Sunday, September 21, 2008
On Race and Competitive Sports
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.