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.
- Birrell, S. (1989). Racial relations theories and sport: Suggestions for a more critical analysis. Sociology of Sport Journal, 6, 212–227.
- 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.
- 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.
- Schinke, R. J., & Hanrahan, S. J. (Eds.). (2009). Cultural sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.