Passive and uncritical race talk laid bare

This week, on 16th November 2021, professional cricketer Azeem Rafiq has progressed anti-racism in sport and the wider society in a clear and precise manner as a witness statement to the UK Parliament DCMS Committee. 

Derald Wing Sue in his book Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence and earlier papers proposed that constructive dialogues would be “a means to heal racial and ethnic divides, reduce prejudice and misinformation, increase racial literacy, and foster improved race relations.” (Sue, 2013, p. 663). It has also regularly recognised that for white people (Bhopal, 2018; DiAngelo, 2011) honest discussions are hampered by a fear of being labelled racist (good person vs racist binary), a realisation of their own racism mindset, having to acknowledge white privilege, illuminating their white fragility, acknowledge a lack of trust in their own identity by those who experience racialised disparity, and most notably been drawn to the notion of their own thinking whitely, speak whitely and therefore acting whitely (Corces-Zimmerman & Guida, 2019). To discuss ‘race’ and racism in a constructive way, is difficult in these circumstances, let alone when the language of racialised interactions is so normalised in conversations – for those it doesn’t disparage it goes unnoticed – for those it singles out it is symbolic violence. It represents “death by a thousand cuts”.  Passive and uncritical race talk is the racialising of social interactions, it is racism and constitutes that binary term racist.

The concept of passive Race Talk – raises this insidious issue – which has been highlighted this week by Azeem Rafiq presentation to the parliamentary committee around the dysfunctional issues of racism in and around Yorkshire CCC. The calls that this across sport was an issue of concern are not new. Indeed, even myself, in January of this year had highlighted a similar issue across sports participation with a submission to the House of Lords select committee Racialised language limits participation and creates an impenetrable barrier for those who do not pass as white to engage with and progress within the institutions of sport, including leisure, sports and physical activity clubs, sports centres, facilitates and governing body structures.

Kevin Hylton’s (2015) paper is an illuminating case study of how passive Race Talk operates. Hylton presents an ethnographical study which explores the author’s experience of how sports focused students talk about ‘race’ and racism, against a background of denial and trivialisation of discrimination on the basis that sport discourses are embedded with meritocracy and equality. Hylton establishes with graphic details how amongst his students how society immersed imagination develops a social formation of ‘othering’ based on categorisations or stereotypes, and results in recourse to passive ‘race’ talk.

“The process of association that the students use could be described as racialisation where sprinting (event) and sprinters (black and white) are given racialised attributes chosen from a hierarchy of mythical abilities and stereotypes.”

Hylton concludes the “passive acceptance of racialised myths and stereotypes” by university sports students is a problem. One can surmise this is not just a university problem or even just a sports problem.

It raises the question, does the existence of a diversity bargain (Warikoo, 2016) even present itself in this grouping of students as Warikoo claims does with elite students at the most selective of universities; who will she predicts progress into leadership roles. Warikoo reported that students were happy to embrace diversity and inclusion policy, until it appeared that it would lessen their ‘right of passage’. The real paradox is not the understanding of passive ‘race’ talk amongst students, but to comprehend what to challenge as it is generally reckoned that racism, along with other forms of intersectionalism, does not exist in the sport space – this is a major form of denial and a myth concerning the arrival of a post-racial era (Bhopal, 2018) or even a whitewash (Dowling & Flintoff, 2018).

Returning to Derald Wing Sue’s intention of finding a means to heal racial and ethnic divides and drawing on the work of Rovengno and Gregg (2007) who proposed educators could move from additive models of teaching about ‘race’ and racism to student empowerment of lived experiences. Hylton’s conclusion is that the denial of uncritical ‘race’ talk is fundamentally based on a position of privilege, which brings us to consider the issue is more than benign acceptance but active denial that any form of social prejudice exists in society.

While we might console ourselves that sport is a microcosm of society – it is a wider issue –  but one that organised sport must address before we can progress sport for all and the develop of participation without constraints.

Being white or the ability to pass as white in every communication and decision we make is a privilege because we can rely on and trust we will be heard. To move beyond the devastating impact of racism and what it does to sport participation in the UK – it is our responsibility not to think whitely when our decisions impact those who don’t have the capability to ‘pass as white’ as we do.

Azeem Rafiq has explained this week 16th November 2021 and not for the first time how it is, how it has been, he has done the emotional labour. It is time that in the words of John Biewen  “we need to show up with humility and vulnerability and a willingness to put down this power that we did not earn – figure out how to take action. Because it’s right.” There is no space for bargaining – it is more important than that – the attainment of unconstrained inclusion without fear is what sport must be for all.

Reference List

Bhopal, K. (2018). White privilege : the myth of a post-racial society. Policy Press.

Corces-Zimmerman, C., & Guida, T. F. (2019). Towards a critcial whiteness methodology: challenging whiteness through qualitative research. In M. Huisman & M. Tight (Eds.), Theory and Method in Higher Education Research (p. Vol. 5 pp 91-109). Emberadl Publishing Limited.

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.

Hylton, K. (2015). ‘Race’ talk! Tensions and contradictions in sport and PE. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 20(5), 503–516.

Sue, D. W. (2013). Race talk: The psychology of racial dialogues. American Psychologist, 68(8), 663–672.

Warikoo, N. K. (2016). The diversity bargain : and other dilemmas of race, admissions, and meritocracy at elite universities. University of Chicago Press.