Racism in Sport

Race can be understood as a concept that signifies meanings and struggles over power in reference to skin  color.  Within  the  social  sciences,  most  consider race to be not a biologically valid concept but rather  a  social  construction.  The  issue  of  race  in sport and exercise psychology is important because while the majority of professionals in the field are White,  the  clientele  is  diverse  in  terms  of  racial and  ethnic  backgrounds.  This  is  particularly  true in  sports  such  as  baseball,  basketball,  and  football.  Scholars  have  noted  that  in  the  conference presentations of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), there have been few meaningful attempts to incorporate issues related to racial and ethnic identities. Others have pointed out the infrequency with which race or ethnic identity are meaningfully discussed in the methods and results sections of articles in the major sport and exercise psychology  journals.  In  this  sense,  race  has  been conspicuous  by  its  absence.  In  comparison,  fields such  as  counseling  psychology,  nursing,  and  others  have  explicitly  developed  a  body  of  academic work  dealing  with  how  race  may  play  into  interpersonal interactions with clients and patients.

Over the past several years, sport and exercise psychology scholars have called upon members of the field to move toward a greater sensitivity and engagement  with  cultural  issues.  This  “cultural turn” has involved an increased attention to issues of race and ethnic identities in the field and their implications  for  practice.  In  addition  to  several well-respected journal issues, two anthologies, The Cultural  Turn  in  Sport  Psychology  and  Cultural Sport Psychology, signaled a new direction for the field and an attempt to foreground issues such as race  in  research  and  application.  The  “cultural turn” is also related to the more general infusion of critical race theory into academia. Critical race theory  involves  a  praxis-based  attempt  to  study and transform the relationship between racial identity,  racism,  and  power.  Thus,  researchers  should not  simply  increase  the  diversity  of  their  samples but actually use research to identify, critique, and dismantle  racist  structures  in  sport  and  society. Further  evidence  that  the  cultural  turn  in  sport and exercise psychology has gained momentum is found  in  popular  sport  and  exercise  psychology textbooks that now include sections on racial and ethnic identity.

As  one  of  the  major  social  institutions  in  the United States and elsewhere, sport has much to do with racial formation, racial ideology, and whiteness. Since the late 1990s, the academic work on racial  identities  and  racism  has  prompted  scholars to address the place of whiteness in sport. The term whiteness refers to the evolving discourse on white  racial  identities  and  privileges  associated with having, and identifying with, a White ethnic identity.  As  opposed  to  the  problematic  practice of examining the experiences of minority groups, or  the  “racial  other,”  from  a  supposedly  colorblind  perspective  where  “sameness”  is  prioritized over  equal  treatment  and  the  recognition  of  the meaningfulness of racial identity, whiteness studies switches  the  focus  of  research  onto  race  by  confronting  the  socially  constructed  nature  of  white identity and the impact of whiteness on social relationships.  Whiteness  studies  thus  acknowledges that  what  we  mean  by  “White”  is  contingent  on sociohistorical  and  political  contexts,  and  recognizes  the  need  to  critique  whiteness  as  a  key  factor in sociocultural spheres. For example, scholars have examined how African American college athletes  perceive  their  interactions  with  White  sport psychology (SP) professionals.

Scholars  in  whiteness  studies  originally  conceived  of  whiteness  as  being  akin  to  an  invisible knapsack  that  was  filled  with  white  and  male privileges  and  that  were  often  invisible  to  White individuals. It has been argued that white men in particular carry with them unexamined, unearned privileges across many social spheres because they are  considered  “White.”  Listing  these  privileges is  one  method  to  begin  to  confront,  denounce, and  eliminate  these  otherwise  unnoticed  inequities.  However,  scholars  have  recently  questioned the  effectiveness  of  this  seemingly  simple  task. Authors of this scholarship in sport have focused less on the examination of individual white privileges  and  more  on  the  ways  that  racial  inequality  and  racism  are  reproduced  and  experienced in  what  scholars  have  labeled  the  “new  racism.” Some aspects of new racism involve a more covert discourse on race, an avoidance of racial terminology (e.g., “post-racial America”), claims of reverse racism  by  whites,  and  the  incorporation  of  “safe minorities”  as  proof  that  race  is  less  important than it was previously.

Several   authors   have   provided   suggestions to  address  issues  of  racial  identity  in  sport  and exercise  psychology.  The  universalistic  approach suggests that professionals be taught cultural competence, in the process allowing them to be more sensitive to racial and ethnic differences. Cultural competence  involves  the  professional  recognizing the  client’s  racial  identity,  his  or  her  own  racial identity,  and  how  race  and  ethnicity  may  play  a role in their interactions. The role of introspective, self-reflexive  practice  is  crucial  to  this  process. Three areas of cultural competence have been proposed, including an awareness of one’s own values and  biases,  an  understanding  of  others’  perspectives  and  worldviews,  and  culturally  appropriate intervention strategies.

The  cultural  compatibility  model,  in  contrast, recommends matching the background of the service provider with that of the client. Given the lack of  racial  diversity  in  applied  sport  and  exercise psychology, this model is less practical. Further, it does little to change the field’s current level of multicultural  training.  Finally,  those  involved  in  the cultural turn movement advocate for a centralization of issues of racial and ethnic identity, as well as other lines of social identity (e.g., gender, sexual orientation,  disability).  Addressing  race,  then, would become one way of understanding the complexity of the experiences of professionals and clients, rather than an “add-on” module in a course. None of these approaches to cultural competence have  been  fully  embraced  in  sport  and  exercise psychology, and there is currently no consensus as to how issues of racial and ethnic identity should be addressed.


  1. Butryn, T. M. (2002). Critically examining White racial identity and privilege in sport psychology consulting. The Sport Psychologist, 16, 316–336.
  2. Doane, W., & Bonilla-Silva, E. (Eds.). (2003). White out: The continuing significance of racism. New York: Routledge.
  3. McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Boston, MA.
  4. Ram, N., Starek, J., & Johnson, J. (2004). Race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation: Still a void in sport and exercise psychology. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 26, 250–268.
  5. Ryba, T. V., Schinke, R. J., & Tenenbaum, G. (Eds.). (2010). The cultural turn in sport and exercise psychology. Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

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