“Black 91! Black 91 high block! Black 91! Insubordination!”
The ref yells over and over at the skater who has just committed a penalty.
Then, after repeating the call multiple times, the skater being referred to seems to refuse to leave the track and receives an insubordination penalty.
First thought: both penalties were earned and that skater should be reprimanded. At closer look, it’s clear number 91 is confused. Looking around. Unsure what has just transpired.
The reason? “Black 91” was actually skating in green – Green 91. The skater thought the official was calling out a player on the opposing team. The confusion stemmed from number 91 being called “Black” – her skin color, not her team color.
This has happened on multiple occasions to many African American skaters. And the same principle manifests in a number of other kinds of situations, too.
But maybe the African American is still such a rarity in this sport that the idea of a Black skater is still novel – literally remarkable.
When that particular scenario first happened to me I rationalized and made excuses: “Well my arm bands are black.” “Green is kind of closer to black than what the other team is wearing.” So much so, that I bought green armbands. The mistake continued to happen.
Where does that come from?
I personally believe that this call, at its root, it is not intentionally malicious or racist (perhaps I’m still rationalizing).
Refs and officials have the hardest job in roller derby.
They must stay professional, though skaters and coaches may lose their minds at them. They do such a great job at staying impartial and professional that we all sometimes lose sight of the fact that they are still just people. People with their own baggage, hang ups and inbuilt biases. None of us are immune to it.
But is that fair?
Is it fair that on the track, a skater is penalized doubly for the official having those biases? In our starting scenario, they were initially awarded a penalty that may well only have been noticed because of the remarkability of their skin, and then the penalty was doubled because the call was made incorrectly by not referring to their team color. The result is literally sidelining players.
If we’re invested as a sport in genuinely committing to diversity and embracing our players for all they can bring to the track, then we have to look this in the eye.
In this situation, the Black skater faces several obstacles around their skating before even hitting the track:
- Do I belong here?
Many have said this is not a sport for African Americans. Or “Black people don’t skate”. But we do! And constantly having to prove that you belong is exhausting.
Representation is essential, as is support and actual community belonging.
- Black skaters are more ‘aggressive’. This harkens back to the old stereotype that African Americans don’t have the mind, patience or skill to do any sport that requires more than pure aggression. It’s part of a racist mythology that’s even older than that.
That stereotype manifests itself on the track. Officials calling Black skaters on penalties that other skaters would not be called on: A black jammer receiving a back-block call because the other skater couldn’t take what ought to have been a perfectly legal hit, or; a blocker getting ejected for a hit that another skater would merely serve the penalty and return to the track for.
- This perceived aggression also forces the black skater to go above and beyond to counter the perception.
So skating off to the penalty box with a smile, or thanking the officials for calling you off or extending many more niceties that others are not required to extend. It’s exhausting to have to be a constant role model, especially when the fear of the consequences of having a bad day are so real.
And when considering writing this piece, I struggled with fear of retribution.
But more than that, I fear that the people I sweat, bleed and laugh with everyday would see me differently. All of the time and effort exerted to make and retain these relationships could be jeopardized if they knew my feelings.
But these discussions need to be had. People of color should be able to express their experiences in a community that above all else values inclusiveness. We here in roller derby feel we are so much more progressive than the rest of society, but subconsciously still are able to make calls like these based upon unconscious racial prejudices.
It’s impossible to ask a referee to be completely impartial. It is, however, fair to ask that our officials, and all of us in roller derby evaluate our own baggage that we bring to the sport.
That we see our own biases as just that, and continue to participate in this sport knowing our issues and being prepared to genuinely tackle them.
Being aware of what hang ups we carry into the game, and addressing them could help avoid micro aggressions in our community and can only serve to improve the sport. Every one of us makes the sport better by addressing these things.
Editor’s Note: This skater wished to remain anonymous for the reasons discussed in the final paragraphs. Roller derby, we can do better.