Deeper than Skin
When I volunteered for "The Roller Girl Project", my focus was to spread a message I've proclaimed from an early age: though my appearance is unique, beneath the surface, I am the same as everyone else. Despite the harsh criticism she received, I agree with Raven-Symone's statements that she is "not black", she's "American", and as a multi-raced individual, born and reared in rural Maryland, this is my sentiment as well. I've dedicated most of my life to defying the racial stereotypes of African-Americans, East Indian Americans, and Latino Americans. "Black people don't listen to rock music." "Black people aren't farmers." "Black people don't play roller derby." Well, I am black, and I do all of these things. My skin tone does not dictate what I can and cannot do. It is an aspect of me, a characteristic, a descriptive term. It is not who I am.
- Petti LaBelle, ClarksVillain Roller Girls
Derby seems to be a manifestation of feminism kicked into high gear. Sports culture, in general, has always demanded that female athletes be competitive while also presenting the perfect picture of femininity. We see this manifest in the uniforms we wear, the adjectives used to describe our game play, and the attention given to physical appearance instead of athletic performance. This current iteration of derby was no different in its early days. However, there has been a marked shift away from booty shorts, fishnets, and tutus to athletic wear more conducive to the full contact sport. The WFTDA’s tag line is: Real. Strong. Athletic. Revolutionary. Derby can be all of those things while simultaneously being just as oppressive as the environment that made it necessary.
Consider those words in the context of a female identified, black athlete. Real deteriorates into a question of biology...”don’t they have an extra leg muscle?” Strong becomes a question of being too masculine; women aren’t supposed to have muscles. Athletic transforms into aggressive, because angry black woman and all. Finally, Revolutionary devolves into boat rocker. “How dare you want to have an all black team…how would you feel if there were an all white team?” (Side note: all white teams exist all across this nation). The black body has long been used to entertain or otherwise educate others throughout history. From enslavement, to human zoos, Sarah Baartman exhibitions, to being used as props at the 2013 VMAs to name a few examples. The struggle for agency over our physical bodies is, as they say, real.
The very definition of femininity should be viewed as personal instead of one-size fits all. These women play derby with their strong bodies tempered by a determination to be the best. This makes the game and they way they play it inherently feminine regardless of how each player defines it. While the derby community on its face is real, strong, athletic, and revolutionary—like first wave feminism—there exists a divide along racial lines…it’s time we talk about it if we want to fully realize/actualize the potential of this sport.
There are, sad to say, innumerable ways I've been treated sub-optimally because of the color of my skin. I'll limit them to the context of the images I chose to display in this photo-shoot; these examples not only bother me the most, but are a reoccurring theme.
I have been aware of stereotypes about me due to the color of my skin since a young age. As a result, they are now embedded into my psyche.
In 2015 I still find myself keeping my hands in plain view when I'm shopping so people won't think I'm stealing. I am not a criminal. I have had people working in a store I'm shopping in follow me around too many times to count; the majority of them slyly or blatantly watching me, never asking if I needed assistance.. I am not a criminal. I even had a situation where a manager at a store I worked at tried to set me up for stealing. She, I, and another employee were closing and the manager put the evening’s cash deposit on the counter and walked away. Needless to say, I went in the back as I sensed some shenanigans were about to happen. Then she kept asking me to go up front to do things near where the money was. I made sure I was "busy" doing something else to ensure I had an excuse to stay away from the unattended cash. Then, surprise, the money came up missing even though all 3 of us were locked in the store. I ended up leaving not even a week later as she kept trying to put me on the register. I knew the drawer was going to come up short so I said no mam. Later, I found out the manager had a serious drug problem and ended up getting let go for other incidents of missing cash/clothing. I am not a criminal.
People frequently diminish my accomplishments. I never bring up my education out of the blue as I'm quite humble, but others trying to diminish my achievements bothers me tremendously. I cannot count the number of times I've been asked what I do for a living, only to have the person assume I am a medical technician when I say I'm in the medical field. Sometimes the assumption is nurse, but rarely do people stop to think I am a doctor. Even when I say, "I'm a physician", half of the replies are, "oh you’re a nurse?” In my mind I think, “did I stutter?” LOL. Sometimes people have the audacity to ask me if I'm a real doctor? What does that mean? That's when I casually drop the fact that I’m Harvard trained. Then, if that wasn't bad enough, I get the "well it must not be that hard to become a doctor". Oh ok because obviously if a dummy like me can do it then anyone can. I am educated.
I think the thing that bothers me most is feeling invisible. It's not all the time, but happens much too often. How many times have I gone in a store/business without being asked if I need help? Yes, I will go ask someone who works there for assistance. The bite, however, comes after I've been ignored, when the sales person rushes to assist the person behind me. I am equal. Sometimes I turn around and walk out, other times I interrupt and say, "actually I need some assistance." Generally, I leave without making a purchase based on principal, even if there was an item I really wanted. I am equal.
At work I’m invisible a lot of times too. Certain people in other departments that I see regularly look right past as I walk by in the hall. I've been there for more than 4 years, I am their peer, I am not invisible. I have made an effort to engage some of them, which has had varying degrees of success depending on the person.
Which brings me to why I love derby so much. It's Ok to steal. Steal some points when you’re jamming, especially if you are not lead jammer. It's a highly prized skill, actually lol. No matter what you look like, if you play a smart clean game, It's not diminished especially since it’s a team effort. People have to look at you and acknowledge your presence; the consequences for not seeing could mean getting laid out flat by the "invisible" player lol. All in all, I’ve found an acceptance in derby that many times eludes me in other facets of my life. Hopefully one day the outside world will be more like derby, with respect to being accepting, and non judgmental.
- Dr. G, Fort Wayne Derby Girls
I am able to be competitive without wanting to injure or harm others. I think the concept of black people being violent is an overarching and continuous one. So the point of my photo is that striving to be athletic and excel as a derby player should not be overshadowed by my race. While I am a black skater and I hit hard, it does not make me malicious.
- Death Before Decaf, CoMo Derby Dames
If you were to ask a small sample of black women how often they have been mistaken for the help, most would be able to readily give you a couple examples. These experiences, often built from willful ignorance of American history, destroy all that black women have achieved over the centuries. The plot often including the causal dialogue, “you are so well spoken…[for a black woman]” or “I had to work for everything I have, no one ever gave me anything.” Too often, when we think of black women, the image that comes up is welfare queen, loud, hyper-sexualized, and uneducated. Being black and playing roller derby, likewise, are seen as mutually exclusive. These women shattered that image the moment they stepped onto their respective college campuses and derby tracks. These women worked twice as hard as their counterparts to not only gain entry, but also excel. They understand that failure means reinforcing the concept that black people are lazy and looking for handouts. These women expose the inherent bias present when someone says, “you’re so intelligent and well spoken” by responding with a resounding, “of course, I am. Why wouldn’t I be?” They demolish the ever popular “black folk don’t” when they don their derby gear in an effort to perfect their art form. They are beacons for what is possible in education and sport, where the latter all too often overshadows the former in black communities across this nation.