This piece is a beginnings of the intersections of race, sex, gender, and sexuality in the context of playing roller derby.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that many people have experience with aspects of what this piece contains. Those experiences are no less important or valid than my own.
This piece is about having a voice in a space that – on its face – is for everyone, but in practice inevitably falls short at times.
This piece could easily be about the intersection of derby and body size and image or derby and economic class. While those things are important, I am called to write about the immutable pieces of my identity. I may not always be broke or a certain weight, but I will always be an African American queer and present as a more ‘masculine’ person (note, I did not say woman).
Before we get much further in this conversation, let’s acknowledge that black folk – like any other community – are not a monolith. My experience will most certainly differ from “[your] one friend” who has the complete opposite opinion than mine.
Now that the disclaimer is out of the way… let’s dig in!
Being a black female-bodied person in contemporary America is no easy feat. I live in a country where my narrative is constantly being arranged and rearranged for me in the dominant discourse and on the political field without our permission.
First, dominant discourse. What is the ‘dominant discourse’ you ask? It’s the general understanding of the world and how things work based on the view of those in power (generally straight, white, cis-males).
Put simply, it’s the status quo. We see this discourse in the way we craft legislation, the way we speak to one another at work, the ways we deal with emotion in public spaces, etc. It’s what people often understand as ‘common sense’ – unquestionable norms that shape the ways it’s possible to think and feel in our world.
The status quo allowed most of those at the relative top of the identity heap to rest easy, since “better them than me”, while those at the topmost rungs (generally rich, straight white guys) exploited this fear.
It is ostensibly easier to go along to get along than stand up to the lunchroom bully. If you tacitly support their behavior, you can keep your chocolate milk and tater tots.
This silent “support,” in turn, props up a perverse point of view based on false cyclical thinking.
By allowing the lunchroom bully to speak for us we have created a space between our thoughts/deeds and the world around us. It is in this space that we are able to shield ourselves from the fallout of explicitly or implicitly allowing someone else to speak for us. This space inevitably results in the loss of empathy and therefore our humanity. It is this discourse that made it possible to enslave and terrorize an entire group of people to build this nation.
We were forced to partially assimilate to a culture that did/does not value our lips, natural hair, or normal/natural expressions of joy. I say ‘partially’ because the tacit goal was never ultimately to see blacks as equal, but to essentially make us more palatable/controllable for the dominant power structure.
This type of environment makes institutionalized political exploitation and manipulation all but inevitable. Blacks were classified as property instead of people with agency over their own bodies and destinies. We were divided into house and field slaves, a division you can still clearly see replicated today between fair and dark skinned blacks.
There is no clearer example of this political power than black bodies being considered 3/5 of a person. Slaves were property, not people for all intents and purposes. As the American government began to take shape, the South saw an opportunity to gain more seats in the House of Representatives by counting their property as people without rights. The northern states would have been heavily outnumbered in the House since the number of representatives from each state is determined by population size. As such, a compromise was struck to count blacks as ⅗ a person.
Fast forward to today, and we have politicians who glibly announce that racism is over – gas lighting at its finest. When #BlackLivesMatter had to be created to serve as a reminder to everyone, the seedy underbelly of America was once again exposed. As Feist said, “[there’s] so much past inside [our] present”, it’s strangling us.
We cannot escape the implications of our nation’s historical socialization of black as less than. Instead, we need to embrace it. Our individual voices, regardless of race (but never outside of a system of racist institutionalized practice), must be reclaimed to begin the work of recovering our humanity, our outrage.
It is time for all of us to get reacquainted with speaking for ourselves instead of allowing others to be our proxies. Owning our voices reestablishes the link between accountability and our thoughts/deeds, which is essential, because this conversation is too important to allow defensiveness to get in the way of real change.
And so the first step is always acknowledging we have a problem. It is terrifying to openly admit that in many ways, large and/or small, we perpetuate a lopsided system. Again, embrace it. Only after we can get real about how long we have dehumanized a community – in this specific case the black community – can we begin to act.
What does this all have to do with the derbyverse?
The sport that we love so dearly is, itself, a microcosm of the world in which we live. Whether we like it or not, the past and its dynamics are present in leagues around the world.
My Sherlock is in need of a Watson as I continue to closely inspect the underbelly of race, racism, and roller derby. Join me, armed with your trusty magnifying glass and pipe (as a reminder to stay cool under pressure), as I delve even deeper into this mystery on Derby Central in the coming weeks.
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