schools are rundown, so it’s generational trauma passed down that we all have experienced.
“As far as micro-aggressions that I’ve experienced, at rodeos with my ex-boyfriend I’d hear ‘that N-word can’t ride a bull,’ and before he’d nod his head they’d open the gate which is really dangerous, and we’ve had the cops called on us for no reason—those are the bigger examples. I have heard things like ‘Well the Cowboys of Color rodeo, that’s just a lower quality, lower caliber type of person.’ Another big example I really feel is that sometimes people won’t look me in the eye. I was at a rodeo hanging out in a group watching some of the guys talking, and they’d look everyone else in the eye, but they’d never look me in the eye. It’s just little things like that that are really felt, and it wears on your self-image a lot when you’re being shown that kind of treatment from society on a regular basis.”
What are some silver linings moving forward?
“The Civil Rights movement in the 1960s was very contentious, but we gained so much out of it, so many freedoms. The world I live in now, my grandparents never would have imagined that. But if it weren’t for the innovative thinking of leaders back then and the action they took and their vocalness and their consistency, I wouldn’t be able to marry anyone outside my race or I’d be drinking out of a water fountain labeled differently or I wouldn’t be able to swim in this pool. Back then, those were norms for society. If we continue to accept things as norms for society, it’s going to add to the oppression of future generations and the wound is going to deepen, and that’s not going to heal. I want everyone to be open about things, because it’s no big deal to be able to talk about it. It’s the mature thing to do. It shouldn’t be a big deal to talk about and see someone else’s perspective.”
How can people start conversation about race and diversity?
“As far as having conversations with your friends, you should try to make friends of other colors. If you’re only consulting with your white friends about it, then that’s not really going to help the situation. If you have a Black friend and you’re curious, just say something like ‘I see everything going on right now, and I’m curious.’ For example, I have friends who are indigenous or Native American and of different races, and I know I’ve done things that are racist and have appropriated their cultures. I will ask them ‘Hey, I want you to know I’m an ally and I support you, and I’ve learned that I’ve done really ignorant things. If there’s anything I’ve done that’s hurtful, please let me know how I can change to support you.’ You want your friend of color to know you’re supportive. Don’t go in just to argue with them or say ‘No, that doesn’t happen.’ There’s nothing worse than being told ‘You didn’t experience that.’ Have an open mind, take a moment and self-reflect. Be calm, and don’t have something ready to say as a rebuttal. Ask yourself questions and reflect on situations before speaking. There’s so many resources available to educate yourself, and lots of books are helpful and can be life-changing.”
What can the Western industry do as a whole to become more inclusive and welcoming to all people?
“I’ve talked to a lot of African American men and women and it’s always the same story, and it was the same story for me growing up—‘I’ve always wanted to be a cowgirl or cowboy, but I never saw my place there and never thought I’d be accepted, so I haven’t done it.’ A big part is representation in media. In catalogs, on Instagram feeds, these big brands need to bring in black, Mexican, Asian models, that way people outside can see it, especially young children. If you never see anybody who looks like you in that field, then in your childhood mind that means ‘I can’t be that.’ There’s a lot of athletes of color in rodeo. Just show them, show their faces, show their stories, and listen to them.”
How can leaders in the Western industry help facilitate change?
“On my website, I’ve started a call-to-action list as far as integrating rodeo, and one of those is fining for racial slurs at rodeos by officials and contestants, because that makes things extremely uncomfortable and unwelcoming. I know there’s a lot of people who participate in black rodeo who are good enough to rodeo professionally, but they don’t want to come out here and experience that, because it’s hurtful. It wears on your mentality and adds another level you have to think about when you’re just trying to compete and be a good athlete. It’s hard enough as it is, and having to deal with that on top of it, it’s like, ‘Why am I even here, why am I doing this to myself?’ It would be nice if rodeo committees hired more judges or officials who are persons of color, at least one per rodeo, that way contestants entering would feel more comfortable or more safe, because that’s the bottom line is safety. Make it more welcoming for other people, and consider they’re not all going to be from where you’re from or look like you.”
What would you say to people of color who want to rodeo?
“I would say to people of color or younger black boys and girls, that if you don’t feel like you can participate in rodeo but it’s what you want to do, just know that you will have support and it is worth getting into it. Don’t deny yourself your dream because you’re afraid of being accepted or being an outcast or being stared at. It’s going to get better, and there are opportunities for you. Just take care of yourself, your mind and your spirit and know your value and your worth and don’t let anybody tell you any different. Go for it. A lot of black athletes don’t want to speak out about their beliefs because they don’t want to be shunned or be an outcast, but don’t let anybody tell you that you’re wrong or invalid for standing up for your own rights.”