Race, sport, and spaces

When scholars in my field talk about "spaces," they usually mean social spaces. These are the places we occupy and interact with other people and things. Spaces are so important, there is a sub-discipline of sociology devoted to them, which examines social practices and institutional forces that influence human behavior and, in turn, circles back to influence continued social practices and institutional forces.

I am an affiliated faculty member in Arizona State University's Global Sports Institute, an interdisciplinary institution that examines some of sport's most pressing ethical, technological, and cultural issues.

On Tuesday, the GSI launched its 2018-19 theme, Race and Sport Around the Globe, at a luncheon in Tempe. (Here is Mary Beth Faller's article about the event for ASU Now.) Dr. Elijah Anderson (Yale University) delivered the keynote address. He isn't a "sports person" per se, but it quickly became clear how his extensive experience as an ethnographer can help sports scholars better tackle race in our spaces.

Anderson talked about the spaces largely occupied by white people, and spaces largely occupied by black people; white people tend to avoid black spaces, but blacks have to navigate white space as a condition of their existence. There are racially mixed spaces, or "cosmopolitan canopies," but when blacks enter these spaces, they are often eyed with suspicion. Nervousness. Like they have to prove to other inhabitants of that space that they're safe, clean, educated, and "articulate." An example of this theory in practice is in this opinion piece Anderson penned in May regarding the Starbucks arrests.

Scholarly exploration can seem abstract, appearing to have no practical application to "real life." But Anderson's work, and what the GSI embodies, is scholarly exploration with the purpose of addressing practical challenges, in society and in sport. This helps us better understand the systems of power and race in which we live - systems that are so normalized, they seem"common sense," but don't have to be.

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