The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Sports are for white Americans in Grinnell athletics

When I was younger, I believed that sports were indeed universal. I remember playing tag with kids that I didn’t know, chasing each other around the playground for a while and exchanging flushed, slightly out-of-breath goodbyes when our parents finally took us home.

Now, after three years of being a part of Grinnell athletics, I believe that sports can only be for white Americans. When you look at the roster of Grinnell athletic teams, it’s predominantly white and American. If we’re talking about international students, only 7.6 percent of Grinnell athletes are international, whereas 18 percent of the entire student body is international. The proportion is particularly low with upperclassmen.

There is a reason for this phenomenon. The Bear is a white space. The team is a white space. I can’t completely be myself there. So, I amp up my American accent a little more, ask people about their day and feign excitement about every little thing to appease the white audience. I can’t be too different, otherwise, they’ll “other” me. I need to fit in to survive in this kind of climate. And of course, I don’t constantly think about white dominance when I’m in the Bear– I would’ve quit the team by now if I had. But today, I was forced to confront it.

I went to see the trainer to get permission to start doing hard-demand workouts again. I had recently undergone a surgery, which was unrelated to running, and was slowly getting back into cross country with my doctor’s permission. The trainer told me to take it easy and gave me a progression to follow.

Meanwhile, another trainer in the room, one whose name evokes a certain tentacled monster in the Odyssey, came over to me and started asking about my physical activity in the past month. When I answered her, she looked at me with an expression of weary disbelief and advised me as though I had a physical injury. She made me feel guilty for running, even though my doctor had already given me permission to. I was confused, and frankly, upset by her response since the transition back to cross country from a running-unrelated surgery and from a physical injury, such as a stress fracture, seemed to me like two completely different processes.

So, I made the mistake of asking her, “What?” She then started speaking to me in an agonizingly slow manner, as if I were a very young child or incapable of understanding English. She spoke slowly to me until the end of our interaction. I don’t know what her intent was, but she obliterated my self-esteem and made me feel stupid. I wondered if she acted this way because I am East Asian and I was frustrated that I even had to ask myself that.

This was one of the more aggressive encounters I’ve had but there are many subtler instances that I’ve repressed. Being treated as the spokesperson for POC by my white teammates. The uncomfortable silence after I spoke about exclusion in sports in a room full of white athletes. Microaggressions go by unnoticed, or worse, dismissed.

I am genuinely very grateful for my teammates and love running with them. I also love being an athlete and travelling the Midwest for meets. But I still feel like most of my teammates don’t understand me and that I don’t really belong in Grinnell athletics. And although I keep trying to be optimistic and to strive for improvement, I am getting worn down by people’s ignorance and complacency. Because, unlike sports, prejudice is never out of season.

—Nana Okamoto ’20

Editor’s Note: Nana Okamoto is the Video Editor for The S&B.

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