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On Race and Competitive Sports

September 21, 2008

I love sports. More specifically, I love competitive team sports. And, above all else, I love American football. I’m also Asian. So what’s up with that?

This is a post a long time in coming. The topic is one I’ve seen addressed a few times, but to such an unsatisfying (and disastrous) level that it makes me a little bit crazy. I seldom see anyone “on the inside” address it. And I’ve NEVER seen it addressed by someone “on the inside” who also has a hefty dose of science in their background. But there’s a first time for everything, right?

The question is: how does race (and genetics) contribute to athletic success? I’ve seen various questions (and answers) regarding this in response to the Jamaican sprinting success at the Olympics (with a number of references to East African dominance in long-distance thrown in for good measure).

The answer I generally see tries to use science to suggest that black athletes (from wherever) have a set of physical traits that makes them better “athletes.” I’ve seen studies about fast-twitch muscle fibers. Then I’ve seen references to endurance. I’ve seen references to slaves and how they were “bred” and/or “naturally selected” through the rigors of travel on slave ships or through living the life of a slave.

And I call bullshit. Right here, right now – complete and utter bullshit.*

Why are there no studies proving the “genetic” lung capacity of white swimmers? When Michael Phelps dominates the Hell out of the Olympics, why does nobody attribute it to his race’s “genetic advantage”? Why does Lance Armstrong not represent “just another physically-advantaged” white cyclist? What about Roger Federer? Is it because he’s white?

No. Dominant white athletes are treated as individuals. They are not held up as representatives of their race. Tom Brady does not lose credit for his success because of his race. Nor is he held accountable for the actions of other athletes of his skin color.

And this whole f-ing “black people have physical differences that make them better athletes” thing is just one more example of that same white privilege mentality that holds people of color as examples of their races, while white folks are merely individuals – not representative nor accountable for anything else their race does.

So let me drop some common-sense, science, and personal experience on you all to make my point clear (not necessarily in that order).

In fact, let’s just start with my personal experience. I played football in high school. I got offers to play in college (but chose otherwise). I played semi-pro. And I coached high school ball. I’ve seen the look on people’s faces when a black player walks onto the field. The expectations that come with that. The instant-respect and assumption of skill that ensues. The added patience if that player does not immediately fulfill those expectations.

On the flip side, when I played semi-pro, everyone assumed I was either Samoan (because Samoans have a history of success in football) or Latino. Nobody even considered that I could be part-Asian. In high school, I was constantly reminded that “Asians don’t play football.” My freshman year, most of the skill positions (those involving quickness and agility – tailbacks and defensive backs, specifically) were filled by Asian kids, but by the time I finished my high school career, it was just me and one other Asian kid.

I grew up in the Bay Area, where there was a large number of Asian kids, and yet this “Asians don’t play football” thing still prevailed. When I was in elementary school, the local lore was that the Asian kids were the quickest (we always won the sprinting events), but somehow, by the time I finished high school, we had become almost completely absent from the sports scene (in every sport). Why?

I would suggest that it’s a priming thing. To be brief, “priming” is the power of immediate suggestion. How women end up doing MUCH worse on tests in science or mathematics when they are “primed” (reminded, or made to think of) their identities as women right before taking the tests, as opposed to when they are “primed” to think of other ways in which they identify. Same as Asian-Americans doing much better on the same tests when they are reminded of their Asian-ness, while doing worse when reminded of other identities. African-Americans performing better on standardized tests when primed to think about African-American achievements (Olympic champions, MLK, etc.) as opposed to other aspects of African-American identity. Get the picture?

So, getting back to football – I was CONSTANTLY primed, as Asian, to think that I couldn’t play football. That I was too small. Not strong enough. Didn’t have the “natural” instincts and abilities. And so I watched all the other Asian kids on the team (who used to be some of the better players) drop off the team to do other things. Luckily for me, I was blessed with an over-active sense of self-confidence, so I was able to push through and continue competing, with great success.

The flip side? African-American kids who are primed to think that they are SUPPOSED to be good at sports. Having people EXPECT them to be better. And so, with those expectations comes the end result – more African-Americans play sports, CONTINUE to play sports, and therefore EXCELL in sports. Athletic dominance is about confidence. There is a reason you do not hear about great athletes and their self-doubt in critical situations. It’s because confidence is everything. Confidence calms nerves and enables a player to make the “clutch” plays that their less-confident (and therefore more nervous) counterparts cannot make. That’s a fact. Anybody who plays sports understands that fact. And so constant priming over the COURSE OF YEARS can make a drastic difference in regards to later confidence and success (as well as having an immediate effect every time the player steps onto the field).

And with that comes sticking to it or quitting. If you are convinced that you CAN’T do it (like the Asian kids on my team), you end up quitting, with no chance of coming through. If you are told that you CAN do it (and you get more chances from coaches and teammates alike, who EXPECT it), you are more likely to stick with it, keep working hard and practicing, and break through to success. Because, just like with the great white athletes, no black athlete becomes a great one without ridiculous amounts of hard work.

The science part is simple. First, priming is a real phenomenon. And it has ridiculous statistic validity in scientific tests with pretty drastic outcomes.* So I use that to support my previous claims. On the flip side – “race” is NOT a genetically valid category. None of the studies I have read about how black sprinters have “more fast-twitch muscles” are double-blind (ie. they test those they know to be black sprinters – then show they have “more” fast-twitch muscle fibers – as opposed to taking a whole lot of random black folks, white folks, Asian folks, etc., sprinters of all races, some random folks in between, and THEN trying to figure out which ones are the black sprinters based on presence of “more fast-twitch muscle fibers). Also, the physical qualities that make a good sprinter or football player are COMPLETELY different from what makes a great marathoner – and yet the same scientific arguments are applied.

Finally – a bit of common sense. Who do African-American kids have as role models in this society? Who are the successful, adult African-Americans that kids look up to? Mostly? Successful music artists (mostly hip-hop and R & B) and athletes. So who do these kids strive to emulate? Successful music artists and athletes.

Guess what (generally) leads to success – in any field – in this world? Practice. A lot of work. And a bit of luck and help. So do people tend to practice things that they want to pursue into the future? Do kids practice things that their idols are successful in? Of course. Do people work harder when they see people they identify with being successful in that same field? Of course. Do they work less hard or quit when they DON’T see people they identify with being successful in that field? Of course. And are people more likely to get a helping hand in a field where there are MORE people like them at the top or less? Where there are more, of course.

And there you go. Nobody would argue with any of those common-sense arguments if I was just sticking to music. Are there studies out there about the “rapping” gene? Was that specially selected-for because slaves needed good flow to survive the dangerous ocean travels from Africa to the Americas? Hell no. It’s about exposure, and culture, and role models.

So why does it change when it comes to athletics? Is it because people want an “excuse” for why black folks actually are quite successful in that field? Does it bother the status quo to think that successful black athletes might just work their asses off and are confident because it’s one of the few areas of life where they get consistent positive reinforcement? Is it scary to think about what might just happen if they got consistent positive reinforcement in the media, or in school? Or is it because the idea of an “athletic” gene helps us stick to the stereotype of African-Americans as more “brutish” or “savage” or “violent”? Make it more “scientifically valid” to claim that African-Americans are “naturally” less intelligent?

We have no problem blaming the woes of black America on gangsta rappers as poor role models – so why don’t we equally give credit for black America’s athletic success to positive black role models?

I am an artist, a scientist, a teacher, and an athlete. I’m tired of hearing people try to separate success in all of those fields. It’s all about hard work. You do something a lot, you get better at it. You do it even more, and you get really good at it. People tend to work harder and practice more at things they get positive feedback for. Hence – they get better at those things.

So – the reason my African-American students tend to be my best math students? The same reason African-Americans tend to be successful athletes, of course. Because somebody has been telling them they are good at it, and they know – and believe – it to be true.

* I generally like to edit my swear words on this blog, but that’s how strongly I feel about this particular topic.

** Anybody who wants some sources, just let me know, and I’ll spit some statistical validity at you.

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5 comments

  1. Well, everyone knows that blacks are physical beings. You know, unlike us whites. Or you Asians, whose only advantage is your super brains… which is the only reason you beat us whites on tests. Because it’s genetic. Not because you work harder or are encouraged more or ‘primed’…

    Note: Above paragraph was sarcasm, and all racial slurs and pronouns used to lump diverse groups into one huge, derogatory chatagory were intentional – and ironic. Maybe not ironic enough, though…

    I would like to think that we are past the days of pickling brains of ‘subverted’ cultures, and stashing them in the smithsonian as ‘proof’ that the dominant white culture is the Best. Apparently not. If we’re going to use science for things like this, we damn well ought to make sure we do it PROPERLY. I am not sure who I mean by ‘we’, here. All right thinking people, I guess.

    Nature vs. Nurture. Similarities vs. difference. Individuality vs. representation of a whole. I personally am not that flash at maths. Mostly because I don’t practice my skills, and then I panic when pressured. But I know many men who are worse at maths than me, and many women who are whizzes. I hear that, statistically, men are generally better than maths at women. But considering what ‘statistically’ means, that’s pretty meaningless for real, on-the-ground people.

    I always thought I was rubbish at spacial things. You know – how things fit together, gauging distances, etc. Recently I’ve been doing a whole lot more craft stuff – mostly fibre related. Sewing, knitting, garment stuff – all very heteronormative and throw-back like (Don’t tell teh Second Wave, those women get nasty). And I’ve noticed that my spacial abilities have gotten considerably better. Because I’ve been using them, and in a way that makes sense to my brain.

    Personally I’d like some sources for priming – not because I’m doubting you, but because I’ve heard it before and I’m interested in the hard science of it. Anything I can access on the web that you can point me to?

    Also, what about the type of language people use – unconsciously- to describe different people and their achievements. I know this is a big thing in feminist circles – you know, how saying ‘the doctor, she’ sets off the same links in the brain as a grammatical error. Any insights on this re race and culture?


  2. great post. a bit of anecdotal evidence for your point: in my undergrad, myself and a number of my friends from the black students org on campus decided to have an intramural basketball team, just for kicks. only a couple of the players had played seriously in high school, and the rest of us hadn’t been on a court since we dropped gym class. the other teams were all white women. the first time we played each of the other teams, it was visible how the other team would tense up when they first saw us, and play very, very aggressively at first (more so than when they played the other white teams)…until they realized that we were actually not very good at all. and then they seemed vaguely confused. turns out, a lot of these women were on the varsity team, had played seriously all through high school, etc. but they had been sure that they would have to step their game up against the black team. afterwards, we’d joke about our ability to break down stereotypes through sucking.


  3. Asha –
    That’s a great story, there. Not surprising in the slightest, but still a pretty funny image. You all should travel the U.S. ala the GlobeTrotters and break down stereotypes city by city . . .

    Kate –
    I used to have a great online site on priming, but I seem to have lost it. Here’s a good article to start with, though:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/31/health/psychology/31subl.html


  4. I am very interested in your comments. I would like to see your statistical data that you said you would supply. My reasoning is that in our house we teach that all men are created equal. Your comments help to defend our nuture argument. Oh and my kids are adopted if that matters.


  5. Your commentary reminds me of that scene in ‘Soul Man’ where because C.Thomas’s skin was black they automatically assumed he could kick ass at basketball and how the coach kept mispronouncing his name. It’s so funny when people say that because statistically the only reason why there are so many black people in those sports is because THOSE people can play those sports! Funny how the media in it’s infinite wisdom doesn’t acknowledge that the ‘majority’ of black athletes sucessful in sports are a minority in the rest of the world. In other words if those 50,000 are so ‘bred’ for sports how do you account for the other 10,000,000 who can’t play sports at all like my older brothers. And for Kate no need to say it was sarcasm we aren’t dense hooligans like on other blogs.



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