Whiteness: issues of allyship and the racialisation of sports spaces
My research for coming up to eight years, following a 30-year stint in Physical Education teaching and the commercial sports sector, focuses on critical analysis of racism, with specific reference to physical and social spaces where sport and physical education occur. Today, I define myself as an anti-racism academic and activist. My particular interest areas are the triggers that cause racism and discrimination and resulting mental health experiences. For myself, a research area is a constant learning journey, and I frequently refer to my own experience of unlearning whiteness. My current fieldwork, due to report early 2022, is concerned with gathering insights of the thinking and perceptions of people who identify as white British or English and their impact on racialising spaces where social interactions take places, such as sports spaces, PE lessons, classrooms, lecture theatres, and recently online interactive learning. A research aim is to explore avenues or approaches that could help overcome what Bell (1992) referred to as the ‘permanence of racism’.
Structural, institutional, or systemic racism has been discussed at length in academic and mainstream media to good effect to frame and describe racial discrimination issues. Terminology such as microaggressions graphically illustrates the threat faced to mental health by those on the receiving end of the drip, drip of on-going systemic discrimination. In the discipline of psychology (Eberhardt, 2019), denial of racism has been explained by the terminology of ‘unconscious bias’. My comments in this paper examine the other underpinning side of the equation – that of the role and impact of an identity I have labelled as ‘whiteness’ that operationalises systemic aspects of whiteness that lead to discrimination for others. In many ways, the whiteness identity and systemic whiteness are the mechanisms that create the barriers to equity, equality, diversity of participation and inclusiveness in society, and therefore sport and recreation.
Systemic whiteness is an umbrella term which encompasses a variety of features which enact racism through a paradigm of dominant power (B. H. Raven, 2008). It draws on white fragility (DiAngelo, 2011), white privilege (McIntosh, 1988), white supremacy (Gillborn, 2005) and whiteness as property (Harris, 1993) to establish the character of the constructed identity of the actors. Systemic is used because discourses between actors within a framework formulated to promote inclusion maintain white (British and English) people’s dominance and those who pass as part of the same identity.
From Gillborn (2005) in education policy which recognised the role of whiteness, to the Physical Education school curriculum, labelled as whitewashed by Dowling & Flintoff (2018), to Hobson & Whigham (2018) who illustratively noted the lack of sport and physical education higher education curriculum time for undergraduates studying topics which familiarise the students with issues such as white privilege, whiteness is amplified as the dominant social power. An area of positive action, much has been made of decolonising institutions racism, which is a valid anti-racism and equality-seeking strategy, can also be criticised for abstracting the solutions to one of historical relevance. In this regard, as argued by various authors in the publication edited by Arday & Mirza (2018) both lenses whiteness and decolonising are intertwined and therefore ‘messy’ to unravel. My argument is whiteness as an actors characteristic of their identity is challenging but more straight forward to understand what reform requirements need to be actioned.
The idea of being better or important is embodied by whiteness, which develops as an internal truth before we are consciously aware, it goes unchallenged, and it is engrained as an identity (Saad, 2020). Denial or fragility of being racist amongst the white British/English or those who pass as same is a crucial barrier to equality and equity. It establishes an identity of whiteness that is less inclusive, more protective of their advantages and reinforces a persona of supremacy. To the extent that the brand of whiteness is now damaged, creating reputational damage to the national identity. Trust is broken. Hence a contemporary concept that of allyship, or partnership within communities between diverse ethnicities and the people who are white or pass as white, does not have the goodwill to progress forward – in brief whiteness creates distrust. The comments that follow are based on my many researcher-participant conversations with those who watch (sports fans) or participate (at all levels of sport as players or athletes) or have physical education lessons experiences they have relayed to me. Some are on journeys of learning to become PE teachers, sports coaches, or leisure managers. All my comments are geared toward realigning the whiteness identity as trustworthy, having empathy and collegiality. Progress on removing discrimination will only be made when all other members view all community members as equal and equitable. When promoting and developing diversity and inclusion, the mantra cannot be ‘join us on our terms’ but come together without preconditions.
My research suggests a lacuna exists regarding systemic racism, denial of racism, racial consciousness, and allyship concerning the impact that whiteness identities in society generally and very precisely within the sport and physical education have. From this lens, my comments regarding the questions presented in the call for evidence are made.
Questions 1,2 and 3 - response comments to:
Questions 5 and 6 - response comments to:
In this paper focusing on physical education and community sports, I have argued we should recognise racism, which stems from whiteness identities that are systemic in society, from which sport and recreation do not operate in isolation. While this does not mean sport and recreation should not have a plan or strategies to develop policy, they should not work in isolation from the rest of government policy – they need to be aligned.
Whiteness defined as an identity, and its current incarnation threatens allyship, constrains learning and restricts community participation by all those that are ‘othered’; through racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and ableism. Whiteness, as an aspect of national identity, needs reform. The framing of whiteness in this way is under-researched. Therefore, it is not well understood, especially how it could be tackled for the community’s benefit and participation in sport and recreation.
A new understanding of racialised spaces’ consciousness will facilitate an allyship enabling fuller and broader community participation in sports and recreation spaces. It will encourage and form the foundation of sport and recreation participation leading to active lifestyles. These developments can be further activated by re-embracing and committing to physical education programmes that cover a physical literacy style curriculum instead of the ‘shortcuts’ to fitness I have recently reviewed as curriculum documents.
An issue around discrimination that is apparent in spaces where formalised sports and physical activities occur is how the operationalising of discrimination includes the individual in deploying learnt ‘whiteness’. That maintains privileges and advantages previously acquired through the same route of membership to the dominant white racial group. The concept has been labelled as the ‘diversity bargain’ (Warikoo 2018) where equality policies are viewed as positive by the dominant white cohort until it is perceived they will lose their privileged position in some way. For example, they may not be selected for a team because of the more significant numbers due to encouraging diversity. The procedure for them is then not acceptable. Even though the selection is based on each person’s capabilities, the competition for places in a team becomes greater – they evidently would prefer to exercise their unjustifiable privilege.
The denial of whiteness further develops a capacity to racialise social interactions within sports spaces, impacting those who are ‘othered’. The phrase in my field research I frequently hear that deters widening participation most is “We are all for inclusion here. It’s just they have to [conform to our ways].” this is counterproductive and diminishes a spirit of allyship.
Arday, J., & Mirza, H. S. (2018). Dismantling race in higher education : racism, whiteness and decolonising the academy. Palgrave Macmillan.
Bell, D. (1992). Faces at the Bottom of the Well. Basic Books. https://www.basicbooks.com/titles/derrick-bell/faces-at-the-bottom-of-the-well/9781541645530/
DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), 54–70.
Dowling, F., & Flintoff, A. (2018). A whitewashed curriculum? The construction of race in contemporary PE curriculum policy. Sport, Education and Society, 23(1), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/13573322.2015.1122584
Eberhardt, J. L. (2019). Jennifer L. Eberhardt - Stanford University. Stanford University Website. http://web.stanford.edu/~eberhard/books.html
Gillborn, B. D. (2005). Education policy as an act of white supremacy: Whiteness, critical race theory and education reform. In Journal of Education Policy (Vol. 20, Issue 4, pp. 485–505). https://doi.org/10.1080/02680930500132346
Harris, C. I. (1993). Whiteness as property. Harvard Law Review, 106(8), 1709–1790. https://doi.org/10.2307/1341787
Hobson, M., & Whigham, S. (2018). White Privilege, Empathy and Alterity in Higher Education—Teaching About Race and Racism in the Sociology of PE and Sport. In J. Arday & H. S. Mirza (Eds.), Dismantling Race in Higher Education (pp. 195–213). Springer International Publishing.
McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to correspondences through work in women’s studies (No. 189). 17. https://www.collegeart.org/pdf/diversity/white-privilege-and-male-privilege.pdf
Molnár, G., & Kelly, J. (2013). Sport, exercise and social theory : an introduction. Routledge.
Raven, B. H. (2008). The Bases of Power and the Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 8(1), 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1993.tb01191.x
Raven, S. (2018). Mind the Gap. Journal Education + Training, ET-11-2017-0179. https://doi.org/10.1108/ET-11-2017-0179
Saad, L. F. (2020). Me and White Supremacy. Quercus. https://www.quercusbooks.co.uk/titles/layla-saad/me-and-white-supremacy/9781529405088/
Stodolska, M., Shinew, K. J., & Camarillo, L. N. (2019). Constraints on Recreation Among People of Color: Toward a New Constraints Model. Leisure Sciences, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/01490400.2018.1519473
29 January 2021