One of the hardest bits of white supremacist messaging I had to unlearn was the idea that Black people make the best athletes. I was reminded of this recently when I attended my daughter’s middle school track meets. I kept finding myself surprised at the racial background of the winners – especially when white runners won in sprinting events that included Black competitors. I didn’t feel similarly surprised when Black sprinters won. Pulling at the thread of this thought, I found it led to another that lurked in a murky pool of racist thinking. The thought went like this: Black people are faster, more muscular, and more physically gifted than white people, who have better endurance and are more delicate. I took a deep breath. I examined the errant thought and then repeated to myself: No one’s race means they are inherently good or bad at any given activity.
Unlearning racist ideas about race and physicality has been a hard pill to swallow. In a world where Black intelligence and mental prowess have been ignored, doubted, or downplayed, it felt comforting to have at least one thing that everyone seemed to agree Black people were great at: sports.
Unlearning racist ideas about race and physicality has been a hard pill to swallow. In a world where Black intelligence and mental prowess have been ignored, doubted, or downplayed, it felt comforting to have at least one thing that everyone seemed to agree Black people were great at: sports. I clung to this idea. My entire life, I had admired exemplary Black athletes, idealizing icons like Hank Aaron, Florence Griffith Joyner, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Michael Jordan, and Michael Johnson. When Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters came along in the 1990s playing sports from which Black people had been historically excluded – following in the footsteps of Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe before them – they seemed to reinforce the narrative that Black people make the best athletes.
But I was forced to examine this idea when I read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist. “Biological racial difference,” Kendi writes, “is one of those widely held racist beliefs that few people realize they hold – nor do they realize that those beliefs are rooted in racist ideas.” One of those racist ideas includes the idea that Black people are more physical than intellectual and therefore better suited for certain sports and positions within those sports.
Historically, this thinking has its roots in the subjugation and dehumanization of Black people by whites who advanced their own economic and political goals through white supremacist practices. Since before even the founding of our country, Black people were literally treated as though we were a subhuman or nonhuman species; it’s easier to enslave and torture people if you convince yourself they aren’t human. This different species, the thinking went, could work longer hours, be enslaved, pick more cotton, withstand beatings and physical torture, and endure sexual abuse because Black people weren’t really human. We were seen to be animals.
In Caste, journalist and researcher Isabel Wilkerson writes how in antebellum South Carolina white prisoners could not be forced to work more than 10 hours a day while enslaved Black people – who had committed no crime at all – could be forced to work 14- or 15-hour days, depending on the time of year. Why? Because Black people were presumed to be sturdier, hardier, and more animalistic than their white counterparts.
This thinking remains pervasive. Doctors tend to provide Black and Hispanic patients inadequate pain management because of an erroneous belief that they have higher pain tolerance (we don’t) and are more likely to abuse prescription drugs (we aren’t). In addition, a 2016 survey of white medical students and residents found that a third believed Black people literally have thicker skin than white people (we don’t). (You can read more about these studies here).
We must ask the question: how many of our ideas about who can play which sports are based on centuries-old prejudices?
This misinformation about Black physicality extends to the athletic world, too, where many Black athletes’ physicality is emphasized, and their skill, dedication, intellect, and coachability are downplayed or questioned. This has been highlighted in the NFL, which tends to favor white quarterbacks over Black quarterbacks because of an idea that quarterbacks require intellectualism and a tactical mind; racist ideas would have us believe that means a Black quarterback is an oxymoron. The inability to recognize Black intellect can also be seen in the relative dearth of nonwhite coaches at the elite level. In the NFL, which is disproportionately Black, there are comparatively few minority coaches – particularly darker skinned Black coaches. And the minority coaches who are hired are more likely to coach positions commonly associated with physicality as opposed to skill (and therefore, with Blackness). Similar to other industries, the NFL is also less likely to hire Black coaches for positions that lead to promotions.
These preconceptions have real effects on athletes, coaching, and recruitment – and therefore who plays the game and how we as spectators view the game. We must ask the question: how many of our ideas about who can play which sports are based on centuries-old prejudices?
I wonder if my own athletic career might have looked different if these ideas didn’t have such a stranglehold on my thinking. In the interest of full disclosure, I use the phrase “athletic career” very loosely; in high school, I did exactly one sport, track and field, because I wanted to be on a team, and track was the only sport that didn’t require tryouts.
My coaches steered me and many of the other Black runners toward the sprinting races, the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes. It soon became clear that these races were not, ahem, my areas of giftedness; I just wasn’t that fast. Somehow, someone had the idea of putting me in the 300-meter hurdles and the 400-meter dash. I did a lot better in these races, even earning a second-place showing in the county meet for the hurdles. But only once did I run a race longer than the 400-meter dash. That time, I ran the 800-meter run because we happened to be short a runner that meet. I actually turned out to be pretty good at it – I kept a great pace and finished well despite the fact that I had never trained for that event. But I was never encouraged to pursue the 800-meter run again, nor was I asked to do the mile run, though I worked up the endurance and speed to run the distance easily.
I also did not advocate to run a longer race. Subconsciously, I thought middle and long-distance runs were mostly for white people. I hadn’t yet heard of the Kenyan and Ethiopian marathoners who proved that distance runners come in all colors.
Additionally, I thought longer events weren’t about raw speed and physical prowess, but about endurance and pacing. Now, I can see how problematic this thinking is. It both downplays the technique, endurance, and training that good sprinters employ and also underemphasizes the physicality and speed needed for longer races. And, by associating certain events with particular racial backgrounds, I underestimated the skill and talent of athletes from all races and ethnicities, including my own.
Ideas about physicality and Blackness, as well as my inability to meet these expectations, also made me feel like I could have my “Black card” revoked at any moment. Because I believed Black people were supposed to be better sprinters, basketball players, and football players than other races, when I turned out to be good at exactly zero of these activities, I doubted my Blackness. And, I didn’t give myself a chance to really explore other activities that I might have actually enjoyed, like distance running or ballet.
Now, I’m not kidding myself. I had neither the talent nor the dedication to go from a lackadaisical high school “athlete” to an Olympic phenom. But somewhere, there is a little Black girl who could be an amazing distance runner, a white kid who would make an awesome running back, an Asian American girl who would be a standout point guard, a Native American boy who could be a tennis great, and a Hispanic girl who is the next diving superstar.
I worry that, if we can’t remove the blinders of our own prejudices, we’ll never be able to see any of these athletes soar – and if we assume that every tall Black boy belongs on the basketball court and not in the robotics club, we may be missing out on the next generation of thinkers and innovators, too.