Roller Derby and Diversity

Roller Derby and Diversity 2014 Roller Derby World Cup. Photo by John Hesse.

In 2007, I attended a roller derby bout in Atlanta, GA for the very first time. Outside of the pageantry of the many derby personas and fast hits, one thing stood out to me: there were only 2 black skaters on the track.

At the time, there were five active black skaters in the Atlanta Rollergirls’ league. This, in itself, was an anomaly because there weren’t very many black skaters in the sport, period.

When I decided to try out, I was told countless times that derby is a “white girl’s thing” and “black girls don’t do that”. My usual response was “A white thing? Oh, like golf. Wait, Tiger Woods is a champion golfer. Or maybe tennis? No, Venus and Serena Williams are champion tennis players.” These athletes defied the odds and created room for more diversity in their sports. In this, a black roller derby player should not be a far-fetched concept.

Because, as a black woman, I am in the minority and I find myself subject to lots of questions regarding race relations in roller derby. Some questions are completely eye roll-inducing (i.e. “Can I touch your hair?”); but, the two I get the most are, firstly:

“Scarbie, how come there aren’t more black skaters in derby?”

In one word: Marketing. We’ve heard this simple solution too many times for it not be taken into consideration. If the sport isn’t marketed to black skaters, they will not be represented in the sport.

I was the only black skater in my fresh meat class and the very first black skater to skate for the Denim Demons, an Atlanta Rollergirls’ home team. When I transferred to Angel City Derby Girls in 2009, I was the only black active skater. I’ve recently come out of retirement and, in my endeavor to join the Wasteland Derby Dames, have found myself to be the only black skater…again.

If the sport isn’t marketed to black skaters, they will not be represented in the sport.

While there are lots of leagues in cities and towns where the minority population is minimal (hence, the lack of minorities in those leagues), I’m not sure why leagues in cities with large black populations like New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Detroit have only a handful of black skaters.

I, for one, I would not be offended if I were asked to recruit skaters in my community. Moreover, if those black derby superstar skaters like Mercy, Rollomite, Blaque Jac and Death By Chocolate were even more visible, recruiting in the black community would be more probable. This goes for skaters of color, in general.

If the goal is to make the sport more diverse, we have to recruit where the people are diverse and make our recruiters more diverse and more visible.

And then, the second question:

“Scarbie, why is there a black rollergirls’ group on Facebook? Derby is about bringing everyone together, it’s not necessary.”

I get asked this question a LOT.

I created the Black Roller Derby Network in 2011 as an outlet for black skaters, officials, announcers and photographers to have a place where we can be candid and honest about our experiences in derby. Side note: if you aren’t already a member, find me on Facebook and I’ll add you!

Sometimes, there are things that only another black skater can understand so, yes, it is absolutely necessary. There are times when people want to be heard without their feelings being dismissed or labeled hypersensitive. Especially for those who are the only black skater in their leagues or, even, their states.

I’ve received several private messages thanking me for creating the network. I even received a message from Latina skater asking if there was a group of the same nature for Latinos. I encouraged her to do what I did and start one herself.

Still, I’ve received not-so-nice messages accusing me of being racist and contributing to division in roller derby. I fail to see how getting over 500 people together, internationally, can create a separation so profound that the very fabric of the sport is unraveled.

Rollercon 2014. Photo by Tristan King.

Rollercon 2014. Photo by Tristan King.

At larger derby events, we all take a picture together and, even then, we are accused of being exclusionary if we don’t let a non-black person photobomb. These pictures are important because it shows the world a different face of roller derby. Showing different faces will encourage more diversity which, after all, is the goal.

Furthermore, no one questions the necessity for the Vagine Regime or the Derby Over 40 groups.

So, I wonder what it is about a group of black people that, seemingly, gives the derby world pause.

These two questions create an interesting dichotomy. I am being asked why there aren’t more black skaters and then, on the other hand, I am asked why do the black skaters deem it necessary to communicate amongst themselves. Subjectively speaking, it sounds like “Hey, we need more diversity! But not too much because it could create an irreversible division! Hey, what are you black people talking about in there anyway!?” It’s exhausting! Creating more diversity in derby is up to all of us and we all have to be willing to do the work it requires. As far as what we talk about in the group goes…hair!  

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