Race in Sports

The  term  race  is  not  easily  defined;  it  has  complicated and contested meanings contingent upon historical  and  social  contexts.  In  a  general  sense, scholars  within,  and  outside,  sport  psychology (SP)  have  conceptualized  race  as  having  biological  and/or  social  distinctions.  From  a  biological perspective, race refers to individuals who are perceived  by  others,  and  perhaps  by  themselves,  as possessing  distinctive,  inherited,  biological  traits (e.g., skin color). People subscribing to a biological perspective typically regard race as a fixed, objective, homogenous category. Enduring assumptions from  this  perspective  include  the  argument  that people  can  be  divided  into  biologically  detached “races” and/or static representational categories of particular  races  and  that  similarities  within,  and difference  between,  these  groups  can  be  reduced to  appearance,  ability,  behavior,  and  psychological  characteristics.  From  a  social  perspective,  the foregoing  assumptions  are  viewed  as  simplistic and problematic, as race cannot be solely reduced to  a  scientific,  neutral,  and  monolithic  (i.e.,  all-encompassing representing a single perspective or experience)  category.  Instead,  race  is  conceptualized  as  a  socially  constructed  phenomenon,  the meaning  of  which  is  contingent  upon  changing and  complicated  interactions  between  social  processes  and  lived  experiences.  Thus,  from  a  social constructionist  viewpoint,  the  term  race  is  not viewed as a fixed, natural, and biologically given but is a constructed term—the meaning of which is  fluid  depending  upon  the  contextual  moment and  one’s  interpretations  and  experiences  within that  moment.  The  degree  to  which  biological assumptions  concerning  race  have  endured  is  not confirmation  of  their  existence  but  rather  shows that such explanations have persisted over time as socially agreed upon ways of speaking about race.

Despite the acknowledgment of race as a quasi-biological and social construct, in North America the  term  is  still  often  reduced  to  an  overarching concept  equated  with  skin  color  and/or  physical  appearance.  Sport  studies  scholars  and,  more recently,  scholars  in  SP  have  called  attention  to the  political  effects  of  such  simplistic  “race  conceptions,” as they perpetuate a Eurocentric white (and often male) hierarchy of power and privilege in sport. In turn, one perspective in SP emerges as “truth”  and  as  the  dominant  view  against  which all  experiences  are  measured  and  interpreted. Perspectives and voices falling outside of a mainstream  Eurocentric  viewpoint  are  silenced,  particularly the perspectives of those whose identities intersect with class, gender, and sexuality. Another result of such silencing and privileging of primarily one perspective is that the justification of bias, discrimination, prejudice and stereotypes may result.

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Ethnicity  is  similarly  misconstrued  and  often used  interchangeably  with  the  term  race;  thus, the  term  also  warrants  mention  or  highlighting in  conceptions  and  discussions  of  race.  Ethnicity has been used to refer to a unique set of cultural, social,  and  religious  characteristics  (e.g.,  shared customs, values, traditions, worldviews) and does not refer to one’s physical appearance or serve as a  proxy  for  a  particular  race.  As  with  the  aforementioned  biological  viewpoint  concerning  race, when  used  interchangeably  with  race,  the  term ethnicity  takes  on  the  inherent,  historical,  and social meanings and the (problematic) implications of  the  biological  viewpoint.  In-line  with  a  social constructionist  conception  of  race,  ethnicity  can also  be  conceptualized  as  having  multiple  meanings that are dynamic and changing because they are  socially  and  culturally  (re)produced.  Scholars outside, and within, SP have highlighted the need to  recognize  that  while  there  may  be  a  degree  of overlap between conceptions and meanings of race and  ethnicity,  one  should  be  aware  of  the  foregoing  dynamic  meanings  and  that  each  of  these terms have very different theoretical approaches to conceptualization.

While the inclusion of race and ethnicity in SP is relatively new and still a void within the field, it is a growing area of interest in both research and application. To date, many of the approaches used have been to assert that race exists and to ask what effect  membership  in  a  particular  race  or  ethnic group has on sport involvement, what psychological  implications  result,  and  in  turn,  consider  the implications  for  applied  practice.  In  addition  to such approaches, sport studies scholars have called for critical forms of exploration and theorizing race and ethnicity to move beyond looking at race and ethnicity  as  interchangeable  and/or  as  fixed  variables. Critical forms of theorizing allow researchers and practitioners to acknowledge and explore the complexity and multiple meanings of race and ethnicity—particularly  in  terms  of  their  intersection  with  class,  gender,  and  sexuality.  Following the recommendations and work of these scholars, it  has  been  suggested  that  a  more  profound,  and perhaps  socially  transforming  approach  for  SP,  is to  conceptualize  race  as  a  socially  and  culturally produced  marker  of  a  particular  relationship  of power,  to  see  racial  identity  as  contested,  and  to ask how and why racial relations are (re)produced through sport.

As  the  field  of  sport  and  exercise  psychology  moves  forward  in  a  global  and  multicultural society,  the  inclusion  of  marginalized  identities, cultures,  and  perspectives  outside  of  the  mainstream  is  important.  SP  practitioners,  educators, and  researchers  may  increasingly  find  themselves working with athletes, coaches, and physical activity (PA) participants from a wide range of cultural backgrounds.   An   awareness   of   the   foregoing distinctions  and  discussions  concerning  race  and ethnicity  will  be  an  important  gateway  toward enhanced  mutual  understanding  between  minority participants and those working in SP contexts. Such mutual understanding may open up a deeper appreciation  of  PA  participants  from  a  multicultural  perspective,  as  well  as  break  down  racial, social, economic, and political barriers that impede and/or impact PA participation for minority groups in society.


  1. Birrell, S. (1989). Racial relations theories and sport: Suggestions for a more critical analysis. Sociology of Sport Journal, 6, 212–227.
  2. Kontos, A. P., & Breland-Noble, A. M. (2002). Racial/ ethnic diversity in applied sport psychology: Multicultural introduction to working with athletes of color. The Sport Psychologist, 16, 296–315.
  3. 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.
  4. Schinke, R. J., & Hanrahan, S. J. (Eds.). (2009). Cultural sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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