How did youth soccer teach me racism?

17. How did youth soccer teach me racism_ (770x409p)

Key Points:

  1. George Floyd’s death in 2020 forced me into an uncomfortable but necessary reconciliation with something racist I said during a soccer game in 2017.
  2. I realized that I’d internalized a biased viewpoint that I heard repeatedly while playing youth soccer during my formative years in the early 2000’s.
  3. Discovering the root of the threatened identity that caused me to lash out helped me realize why I acted this way, and how I could avoid doing so in the future.  

Estimated reading time: 10-20 minutes

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I have a pretty vulnerable share for you all today, as it deals with something I’m quite embarrassed to have done. It has to do with racism, because this week marks three years since the May 2020 incident in which George Floyd was killed by a police officer. I realize I risk alienating some readers by covering such a politically charged topic, but such is life. In the immediate aftermath of this tragic event, I was forced to confront some of my own deeply-ingrained beliefs about race. Ones that I’d learned through what’s long been one of my favorite things in the world. Soccer.

The Incident

As soon as I felt my cleats crunch into my opponent’s ankle, I knew there would be trouble, but I didn’t know how uncomfortable a self-realization I was about to have. Immediately as the ref’s whistle blew, a teammate of the player I fouled came towards me. After a few seconds of typical, male bravado-induced trash talk from both of us, he lunged his head at me in what I believe was meant to be a gesture of intimidation, nothing more. However, he miscalculated the distance between us and gently bumped the bridge of my nose.

Seeing an opportunity to secure an advantage for my team, I immediately covered my face with my hands and hunched over, implying he had hit me with much more force. My ploy worked, and the referee ejected him from the match. I only received a yellow card for my initial slide tackle. After play had moved on, a Latino player on the other team came up to me with a wry smile and said something like, “Come on, man. You faked that, right? He didn’t actually hit you.” I responded, “No, he did. And if I was Mexican, I would have rolled on the ground screaming.”

This incident occurred when I was 27 years old, and it showed that despite my outward tolerance, I had accumulated and internalized some strong racial biases. And I won’t lie, admitting I was capable of this was quite uncomfortable. But what became equally clear was that these tendencies were learned, not innate, which meant they could be left behind. However, in order to do so, I had to examine how they were learned and how learning them has influenced me.

I realize sharing this may lead some readers to think poorly of me. That is their right, and I will not try to change their opinions. By sharing, I am in no way looking for sympathy, praise, or recognition, just to communicate what I learned.

Before I Learned About Race

When I was five years old, a new family moved into a house up the street from where mine lived. My mom heard that the family had a child around my age, so we walked over to introduce ourselves. When we arrived at the new house, I saw a little girl playing in the yard with a boy who looked slightly younger than her. Being the oldest sibling myself, I knew the older girl was the “authority,” so I walked up and asked if I could play with her and “her little brother.”

What was obvious to all the adults in the yard was that the young black girl and the young white boy playing together were next door neighbors, not siblings. To my five year old brain, however, it was simple. Two kids playing together in the same yard…they must be brother and sister. Their skin color held no significance.

Twenty-two years later, much had obviously changed.

A Necessary Apology

Before I dive more deeply into my words during the aforementioned soccer game, let me make this clear. I am truly sorry for what I said to the opposing player. Further, I am deeply embarrassed to have said it. I wish I could apologize directly to him, even if he did not want to accept my apology. It would one hundred percent be his right, and I respect that. My apology is meaningless if it is conditioned upon him accepting it.

Therefore, regardless of whether he would accept, I needed to ponder the question of how I went from being the boy in the second story to the adult in the first. That this is even possible perfectly illustrates the truth of a famous Nelson Mandela quotation:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

A Reflection

In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death, the story of my racist remark was on my mind quite a bit. How could I claim to care about racial injustice with an event like this in my past? Reflecting on this question led me to explore some of the “How to Combat Racism” resources that were circulating on social media at the time.

I gained some insight after watching a highly thought-provoking video by Dr. Robin DiAngelo discussing her book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.” Now, I realize some consider her polarizing, even problematic, and there are some genuinely valid points made in opposition to her work. For me, however, she undeniably raised some questions and observations worth considering.

According to Dr. DiAngelo, one of the vital steps in combating racism is leaving behind the rigidity of its modern, common definition. To paraphrase her, racism is popularly seen today as isolated events, specifically, as bad things done on purpose by bad people. There’s a crucial problem with this definition. Nearly every individual holds a view of themself as a morally good person.

As I’ve written in previous pieces about identity, throughout history, even those who commit acts of unspeakable violence and cruelty tend to think they’re doing so for morally justifiable reasons. Therefore, when someone does or says something obviously racist, the notion, “Racism is bad; only bad people are racists,” conflicts so strongly with the identity they hold as a “morally good person,” that they can’t handle it. They rationalize, they deny, they disengage, and so on. In the case of my soccer story, I did all three.

Immediately after the words left my mouth, I knew what I said was racist, hurtful, and wrong on many levels. Unfortunately, I wasn’t courageous enough to apologize after the match, so my brain went all over the place. “I didn’t actually use a racial slur, so what I said wasn’t technically racist.” “I’ve had lots of Mexican friends and teammates over the years, so I can’t be racist.” “I’ve seen Mexican players fake fouls and exaggerate injuries many times, so what I said was possibly true, not racist.” Here’s what I then knew and now acknowledge. That was a bunch of BS. What I said was racist, plain and simple. Nothing can change that. The path forward was to see where this came from so I didn’t do it again.

Stereotypes and Soccer

For me, this started with thoroughly examining where I had learned and internalized racism. As Dr. DiAngelo’s video reiterates, racism is not an event. It is a system. She also mentioned “…one of the things that sets many white people off the most is feeling like people of another race ‘got something over on us’ that they didn’t deserve.” Hearing this instantly made it crystal clear that playing soccer as a teenager was where I most deeply internalized racism.

As I’ve written before, from age six until my late twenties, soccer was my biggest passion and the source of my strongest identity. I played, coached, watched, or read about soccer nearly every single day during those two decades. Further, I played and coached at the college level, and I’m still passionate about and involved with the game today. Sadly, it also strongly influenced my internalization of certain bigoted perceptions. Here are some of the things I heard repeatedly about Latino (particularly Mexican) soccer players during my formative years:

  • “Mexican players are skilled dribblers but don’t pass.”
  • “Mexican players dive and fake fouls.”
  • “Mexican players play ‘dirty.’ They foul you and kick you when the refs aren’t looking.”
  • “Mexican players are lazy and don’t play defense.”
  • “Mexican players aren’t ‘team players’.”

I heard these things a lot from the ages of 12 to 17, primarily from various teammates and coaches. If you grew up a soccer player in the Chicago suburbs, you probably heard these same things.

Here is the underlying message behind all of it: “Mexican players are different from you. They are ‘other,’ and these ‘others’ do not play the game the ‘right’ way. You do. They do not play it with honor. You do. Therefore, they do not deserve to win. You do.”

The team I played for from age fourteen to eighteen exacerbated this set of stereotypes and narratives. On this team, the perception held by many of the white players, and even reinforced by a couple of my teammates’ parents, was that certain Latino players on our team received special treatment. In particular, there were about five or six players who could be late to practices, late to pregame warmups, or miss practices entirely, yet see no consequences in regards to their playing time or status as starters. As a player who only started about half the time, this created a deep resentment in me.

Whether or not this perception was objectively true doesn’t matter. It combined with confirmation bias to fit the narratives I had heard. Every time I saw one of the above five bullet points in action, my brain would subconsciously go, “See! ‘They’ don’t play the game with honor! ‘They’ don’t deserve to win or get playing time over you!” My brain would also ignore examples that ran counter to these narratives, like when a white player dove or fouled someone when the ref wasn’t looking, or when a Latino player passed instead of dribbling.

Further, I shoved aside pieces of information like, for example, one of the aforementioned players was frequently late because he was working nearly full time to help support his family. Or, as another example, two of those players started every game simply because they were head and shoulders better than everyone else on the team. None of that mattered. What mattered was I had internalized the idea that I was deserving of playing time and “winning,” while Latino players weren’t. This was so deeply ingrained that nearly a decade after I had last played on this team, it reared its ugly head during the match I described at the beginning of this piece.

Diving Deeper

Let’s unpack what happened a little further. When the player I insulted questioned whether his teammate had actually hit me, he was implying that I was not playing the game with honor…and he was right. The cognitive dissonance of being called out for not playing the game with honor by someone from a group I was conditioned to believe did not play the game with honor was too much to handle. So, I instinctively lashed out.

I know this caused him pain, because he immediately called me a racist and proceeded to be my shadow for the rest of the game. Ironically, his actions served to reinforce one of the stereotypes I had already internalized. For the remainder of the match, he kicked and elbowed me after the play every chance he got. But here’s the thing. He was entirely justified in wanting to cause me pain in return. When this altercation started, he said something quite harmless, and then I immediately insulted his race. This was me giving him a painful reminder of how much more privilege and status I have than he does, for no other reason than I was born of a particular skin color.

So, I didn’t blame him one bit for wanting to hurt me back. I also forgave him. Yes, he could have chosen not to lash out back at me, but I also know that he would not have acted that way had I not made a racist remark. So, I internally took responsibility for the hurt that I caused even though I wasn’t strong enough to face him after the game.

The Risks of Sharing

Moving on, I want to talk about some issues that could arise from me sharing this story. It’s my hope that this examination could encourage others to take a critical look at their own biases and identity-protecting behaviors, but I realize some people may use my mistakes to uphold their own view of themselves as morally superior. It’s not difficult for me to imagine certain individuals reading this and thinking, “Wow. What an asshole. I’ve never said or done anything like that, so I’m definitely not a racist.” To restate what I said earlier, if you think less of me after reading this story, that is your right. I will not try to change your mind.

However, I have a bigger worry. Because my story highlights behavior that was so obviously rather than subtly wrong, this could lead to some individuals concluding that reflection on their behavior and words is unnecessary because they’ve never said anything comparable. Let me reiterate. Racism is not just an event, like it happened to be in my story. Racism is a system, and it does not care if you are a nice person, or whether you “meant it” or not.

Dr. DiAngelo helps frame seeing racism as a system in a way that helps transitioning to this viewpoint much easier.

“Clearly, [many problems rest] on the simplistic definition [of racism]. Apparently, a lot of people think that a racist cannot tolerate any proximity, even the sight of people of color. So, if there’s any friendliness across race, there cannot be racism.”

“So, I’m just gonna put it right out here. As a result of being born and raised as a white person in this culture, I have a racist worldview. I have deep racist biases. I have developed racist patterns. And I have investments in a system that has served me very well and is very comfortable for me…” “…And I also have investments in not seeing any of that, for what it would mean for my identity and what it would require of me in action. I didn’t choose it. I don’t want it, [but I’ve] got it.”

“And it’s actually incredibly transformative and liberating to begin from that premise so that you can begin to [ask yourself], ‘Well, how’s it coming out in me, so that I might be able to stop that? “…rather than, ‘It’s not coming out in me.’ For example, if I went into the bathroom, and I came out and the back of my dress was hiked into my pantyhose and my ass was showing, I sure hope you’d let me know. And I wouldn’t say to you, ‘How dare you suggest my ass is showing! And you better proceed as if it isn’t!’ And yet, the worst fear of a white progressive is that we’re going to say or do something racist. But by God don’t you dare say that I just did or said something racist! Rather than, ‘Thank you. I didn’t see myself doing that, and now I can do something different.’”

If you take anything away from reading this piece, let it be the power of awareness and reflection on the question, “How is this coming out in me?” After all, it’s the behaviors we’re least aware of that have the most power to cause pain for ourselves and others.

Racial Stereotyping Rears its Head Again

With that in mind, I want to share a personal example of how easily internalized racism can arise. I mentioned previously that ideally, I would apologize in person to the player I insulted. Unfortunately, this would be nearly impossible for a number of reasons. For one, I now live almost 1,800 miles away from Chicago. Next, I was a guest player for my team at the time, and I don’t remember the name of the coach, the opposition team, or even the league in which this match was played.

Keeping those facts in mind when writing this section back in 2020, I initially considered making a joke along the lines of, “So, if anyone in Chicago knows a short Latino guy who’s very good at soccer, let me know so I can apologize to him.”

I share this with you to let the following statement sink in. Had I not caught myself, I was going to make a joke using racial stereotypes in a reflection prompted by making a racist insult.

Now, some of you may be asking why I included this anyway, instead of simply recognizing my flawed thinking and omitting it accordingly. Mainly, I wanted to show how easy it is for ingrained tendencies to emerge when we least expect them. But also to show that the examination worked. This time, I caught it before it happened.

Now what?

Keeping this in mind, I’ll conclude by highlighting the major area in which I disagree with Dr. DeAngelo. She claimed that racism is so entrenched within the fabric of American society that if you’re white, you can never be done with this type of work. To paraphrase Professor Mad-Eye Moody, “Constant vigilance,” and all that.

But this view is why some people regard Dr. DeAngelo’s work as infantilizing to racial minorities and martyring oneself on the cross of white privilege to atone for the “original sin” of being born with fair skin. If you’re interested, here’s a pretty scathing review of her book by John McWhorter, a black linguistics professor at Columbia University.

He makes some great points, but in my opinion, like with most issues, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Crucially, I don’t think there’s anything we can’t change if we work on it for long enough. What’s learned can be unlearned. Tendencies, reflexive patterns, and habits can be modified, upgraded, and replaced. So at the end of the day, navigating this issue requires a bit of nuance. But it can still be simple. For me, the mental journey probably went something like this:

I’m not a racist and I would never say anything racist. Oh, but I did say something racist during that soccer game. Why did I do that? Oh, an identity was threatened so I lashed out at the person who threatened it. I didn’t know I was capable of that. Why was I capable of that and why didn’t I realize this? Oh, that’s why? Makes sense. Okay, how can I be aware of this so I don’t do it again? Just being aware is enough to start? Okay, good. I don’t want to be a dick, so I’ll use the power of awareness to make sure I don’t do this again.

And that’s it. No grander moralizing, sweeping judgments, or powerful proclamations. Just as those with less privilege shouldn’t need to apologize for wanting rights or “taking up space,” nor should those born with privilege feel guilty about having it. That guilt either leads to unnecessary mental suffering or denying that these advantages exist. Neither option helps anyone. Instead, my plan is simple. Acknowledge the privilege I have without being either a jerk or a martyr about it, and admit and learn from the inevitable mistakes I’ll make.

Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever noticed anything similar like this in yourself? If so, what did you do about it? Reply to this email and let me know.


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