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.
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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.
Butryn, T. M. (2002). Critically examining White racial identity and privilege in sport psychology consulting. The Sport Psychologist, 16, 316–336.
Doane, W., & Bonilla-Silva, E. (Eds.). (2003). White out: The continuing significance of racism. New York: Routledge.
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.
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.
Ryba, T. V., Schinke, R. J., & Tenenbaum, G. (Eds.). (2010). The cultural turn in sport and exercise psychology. Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.