In the past several weeks I’ve been reflecting a lot on racism and systemic racism. I’ve read Superior: The return of race science by Angela Saini and White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism by Robin Diangelo. I’ve added other books to my summer reading list as well. This week I watched Athlete A, a documentary released on Netflix about the rampant sexual abuse in US Gymnastics and the subsequent cover up. These are connected to me in a fundamental way.
I grew up figure skating and I was incredibly fortunate. I was mentally abused by one of my first coaches. She also encouraged the other skaters in my club to abuse me. But, my parents were consistent fixtures at the ice rink and they had taught me that that behaviour wasn’t right. I changed coaches. I also avoided coaches later who I saw similar behaviour from. I remember a friend asking me why I hadn’t gone with a particular coach when we were all forced into a new club. This coach, afterall had gotten my friend to improve so much. I responded saying that that was true but I didn’t leave the rink in tears everyday, which at the time was how my friend left.
I share this not because I want to show how I understand the experience of being subjugated and abused. I will never know what it is like to not be afforded privilege based on my skin colour. Nor will I understand the pain of sexual abuse. But what struck me in Athlete A was that the extreme mental and physical abuse that the gymnasts experienced was included in the documentary only as a means of providing context for how the sexual abuse could have happened. It was not condemned or even really questioned. Violence of these types seems to be so accepted that it is hardly worthy of comment.
I’ve called people out who have talked about abusive coaches, including the one who abused me among many others, as good coaches. The very idea that someone is a good coach because of the results they get shows how willing we are to overlook the path to those results. I taught learn-to-skate lessons for years because I felt that everyone deserves to have a positive introduction to sport. At one rink, the attendant approached me after seeing me coach the preschoolers for several weeks and said “do you know, you’re the only coach I’ve ever seen not yell at the kids?”
As an athlete, I learned how to challenge myself. I learned how to admit when I messed up and then take action to improve. These are skills I am using today as I learn more about systemic racism and work to integrate activities and content into my classes so that my students too are challenged and empowered to contribute to change. But I also learned how powerful violence that we don’t recognize as violence can be. It is pervasive.
It should never have been something worth noting that I didn’t yell at the three and four year olds in my lessons. It should never happen that I see a rare example of police taking a knee with peaceful Black lives matter protestors as happened in Edmonton a few weeks ago and think about how novel that is. Violence of all kinds, including the systemic violence against Black, Indigenous, Biracial, People of Colour, women, children, and members of the LGBQT2+ (I know that I will have missed someone in this list and I apologize for that) should be what is called out and condemned until nobody can use it to provide context for another heinous act.
None of us are perfect, but we all have the ability to learn, so long as we are willing to accept the first premise. Change is hard, but not changing is worse. I don’t know where I would have ended up if I hadn’t changed away from my abusive coach, but I can say this. I watched all of my skating friends grow to hate the rink. To dread their lessons. And to quit the sport. I, on the other hand, still seek out opportunities to be on the ice, even getting up at unearthly hours to make use of public figure skating times. I never left the ice and the ice has never left me. Change is worth the effort and by changing yourself, you may discover you have the power to change the system for someone else.
Please stand up when you see violence of any kind. Please be humble as you realize the violence you yourself have wittingly or unwittingly committed. And pay attention to the systemic issues, like the results determining whether an action is good or bad, so that we may all contribute to changing the systems.
I acknowledge that some readers may question how this post connects with science. Although I didn’t reference them in the post Saini describes many examples of where to aim to find certain results in scientific pursuits led to the extreme abuse and misrepresentation of people. And that is part of the challenge. Like with many sports, there is a mentality that the results are objective and if the results are objective then, as a consequence, how you got there was in some way not just justified but required. People do science and science has at least as far to go to change as the rest of society. Therefore, if we are to connect to science and more importantly if people who have been marginalized from and by the system of science are to connect with science, then we must also look at how issues of racism, violence, and abuse have also shaped this foundation.