How would you define racism?
Is it a specific set of derogatory words that are forbidden to say? Is it making others feel unwelcome because of their race?
While the easy answer is yes, the reality is racial (as well as ethnic and gender) prejudices are part of our society even though most people believe they know what racism is and that it’s wrong. Stephanie Jackson, USA Hockey’s director of diversity and inclusion, explains that racism really is not so black and white.
“There’s a lot of gray area when it does come to racism, and diversity,” she states. “And diversity really doesn’t have anything to do with racism.”
According to Jackson, in order to increase diversity in the sport of hockey, we first need to recognize what we are trying to achieve and how even questions or comments that might not seem outwardly racist can actually have the same negative impact as hurtful words and exclusions.
Jackson shares her thoughts about how to navigate diversity and race as we work toward a more inclusive environment.
“What Made You Want To Play Hockey?”
It seems innocent enough to pose this question to any family at the rink. You’re just trying to get to know them, right?
While that may be true, Jackson explains there’s a core implication in the question when received by a family of a different ethnicity.
“It’s the way things are phrased to people in a situation where they already feel excluded, or puts people in a situation where the spotlight is on the fact that we’ve never seen someone like you in this space — what brought you to this space?” said Jackson. “People feel like, ‘I don’t know if I belong because these people are asking these questions about why am I here.’”
Questions like these are examples of unconscious bias that exists in all of us. Unconscious biases are learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional and deeply ingrained but still are very impactful in their ability to influence.
Because it’s stereotypes done outside the realm of our own conscious awareness, they can manifest themselves in a variety of unknown ways. Maybe you see a first or last name on the roster and automatically assume the race (or gender) of that individual. Maybe it’s presuming to know why kids of certain ethnicities don’t play hockey.
We’ve been trained, right or wrong, to make assumptions about everyone around us. Whether it’s how people dress, their job, their views on certain topics, etc., we’re continuously developing both cognitive biases and unconscious bias.
It’s why we must work diligently to combat our own biases, intentionally challenge stereotypes and focus on treating everyone we meet as a part of a unified hockey family.
“Just talk to them like you normally would,” said Jackson. “It sounds simple, but that’s what it’s all about. It’s about having those conversations and be willing to understand how you might offend someone with those questions.”
“It comes down to communication 101. That’s all it really is. If you can articulate what you’re meaning to say in a way that includes a person in the conversation instead of excluding them, then you’re setting yourself up to learn.”
It’s OK To Be Uncomfortable
“These conversations are supposed to be hard,” Jackson noted. “People get squeamish when confronted with the notion that what they’ve had in place for so long might not be right.
“I think when you’re putting yourself in the situation of being vulnerable, you’re putting yourself in a situation of being willing to learn. Truthfully I think that’s the biggest thing: willing to learn through the uncomfortableness of this topic and this discussion.”
Learning and being willing to learn are not the same thing. The first step is acknowledging that there is space to learn and grow, but the most important step is the willingness to act on that.
“It’s everything,” Jackson continues. “We have to be open to what we don’t know, and to be open to what we know and always be willing to learn.”
“Be willing to have that conversation when someone is offended. Those hard conversations.”
Change Starts at the Top
Like all things, change starts at the top, especially in regards to how kids will act and treat one another. That’s the parents, the coaches, the volunteers, the teachers.
“I’ve never seen the bottom change the top,” said Jackson. “If the standard of the tone doesn’t’ happen from the top, you can forget about a change happening in a good direction. It has to start with leadership.”