I came across an interesting article in the Washington Post about the lack of diversity at the Sochi Olympics. Bemoaning the lack of African-American and Hispanic athletes, the piece highlights the almost absolute "whiteness" of the games....
Don’t listen to your friends back home saying the Winter Olympics are just for white people who like the cold and vacation in Aspen. This is the most inclusive Winter Games ever. Why, there are Caucasians here from almost 88 different nations......this place is whiter than an episode of “Downton Abbey.”Fair enough, black and Hispanic underrepresentation in winter sports is something to ponder, but not, in my opinion any more or less worth pondering than the general underrepresentation of Asians in sport - more on that later. Whilst the dearth of black and Hispanic athletes in winter sports is certainly something that requires attention, the fact that Asians have traditionally not been associated with sports and, thus, generally not considered as "sporty" - which may be reflected in the relative dearth of Asians in sport - is something that I think also warrants some degree of inquiry.
So, surely, Asians who do make it in sport is a subject worthy of its own investigation and story - after all, Asians are a racial minority affected by racism and stereotypes (particularly, perhaps in sport) that seeks to limit their prosperity? Well, maybe not........
Look, I don’t care about the color of the competitors. And I don’t think the paucity of black or Hispanic athletes should cheapen any gold medal, as if somehow this were a cold-war Olympics that didn’t include some of the greatest sporting nations......The fact is, despite Vonetta Flowers becoming the first black person to become a Winter Olympic gold medalist as a bobsledder in 2002, despite Davis becoming the first male African American to win individual gold in 2006, there hasn’t been a whole lot of carryover.Yes, more minorities, more colour, more diversity........yes?
Aside from the large contingent of Asian athletes and a smattering of Jamaican bobsledders and Tongans, the Opening Ceremonies’ Parade of Nations is as white as a von Trapp family reunion.Er..no! That's right, apart from the large contingent of non-white Asians and a few blacks and Pacific İslanders, there is just no diversity at the games. Why the writer of the article apparently feels as though a large contingent of Asians is somehow a lesser quality of diversity isn't specified. Given stereotypes about Asian physical weaknesses and inaptitude for sports, surely the fact that there is a "large contingent" of Asians participating in a sporting event at the highest level warrants a more enthusiastic commentary. Instead, I can't help but feel as though the writer is suggesting that the Asian contingent is a kind of disappointing diversity that is only worth the effort of inclusion in the discussion only to further highlight that, well, there are few blacks at the games.
To me, the fact that Asians are present in numbers at Sochi is, in fact, a huge victory against the racialized thinking that stereotypes Asians as nerdy, unsporty, weaklings and is something that deserves to be celebrated - particularly in light of the fact that several of those Asian athletes are Americans. A more interesting question may be, perhaps, why Asians are present in numbers at winter sports and what that may tell us about the complexities of American attitudes towards race and stereotypes.
It could well be that - for the Asian-American athletes at least - the very lack of black dominance in winter sports has offered breathing space for the consideration of Asians for inclusion. What I mean by this is that stereotypes about the sporting prowess of black athletes coupled with opposite stereotypes about Asians may conspire to leave little room in sporting programs for Asians to be included, no-one expects to find good Asian athletes, so no-one is looking. Since winter sports don't seem to be looking for a "Michael Jordan", there is room for Asians to taste the waters of athletic competition and compete at the highest level since they are also not competing against stereotypes of superior black sporting aptitude.
The point is that the typical stereotypical modes of thinking that have discouraged the idea that Asians have the physical capabilities to compete at the highest athletic levels are almost certainly being overcome and belied by the very presence of Asians at the highest level of competition at Sochi. This is a cause for celebration, it is certainly worthy of far more than a single disappointed throwaway line that diminishes the value of the Asian component of diversity.
But perhaps the biggest point of concern - and disappointment - is the implication that Asian athletes participating in lieu of white ones is somehow cheating America (and possibly blacks and the whole world) out of true diversity, which really should mean black and Hispanic athletes competing in lieu of white (and possibly Asian) ones. There are some disturbing echoes here of the debate over college admissions in which Asians have become something of a bogeyman and stumbling block for the liberal narrative of diversity and its recent addendum that too much success amongst Asians is a threat to black empowerment.
In summary, the piece illustrates that Asian-Americans are the blindspot of America's race dialogue - our "successes" are not the kind of race-dialogue that America welcomes, even when it is a clear illustration of overcoming racialized adversity. The fact is that it is in the field of sports that black and Hispanic integration has been quite pronounced, such that these groups dominate or are on an equal footing in mainstream American sports. Ironically, it is aspiring Asians who need encouragement to participate in sports and whose presence is underrepresented - so why is a large contingent of Asian athletes only worth mentioning in the context of how few black and Hispanics there are?
True investment in diversity should lead us to ask balanced questions and think, well, in more diverse ways. In the interests of genuine diversity in sports it is fair and balanced to ask; how do we expand the involvement of Asians in sports so that they are more equally represented in sports outside of winter competition? But that would mean that America would have to start thinking about the Asian experience of race, racism, and racialization - something it presently generally prefers to dismiss.