A level playing field? Sport and racism

At the weekend it was my parents’ wedding anniversary. They got married in Dar es Salaam and one of the distinguishing features of their wedding was the hockey stick “guard of honour” that their friends created for them outside the church after the service (my Mum played hockey for Tanzania). The family capability and Goan cultural propensity to excel at sport (take Seraphino Antao the first Kenyan athlete to win a gold medal at the 1962 Commonwealth Games) skipped right past me. Mostly I enjoy the social, political and cultural issues in relation to sport like the national anthems, the medals and the underdog winning. The recent completion of a PhD (yes really) has also given me some confidence and time to begin to explore questions like the neocolonial exploitation of African players by European football clubs and how raw materials in the form of players are sourced, refined and exported for consumption and wealth generation in Europe leaving the African periphery impoverished. But that’s another blogpost. This post is about racism and sport, but I needed to do a geneaological manouevre and trace my own relationship with sport through my experience of being a Goan via East Africa now resident in Aotearo New Zealand. I’ve mapped some of the ways in which sport has been mobilised such as the re-shaping of personhood for colonised peoples and in turn the ways in which western sport has been appropriated by diasporic and marginalised communities as a form of resistance. I then talk about the prevalence of racism in sport, the contributing factors and what can be done.

Photo of Goans in Dar es Salaam via Jo Birkmeyer-submitted to Mervyn A Lobo’s blog 

The establishment of sport in colonial contexts was linked with Western Christian church activity and colonialism. Sports were introduced to meet both the needs of churches and colonial governments in transforming bodies into desirable shapes and capabilities so imperial reform could be undertaken by locals thereby creating physical and moral reform against existing less palatable indigenous norms. Games like cricket and football were intended to reinforce the superiority of colonial culture and transmit a particular moral order and values that were seen lacking in the colonised group such as team spirit, commitment, the sacrifice of individual aspirations to the group, bravery and so forth. Particular versions of masculinity were also being promulgated in a context where many Asian men were seen as effeminate.

In the diaspora, Goans formed clubs and institutions replicating village ties and loyalties back home which helped to allay loneliness, cultural alienation and the challenges of navigating a new country. In 1921 it was estimated that almost half a million Goans lived in Goa, Dama and Diu and that up to 200,000 Goans lived in British India, East Africa or Mesopotamia (James Mills, 2002). One quarter of that number lived in Bombay. Expatriate sports confirmed ties with the homeland, created a sense of community and provided an oasis from the demands of navigating belonging in racially stratified communities. Every Saturday after mass at the Holy Family Cathedral in Nairobi my parents would make their way with us to the Railway Goan Institute founded in 1909 which later became the Railway Institute in 1967. I have great memories of hurtling around (we seemed to do a lot of running along those wooden floors) and being spoiled rotten by my parent’s friends who would provide us with bottomless supplies of coke and crisps. Goans in Kenya also formed other clubs like The Goan Institute Mombasa in 1901, Goan Institute Nairobi in 1905 and the Goan Gymkhana in 1936 with sports an important focus of diasporic life.

Closer to where I live now in New Zealand, Indians in Wellington formed their own hockey team in 1936, which also marked the year that the Auckland Indian Sports Club (AISC) was established.

Photo reproduced with permission from Te Ara. Original article: Nancy Swarbrick. ‘Indians’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 1-Sep-11
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/indians/5/5

Many other communities also made sport a focus of their activities, for example the New Zealand Chinese Association Annual Sports Tournament (AKA Easter Tournament) started in 1947 and runs every Easter Weekend. It consists of a sports tournament and cultural event for Chinese members and competitive sports like basketball, volley ball, touch rugby, netball, lawn bowls and golf are enjoyed. Similarly pan-ethnic events like the Ethnic Soccer Cup at the Auckland International Cultural festival are eagerly awaited and full of good natured fun and tough competition.

Photo by the Localist

Sport seemingly offers a transcendent space, where cohesion and connection is possible not only within and across diasporic communities, but also across dominant and minority communities. A phrase bandied around frequently last year was the way in which hosting the Rugby World cup in New Zealand “brought us together as a nation”.  Who of us will ever forget the ferocious and irrepressible passion of the Tongan community in New Zealand supporting their team? I love the ideal that sport can be a place where people with diverse interests, histories and values can be unified in one setting. I’ve watched with growing feelings of warmth the ways in which our Pacific players have infused “the game” of rugby with flair and energy and increased the ratio of tattoos, dreadlocks and eye-liner.

This illusion that sport can be a connecting force is challenged in Sara Ahmed‘s critique of the “happy” multicultural film Bend it Like Beckham. Directed by Kenyan-born, Punjabi British filmmaker Gurinder Chadha, Ahmed suggests that the central message of the film is that “the would-be- citizen who embraces the national game is rewarded with happiness”. The feel good vibe of this film ignores the negative affects surrounding racism and unproblematically represents visibly different migrants as patriarchal, closed, traditional, fixed and unchanging. White people can be inspired and warmed by Jess’ migrant success, as she bends the ball (a metaphor for disrupting cultural barriers) without needing to feel guilty about racism. The film plays into the notion that success is the reward for integration and is also proof that racism can be overcome.

My fantasy that the arrival of the first Asian All Black will give Asians more street cred and admiration has taken a battering with the racist responses to the “Linsanity” phenomenon. Jeremy Lin, the Asian American son of Taiwanese immigrants and graduate of Harvard has experienced spectacular NBA basketball success but the headline “Chink in the Armor,” or the tweet by Jason Whitlock referring to “two inches of pain” have deeply hurt many Asian Americans. Understandable, given the limited representation of Asian Americans in mainstream media and because the blatant racism provided a barometer reading of how this group are viewed in a racially charged landscape. But as Long, Tongue, Spracklen and others have noted, we live in a racist society so why should there not be racism in sport? Racist taunts and chants at matches and the throwing of banana skins at players have been supplemented by attacks via social media adding a new viciousness. A Welsh student was recently been imprisoned for using twitter to spread racist rants about acritically ill footballer Fabrice Muamba and locally, unhappy fans took to twitter to racially denigrate Blues coach Pat Lam.

Sport media coverage contributes to inequity by not reflecting social and cultural diversity. The MARS - Media against racism in sport programme– developed by The Council of Europe and the European Union recognises the following inequalities in representation in sports news stories:

  • Gender under-representation -where women comprise only one quarter of all stories despite making up half the population.
  • Migrants making up around 10% of the EU population but representing less than 5% of the main actors in the news in Europe.
  • Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people representing roughly 6% of the population of the United Kingdom but accounting for less than 1% of the population seen on TV.
  • 20% of the British population has an impairment or disability but less than 1% are represented on British TV.

These inequalities in sports media coverage reflect broader societal inequalities. The New Zealand Human Rights Commission’s annual review of race relations Tūi Tūi Tuituiā, Race Relations in 2011 released in March 2012 noted a “continuing degree of racial prejudice, significant racial inequalities, and the exclusion of minorities from full participation in all aspects of society”. The Commission identified racial prejudice in the form of: “negative attitudes to the Treaty, to indigenous rights, to Māori, Pacific peoples, Asians, migrants and refugees”. The report noted that these prejudices were implicated in discrimination, marginalisation, and inequalities, ultimately proving a barrier to the realisation of the social and economic benefits of diversity.

The racist soup of Pakeha media culture not only excludes particular groups but it also reproduces pathological, deficient and destructive representations of groups that are already discrimiinated against and marginalised. Take the “common sense” racism of Paul Henry, Michael Laws and Paul Holmes who all compete for New Zealand’s top racist.Take the comments by the former All Black and World cup Rugby Ambassador Andy Haden, who referred to a “three darkies”selection policy by rugby franchise The Crusaders. When Haden made an apology it was “to anyone who was offended” by the comments. He received a smack on the hand with a wet hanky from our Prime Minister John Key despite the outrage and I don’t think he had to resign. Key defended Haden’s actions as having a precedent in Paul Holmes‘ “cheeky darkie” comments in 2003. The gutless and useless Broadcasting Standards Authority refused to uphold 10 complaints over the  comments on Radio station Newstalk ZB. They acknowledged that the comments went beyond the limits of acceptability and breached broadcast standards, but they were happy that the actions taken internally by broadcaster were adequate. Thank goodness for writers with a conscience like Tapu Misa who is my only reason for continuing to purchase the morning newspaper and the long missed Karlo Mila from the Dom Post who can still remind us through her poetry that words scar.

Poster by Dudley Benson (2012)

Where there is power, there is resistance (Thanks Foucault). Racism (and anti-Semitism) in sport have also provided a space for protest and resistance. American sprinters Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman who were the only two Jews on the USA Olympic team, were pulled from their relay team on the day of the competition in the 1936 Berlin Olympics,. There was speculation that the American Olympic committee did not want two Jews to win gold medals in the context of Nazi Germany and Hitler’s Aryan pride. These are the same games where Jesse Owens won four gold medals.  Fast forward to the 1968 Olympics when Tommy Smith and John Carlos powerfully raised their fists on the podium in a Black power salute. The symbolism of this gesture referenced the black American community (black gloves); black American poverty (black socks, no shoes), black American lynching (Smith wore a scarf and Carlos a bead necklace).

Source Jonny Weeks:The Guardian

Closer to home, look at the stand many New Zealanders took against the Springbok rugby tour of 1981. 150,000 people took part in over 200 demonstrations in 28 centres and 1500 people were charged with protest related offences. The protests were in response to New Zealand opposition to the apartheid and segregation practiced in South Africa. These apartheid policies had impacted on team selection for the All Blacks, and Māori players had been excluded from touring South Africa by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) until 1970. I take my inspiration from this event that “New Zealanders” might take their history into account and challenge the unacceptable comments against Pat Lam and show leadership over such behaviour.

So what are we to do about racism in sport? How can we use the values of sport, ostensibly fairness, teamwork, a fair go, equal opportunity, respect and care for each other to help us create a real level playing field, locally and globally? We can protest the sponsorship of the London Olympics by Dow (Union Carbide was merged into Dow and responsible for the tragedy at Bhopal not least 25,000 deaths and much much suffering). We can ask much more of our junk food media and not consume it as Jennifer Sybel suggests.  We can ask that the groups in our communities that are under-represented (disabled, women, LGBTQ, visibly different) get a fairer go and that  stories that purport to represent them contribute positively to our cultural and social diversity. We can take more responsibility for the actions of racist tweeters and taunters and recognise their actions come from consuming the same junk food media that we do. Rather than individualising their behaviour we can ask questions about what kind of playing field we have created and whether we want to put any effort into creating an alternative.

Illustration by Jim Sillavan for the Guardian