WNBA’s Napheesa Collier: How to be Outspoken about Race at Work
George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer sparked racial reckonings in many industries and workplaces.
Napheesa Collier, forward for the Minnesota Lynx, has been outspoken about police brutality and racism throughout her basketball career. She joins host Porter Braswell to discuss how her team and the WNBA have been using their platforms to fight for social justice.
HBR Presents is a network of podcasts curated by HBR editors, bringing you the best business ideas from the leading minds in management. The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Harvard Business Review or its affiliates.
NAPHEESA COLLIER: They had ideas like, you know, every start of the quarter, we’re going to give 30 seconds for the announcers to talk about this issue. And then after the game, we’ll talk only about this issue, not about the game in our interviews and then half-time, same thing.
And then some people were like, no, we should not play. That would make a bigger stance. So we were having this debate. Meanwhile the time is ticking down for when the game is about to start.
PORTER BRASWELL: From HBR Presents, this is Race at Work. The show that explores how race impacts our careers and lives. I’m Porter Braswell. I left a Wall Street career to start a company called Jopwell because I wanted to help corporate America build a more diverse workforce. Each week, we talk to a different leader about their experience with race and how it impacts our daily lives.
Back in 2020, George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. The city’s WNBA team has a history of speaking out against police brutality and social justice issues, and they were quick to respond. So we’ve reached out to one of the Minnesota Lynx players, 2019 Rookie of the Year, Napheesa Collier.
She’s also been outspoken about race and social justice issues and we started our conversation going back in time. All right. So let’s start with your background. Talk to us about growing up in a mixed race household. When did you experience race for the first time? How did that concept become a reality to you?
NAPHEESA COLLIER: Actually pretty young. My dad is from Sierra Leone and my mom is from a dairy farm in Missouri, so very different backgrounds. And we never really, when I was really young, talked about race, it was just normal. My dad was black, my mom was white. And my dad, Sierra Leoneans were like really, there’s a lot of them in Jefferson city.
And every weekend we would go to a Sierra Leonean party. They would just gather, we listened to music, we’d eat. And I guess I was really young. I don’t remember this. It’s my mom’s favorite story, but I pulled her down to me. I was like, mom, you and me are the only two white people here. I don’t know where that came from, but it was like one of her favorite stories to tell.
And then when I was in kindergarten, I went to the school that my mom went to because it was like one of the only places that had full-time kindergarten. And it was a K through 12 school. And again, it’s from like a really small town in Eugene, Missouri. And so I was like the only black person in the whole school.
And I remember playing on the slides and like, one of the girls that I would always play with, she’s like, we don’t want to play with you anymore because you’re black and wear white. And I just remember like, being so confused and devastated because it had never even crossed my mind before. I mean, I didn’t see myself as black and them as white.
We were just, again, it’s just like, it wasn’t something that was talked about in my house. It just was, like, it was normal.
PORTER BRASWELL: Did your parents ever sit down and have the conversation that you are a black person in this country, and that means certain things? Did you ever experience that?
NAPHEESA COLLIER: Yes. But not in the way that I think people have it now where, especially in reference to police officers, we didn’t have that kind of conversation, but we definitely had it with, again, I grew up in a really white town, saying that I have to work twice as hard to get, you know, half of the recognition that like my white friends did.
And if I do this and this, I can be perceived as lazy way easier. Um, and I can’t have excuses, which is something that I still carry with me today. A lot of people say that, like, I don’t show expression on the court or like, I don’t complain a lot. And that really comes from my parents you know, raising me that way, saying if you come with excuses, you know, it’s perceived a lot different than if your white friends came up with those same excuses.
So definitely had those conversations growing up. But again, I think it’s way different from the ones that people are having today with their kids.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. With your mom being a white woman and your dad being a black man, how do you think looking back that your mom prepared you? Because while you are half white and half black, again in this country, you are, you are black.
So how do you think your mom was effective in getting that messaging across while still having you understand that you are also half white?
NAPHEESA COLLIER: I think again, like we had those conversations with like work ethic and things like that, but we never really had it where it’s like, we grew up in a family where we didn’t really talk about it, like that didn’t even come into account.
So I got like in high school even. And again like that kindergarten experience, like it was traumatizing and it’s the first time I thought about it. But it didn’t affect me that much growing up to be honest. And so the conversation my parents would have were those kinds.
Like they made us aware of it, they made sure that we were acting a certain way. But it wasn’t something that was like, a staple, I guess. I think I really started paying more attention was when I was in high school. I went to school near Florissant, which is where Mike Brown was shot. And that was kind of the first time that I had really seen that in my life, especially so close to my life.
It was just shocking. And, you know, we were out of school for like a couple of days because of the protests. That was the first time I had been anywhere near a protest. Especially where it affected, like my school and my life personally.
PORTER BRASWELL: Do you recall classmates talking about that or was that, or was the conversation mostly within the household?
NAPHEESA COLLIER: Yeah, definitely. We had school assemblies about it. Because again, I don’t think honestly we would have, I went to a private school in St. Louis. I don’t think we would have talked about it if it hadn’t affected us personally, because it did. I think it forced us to have those conversations and to talk about it when we, I honestly don’t think we would have before.
PORTER BRASWELL: I think to me what’s so important about that conversation is that it goes back to: where does the responsibility lie to create the space, to have these dialogues? Especially as young teenagers, trying to understand their place in this world and making sense of something that’s happening down the street. It’s the responsibility – I think it’s always the responsibility of the institution to create those spaces where people can then unpack the things that are going on.
Because as it relates to high school, you’re not going to perform well academically if you can’t also explore how you’re feeling about certain topics. You’re going to be distracted. And I think that coincides so nicely with corporate America. It’s the same thing. It’s the leaders within these institutions and organizations, they have to create spaces to allow their employees to unpack their, what they’re feeling so that they are not distracted while at work.
I appreciate you elevating that story about what happened in high school to you.
NAPHEESA COLLIER: Yeah. I definitely agree. Especially with younger kids. And like high school or younger or whatever it may be, because I feel like at that age, you know, if the institution, the school that, where you’re at, doesn’t talk about it, you have that mindset where like, okay, I guess it’s not that big of a deal because the adults don’t think it’s that big of a deal. We’re not talking about it. And so by them doing that, it kind of says, you know, this is not normal. It’s okay to not feel good about this. It’s okay to be mad about this or have whatever feelings that you have.
So it kind of allows you to be that way when maybe if you didn’t have those conversations, they’re like, Oh, well I guess it’s normal. I guess it doesn’t affect me so it doesn’t matter.
PORTER BRASWELL: You’ve already had such an incredible basketball career. So what was it like to play at Yukon? Let’s start there. That to me is, Oh my God.
So talk to us about that experience.
NAPHEESA COLLIER: Yeah, it was awesome. I mean, it was the best and hardest year, four years of my life. Yeah. I mean, my first semester I did not prioritize school. I got really bad grades and I had never gotten bad grades before. My parents saw that report card, I made sure that never happened again.
Because, you know, I was having fun. I was at college. It was the first time I was there for my parents. Basketball was stressful because I wasn’t performing the way that I knew that I could, the way I wanted to. You know, going to college, you’re going to be against people who are bigger, faster, stronger. It’s going to be hard mentally, physically, but you don’t know until you get there, how hard it is.
And my freshman year, it was just like the worst experience ever. I mean, the level of expectation they have for you is so, so high. When you’re exhausted physically, and then you have to be locked in learning new plays, learning a whole new offense. So it was really hard to kind of build that basketball IQ, that focus.
PORTER BRASWELL: So I played basketball at Yale. So same state, not nearly on the same level as you, but I definitely remember my freshman year, literally being in tears. Where it’s like, I was trying to figure out the system. I was lifting weights for their first time. I was trying to compete academically. And you can’t do it all.
You can’t be great at everything. So now you are a professional, you play for the Minnesota Lynx. And so talk to us about what is it like to be a professional athlete? Let’s start high level. Just what is that feeling like to compete professionally and get paid to play basketball, which is awesome.
NAPHEESA COLLIER: Thank you. Um, it’s awesome. And it’s really cool because I feel like I’m doing this stuff that I’ve always done. I’m just finally getting paid for it. So it’s like, finally. It was really cool, especially, you know, my rookie year, those first couple months, it feels like freedom. You don’t have school anymore. You’re away from your parents, but your college coaches are like parents because you’re still a kid in college.
So they’re responsible for you, you still have rules that you have to follow and you don’t have any of that when you get to the league. And honestly, the biggest thing was they provide you with food in college, and I had to find out all my meals. So I had, you know, make the choice to eat healthy. I had to make the choice to lift if I wanted to. We don’t have set lifting times. I had so much, like I said so much freedom after coming from college. I was able to transfer that discipline over from college, into my professional life.
PORTER BRASWELL: Wow. Well, let’s pivot the conversation. Let’s move into what is it like to be a professional, living and working in Minneapolis, given all that’s going on, both politically and socially within the city?
NAPHEESA COLLIER: Yeah, obviously a lot going on in the city. My team personally, I love my team. I love my coaches. And Minnesota specifically has always really fought for social justice. So I feel really lucky to be a part of that. Especially last year after George Floyd, it was obviously so devastating for everyone. And to see it happen right in our backyard was horrible.
And we actually got to talk to the chief of police in Minnesota. So that was really cool. We kind of just got to grill him on questions. Like, why is this happening continuously? Like, what changes are going to be made? And he gave us all the right answers. You know, there’s not – but there’s nothing he can say that could make you feel better for something like that happening. And to have it happen again almost a year later, I think it’s just, I mean, Unacceptable.
PORTER BRASWELL: All right. Well, let’s go back. Let’s go back to the day of George Floyd’s murder. What do you recall from that day or the first couple of days that followed that?
NAPHEESA COLLIER: I mean, it was all over like social media. That’s where I saw it. And it was sickening.
It made me feel like I got like sweaty and my stomach felt nauseous. Just, I don’t know. I had never seen a video like that before. Like I’ve seen really grainy ones. Like maybe you could see something happening. Police brutality, obviously it’s all over social media, but to see it for like, what was it, nine minutes, kneeling on someone’s neck.
Like he’s just kneeling there. He doesn’t think anything’s wrong because he thinks he’s going to get away with it. It was just so sickening to see that it’s something that’ll stick with me for the rest of my life.
PORTER BRASWELL: So I remember watching it, seeing it play out and it took my breath away to see somebody’s knee on somebody’s neck, who’s yelling, I can’t breathe. And to keep doing that. What was it most shocking for me as I relive my emotions from that day, is that I was numb to the fact that that was a black man that was being killed by a police officer. Like that part didn’t really hit me. It wasn’t until a couple of days later, when on social media, all of my white friends were outraged.
And to me, that hit me. That was shocking to my system to see so many folks who don’t identify as being black, speak out about the injustice that’s going on, but it’s always been going on. And we’ve always known that within the community.
And I remember being at work and one of my white male colleagues took me aside virtually and said he wanted to know why didn’t I say more to the business? Why didn’t I come out more and address it? And what I told him is, you know, I did address it, but the level of outrage that he felt as a white man, how come he didn’t have that outrage before for the other police killings that we’ve seen?
And so it was the first time that I recall in a professional setting, having these open and honest dialogues with my colleagues, trying to make sense of something that we in the community have always known has existed. But it was like an awakening for other communities, where it hit them for the first time of like, Oh my God, this stuff happens.
And I think that then the playing out of all of that is what we’ve seen over the last year with the movements and the protest and the diverse individuals that are protesting from all different backgrounds. And to me, that’s why it felt different that time. What was it like to have dialogues with your teammates?
What were some of the things that you all were discussing, trying to make sense of it and process it?
NAPHEESA COLLIER: I think it gained so much traction because it was just irrefutable this time. I think a lot of times people try to write it off, and this is not something for any reason that you can write off.
The conversations that I have with my teammates, like they were all on, this is wrong. This has been wrong for a long time. So really we were just expressing our feelings and how it made us feel. It was really emotional, you know, a lot of tears from a lot of people. And again, seeing it happen in Minnesota, our first thought was like, what can we do about this?
Because in Minnesota, we see that we kind of have an opportunity to bring more light to it than maybe other teams. And so right away, we’re thinking, you know, what can we do? Can we talk to the police chief? Can we write to like state representatives? What can we do? Our initial conversations were just emotional, how we felt, and then it was, what action can we take?
PORTER BRASWELL: When you all had conversation with the police chief, what were some of the sentiments that he was sharing with you all?
NAPHEESA COLLIER: Yeah, so I mean, really the questions we were asking were like, why did this happen? And honestly, how are you going to stop it from happening in the future? It was our biggest one. And he said things like, we’re going to have a lot of investigations, you know, more protocols. We said, what can we do to change?
He said, you can send letters to local representatives and things. He gave us answers, but it’s not really, again, fulfilling answers. Like nothing he could have said really would have satisfied us. So, I mean, and again, to see something like this happen a year later, it’s just really disappointing.
PORTER BRASWELL: As this translates into corporate America, maybe at like a higher level within the institution or the entity that is professional basketball for women, do they create spaces for you all?
Or is it more like the management of the team that created that space for you all to have those dialogues, to then figure out, to go talk to the police commissioner? Or was it individuals within the team came together and said, this is what we’re doing. This is the space that we’re going to hold. Kind of, where did that responsibility lie?
Was it the institution or was it at the individual level?
NAPHEESA COLLIER: I think it was both. We had those conversations about like, what do we want to do? And I think people were just brainstorming, throwing things out. We were on the call with our staff and the players and our coach is a huge advocate for all things.
So I don’t know if it was her idea of one of the players, but she’s kind of the person who makes things happen on our team. The league is honestly great at you know, listening to us and trying to help in any way that they could. So for example, in the bubble, we came together as team saying that we wanted to dedicate this season to… say her name was like specifically what we did.
And we turned it into voting and things like that. And they were on board with it. So we come to them with what we want to do, and they back us, which I feel really lucky because I know a lot of jobs aren’t like that. At my workplace, like white people are, are the minority and black people are the majority.
So they don’t necessarily come to us with ideas, but they definitely listened to us and try to make it work however they can.
PORTER BRASWELL: How did the management of the Lynx engage in the topic of race? Are they also majority people of color at the non-player level?
NAPHEESA COLLIER: So our coaches are two and two. So 50/50, again, I told you my coach Cheryl Reeve was so passionate about this stuff.
So she’s always been a huge advocate for us as players and whatever we believe in. I feel like Minnesota really takes the initiative for that. So they’re putting out statements. They’re trying to do things like in the community, trying to actually make a change, instead of just saying for publicity, like, yeah, we think this is wrong, we stand with you guys kind of thing.
PORTER BRASWELL: So what I think is so interesting about what you’re saying Phee, is that, right, the WNBA is unique in that the employees or those individuals that make up the WNBA are generally diverse. And so the league is dealing with a population of diverse individuals that, you know, to the point of what “should we be talking about these things?” It was already declared and understood that you should be. And now the question is, well, how are we going to do that? And so the league had to create the space for the desires of the players, and there was alignment within the players that we have to talk out about it.
But for companies that aren’t naturally diverse, and they lack representation from many industries, we saw them trip up and struggle over the last year and trying to create these cultures where people felt like they belonged. But one of the things that I think companies that did this work well, what they did is that they did climate assessments.
So they survey their employee base to at least get a foundation or an understanding of where their employees are in terms of entering into the workplace, what they’re thinking through, what’s important to them and how they’re dealing with the situation and the culture that we are living through publicly.
And then once they had that level of measurement, they were then transparent about releasing the findings back to the company, and then they were holding themselves accountable to create space to ensure that people felt like they belonged or that they can express themselves to ultimately get to a place of productivity.
And so I think that there is nice lessons to be learned from what the WNBA did well while also examining what less diverse organizations did to make sure that their employees felt as engaged as possible. So you played in the WNBA before George Floyd was murdered in Breonna Taylor became a national dialogue.
And have you seen change in the league post these murders? In terms of communication and receptiveness to have these conversations, that, again, these things have always happened, but now it’s – now it’s national news and everybody’s talking about it. What’s been the evolution of the league or the teams in terms of addressing it and getting out in front of it?
NAPHEESA COLLIER: I think the collectiveness. I think we saw again with this past year that if we put our minds together and we come at whatever it is as a whole, we have so much of a bigger impact. So I think before you saw different things on different teams happening, but it wasn’t like a league-wide mission. And we decided that – a lot of people didn’t want to play in this last season because of coronavirus, and we didn’t know what was going to happen – but we decided if we’re going to do this, we need to make it important. We needed to make it for a cause. And I feel like that was kind of the beginning of it. And we saw like, we helped the vote for Georgia. To see that come to fruition was just amazing. And I think it made us realize that again, if we put our minds together, we can do anything.
So I hope to see that continued going on in the future.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. So when all this is playing out around you, literally around you, within your city, how do you focus on doing your job?
NAPHEESA COLLIER: So for me personally, and I know not everyone is like this, basketball is an escape for me. So that’s really the time for the hour or two hours that I’m on the court that I can forget about the rest of the world. Because it is so stressful.
And it’s draining. Like when I was home, I was able to protest. During the season I wasn’t able to, we were in a bubble in Florida, we weren’t allowed to leave the campus or anything like that. But definitely when I was home, I went to some with my family, my parents and my brother. And so I definitely think that anyone should get out and protest to speak up for what you believe in and to put it on social media, to get the word out, to try to bring as much light and traction behind it as you can.
I do feel like you said, we’re so desensitized at this stage and that in and of itself is draining where you see something and you realize that you’re not as affected as you used to be.
PORTER BRASWELL: On my end. So I live in New York city and, and my wife and I, we have now a one-year-old as of last week.
And at the time she was about four months old and of course we were living in the midst of COVID. So I so desperately wanted to get out there and protest, but I had this thing of, I can’t catch COVID and bringing it back into my household. And one of the things that I found to be gratifying on my end is having these types of dialogues, having these conversations and having a microphone to help people come together and understand all of the different nuances that go into these dialogues into these conversations.
And I found that that was my way of protest. That was the most effective vehicle for me and what I encourage people, is that when something is going on in this country, there are many different ways to add to the cause. And I think some of the things that you all did with the WNBA and, and highlighting Breonna Taylor and putting her on your jersey and protesting and being vocal and having teams come out and, and speak to police chiefs and, and coming up with statements. There’s so many different ways that people can get involved to let their voice be heard.
And I strongly encourage people to do that. And I’ve, I was incredibly inspired by the WNBA by the NBA for coming together and having a clear message and doing clear actions. That was incredible.
NAPHEESA COLLIER: Thank you. Yeah, definitely. That’s like what our whole goal was. And especially after, you know, the Jacob Blake shooting. That day was just really crazy because again, our whole thing with the WNBA that year is we wanted to be a collective in no matter what we were doing, come as a unified force. And so that day was crazy. Like there was two games that day. So four teams and I was like taking a nap and my phone is blowing up saying, are you guys playing? Because Milwaukee had just decided that they weren’t playing.
So we had to decide if we were going to stand in solidarity with the NBA or if we were going to continue to play, because you know, the whole point of our season was to bring light to this. And if we’re not playing, we’re not getting TV time. We can’t do interviews to talk about it. And so like, I’m calling Candice Parker cause we’re playing LA I’m like, are you guys playing?
She’s like, what are you talking about? She was napping too. She has no idea what’s going on. So like we get on the bus because we just had to continue. Our coaches pulled us off the bus pulled me and another captain off the bus. She’s like, what do you guys want to do? I’m like, I don’t know. I want to talk to you and the teams to see what they want to do.
We don’t want to play because we wanted to stay with the NBA, because again, it was just so exhausting to, to see that go on and then to have to focus on a game. It was just a lot. And so we get to the gym and usually when you get there, you know, teams are warming up. They’re about to play.
We don’t get there that far ahead of the time the team plays before us. We don’t hear any balls bouncing. So we go on the court, they’re talking, they have no idea what they’re going to do. So, you know, the four teams come together and we try to decide what we’re going to do. And for this particular issue, we were pretty split because some people wanted to play – again, so we could, they had ideas like, you know, every start of the quarter, we’re going to give 30 seconds for the announcers to talk about this issue. And then after the game, we’ll talk only about this issue, not about the game in our interviews, and then half-time same thing.
And then some people were like, no, we should not play. That would make a bigger stance. So we were having this debate. Meanwhile, the time is taking down for when the game is about to start. So in the end, you know, we decided not to play and we got back and all 144 of us sat in a room and we kind of talked it through like what everyone’s feelings were.
It was exhausting because we’re cut off from our families for three months. You can’t have anyone in the bubble. So people were just mentally, physically, emotionally drained. And to have this happen, it was just a lot that day. So we held a vigil that night and it was cool to be able to talk all in the room because you don’t usually get to do that, but for it to happen for that reason, it’s just again, so disappointing.
Like it was just a crazy day.
PORTER BRASWELL: So in that setting, with over a hundred people sitting in a room, trying to figure out what do we do, how is that structured? What was the actual process of who can speak, and when do you speak? And what was that like?
NAPHEESA COLLIER: We were actually very all respectful. We were like raising our hands.
So it was actually pretty good. I mean, some of the conversations did they get heated, but it was never disrespectful. It’s just, emotions are running high. This is a topic that people get really passionate about. And some people thought we should’ve played. Some people were mad about it. So they were able to express their feelings.
And again, it was too late at that point, but they got to talk about, you know, why they thought we should have and what we should do in the future. And if this were to happen again, what are we going to do for the games? And how many days are we going to sit out for the games that conversation was brought up.
So again, it was all very respectful, but it was a good conversation.
PORTER BRASWELL: Wow. What is your level of responsibility in driving awareness for the things that are happening in this country? Do you have a responsibility to do that?
NAPHEESA COLLIER: Absolutely. I definitely think I do because it’s so important. The more people you can reach, the better.
Social media, I think is really powerful. So that’s the place where I try and be the most outspoken. Re-tweeting, tweeting, posting things. And this past year we had Briana Taylor’s name on our jersey. And a huge thing we did was like, t-shirts all the time. We had say her name, BLM, vote Warnock, all these things. And we did talk about it in interviews a lot, but visual is like really what people see.
So we try to make that kind of a topic of conversation is like what new shirt we’re wearing and trying to bring recognition to issues that way.
PORTER BRASWELL: So you think everybody that has that type of platform, most of your WNBA colleagues, if you will, do you feel like everybody feels that same sense of responsibility? That if you have a following and you have the ability to be on television, that you also have the responsibility to speak out?
NAPHEESA COLLIER: I think yes, because unfortunately the reality is if you don’t make enough of a stink about something, it’s not going to change. People aren’t going to change these things out of the goodness of their heart most times, so you have to get exposure. You have to get people talking about it. You have to get it in the conversation.
That’s why I feel like we do have the responsibility.
PORTER BRASWELL: So last season we asked all of our guests, “should race be discussed at work?” And the answer was, yes. I think everybody generally agreed that we should talk about race. Now the question is, how should race be discussed? So curious to know your perspective on, if people do want to engage in this topic in the context of the workplace, how do you advise people to enter into that conversation?
NAPHEESA COLLIER: Ooh. So this is different for your workplace and my workplace, maybe.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. So let’s hear about from your workplace,
NAPHEESA COLLIER: From my workplace, you know, honestly, where I work, everyone is really of the same mind. Where, you know, what’s going on in the world is not okay and we need to change. So the conversations that we have are like, “how can we make it change?” kind of things. Not, you know, educating people, trying to make people understand, which is so, so much harder. Because I mean, it’s something that you’re so passionate about. And to be talking to someone who is ignorant about it or who doesn’t understand, or is not even willing to listen – I know how frustrating that is.
So again, I’m so lucky to be in a position where someone has already seen the light, they already understand. And so we can get past that and we can now be proactive in trying to make a change.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. Well, I appreciate you coming on and sharing your perspective. It’s incredible. What you’ve already been able to accomplish from a basketball perspective.
And even more impressive of the voice that you are providing to the social justice issues that are going on in this country. And I’ve been a huge fan of yours since college. I’ve really enjoyed watching you play in the WNBA and you have a fan in me and really excited for everything that’s to come for you.
So thank you for joining us.
NAPHEESA COLLIER: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.
PORTER BRASWELL: That’s Napheesa Collier, a forward for the Minnesota Lynx in the WNBA.
This episode was produced by Liz Sanchez. Special thanks to Anne Sani and Nick Hendra.