By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
The discussion of racism in sports in the US is typically focused on issues predominantly affecting black athletes. While these are important issues to discuss, it usually leaves other minority communities on the sideline. It’s important to recognize that the topic of “racism” is a multi-faceted and complex issue where different people are affected by it in different ways. Thus, the problems of racism that affect black people in America are not necessarily the same as those that affect Asian people in America. All these issues are valid and should be addressed with equal importance when it comes to the discussion of racism in sports.
Amazin LêThi built her career on advocating for LGBTQI Asian athletes and working to confront the issues and dismantle the structures of racism that Asian people face in sports. Ranging from a simple lack of representation in mainstream professional sports, lack of opportunities to participate in high school and college sports and generalizations and stereotypes regarding the athletic abilities of Asian people. According to LêThi, the stereotype that people of Asian descent are more academic rather than athletic continues to persist and limits the representation and opportunities for youth to pursue sports. Asian youth are perceived as having more “feminine” qualities and physiques that are perceived to not be suited for sports. Leading coaches and sports organizers to assume that Asian youth are not as strong or capable of being a successful athlete and thus, limiting their opportunities to participate. This leads to lower participation rates and representation of Asian athletes in non-Asian sports systems. Sports that have a higher representation of Asian athletes in western countries tend to focus around more feminine sports, such as figure skating and less in masculine sports such as ice hockey. Only in the 2010s has there been a noticeable increase in the representation of Asian players in professional leagues like the NHL, but there is still much work to be done.
The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongyang, South Korea, as well as the 2020/2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan (COVID pending) and the 2022 Winter Olympics In Beijing, China are showing to be important for representation and recognition of Asian athletes in Sports. Additionally, the 2022 Gay Games in Hong Kong is working to create opportunities, access to sports and representation for LGBTQI Asian Athletes. Local and regional events such as The Straits Games are emerging throughout Asia for LGBTQI athletes are working to build these opportunities at the local level as well.
In predominantly white countries including the US and UK, even natural born citizens who are of Asian descent are still seen as foreigners or outsiders from the very communities they were born and raised in. Leading to racial discrimination and accusations that are inherent with issues regarding immigration. For many of these citizens, they can’t “go back to where they came from” if they are already living where they came from. There is a lot of ignorance and confusion regarding cultural diversity and ethnicity when, for example, someone of Chinese descent living on the west coast of the US wants to learn Mandarin. The diversity of language, culture and ethnicity has helped to shape and strengthen what our own “culture” even is, yet it is often rejected on a horribly racist ideology. This is an issue that generation after generation of citizens born in these countries still face and continue to feed the stereotypes that persist. Even in discussions regarding the effects of racism on communities, Asian communities and people are still “othered” and otherwise left out of the conversation.
LêThi argues that there are only certain sports where Asian athletes are generally accepted in as athletes, going back to the stereotypes regarding femininity and physique. In professional sports throughout the US and UK, there are few, if any Asian athletes represented on the professional level. The ones that are there are subject to tokenism and to fulfill diversity quotas more so than recognized for their athletic capabilities. Generally speaking, athlete scholarships for minorities are favored for young black males who are perceived to be stronger athletes than their Asian counterparts. Even in events like the Commonwealth Games, which includes many Asian countries that are part of the Commonwealth, there is a significant lack of Asian representation in all of the major sports. Especially within Team GB and the other non-Asian countries competing; even when said country has a large Asian population.
Lack of representation and the cultural racism so subject to stereotypes makes sport a less accepting and unsafe environment to participate in. Going back to the problem of less youth participating in sports which in turn leads to lower representation at higher levels. It’s a feedback loop that is allowing these issues to persist generation and after generation.
LêThi points out that the first step in breaking down these stereotypes starts with a conversation. Ensuring that Asian athletes are part of the discussion regarding racism in sports and acknowledging that the issues Asian athletes face are not necessarily the same as those for black athletes or other racial minorities. Racism is not a black and white issue. Instead, it’s all about intersectionality and treating every single story, voice and person as an equal. How do we expect to know about these issues if we don’t listen to the people who are affected by these issues? It’s important we ensure that every voice, every perspective and every angle of the conversation is equal.
Athletic scholarships for racial minorities need to ensure that they are open and accessible for athletes of all races. Sport structures designed to promote youth participation in sports and advancement programs for scholastic, collegiate, elite and professional sports need to have a focus on encouraging more Asian youth to be involved and active in sports, this includes making sports more accessible and safe. Representation in events like Commonwealth Games, Olympic Games, Gay Games and others needs to include Asian athletes from non-Asian countries competing in many different sports.
Diversity training about acceptable behavior and language is a key element to doing away with stereotypes and generalizations. Understanding that physique is not synonymous with athletic ability and each individual is capable of becoming a great athlete in their own, unique way. By working within our communities and focusing on programs of development in youth sports to educate, create and promote new opportunities is a key factor toward building change and progress.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a unique opportunity to confront these issues, find new approaches and start fresh toward building a truly diverse and equal sports community. It’s up to us as individuals, regardless of race or ethnicity to ensure that we recognize our own privilege and that these issues are not just “black and white.” Even if it starts with a basic discussion.
Photo Courtesy of Amazin LêThi