Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Racism, Cultural Sensitivity, and Roller Derby

Back in September a skater from Florida posted to her personal Tumblr to call out a different Florida league, the Rebel Belles of Palm Harbor, Florida, accusing them of racism based on their team logo and colors.

In the post, Militant Bulstrode claims that the Belle’s gray, red, and blue uniforms—not to mention their kepi hat logo with crossed rifles—was representative of the Confederate flag and army uniforms from the American Civil War. This, Bulstrode argued, was evidence of racism within the league, and “the fact that they’ve completed a season (albeit an extremely short one) without being called out on their logo/jerseys/team name needs to be rectified immediately.”

The Rebel Belles responded to the ensuing deluge of criticism by writing and sharing a lengthy defense of the logo and uniforms, as well as stating that the accusations of racism were “false and slanderous.” They have also since changed the logo, and a post dated Nov. 12 says the league is “seriously considering rebranding.”

There’s no way to know the motivations of the individuals responsible for the initial branding of the league, barring psychic and time traveling abilities. Speculation about whether or not the individual members, or indeed the entire league, are harboring racist ideas or beliefs is futile unless those people come out and claim outright racist ideology. The Rebel Belles have not, to my knowledge, done so. They have, in fact, gone out of their way to claim to be an inclusive, non-discriminatory league.

There are two possibilities in this case, as far as I see it: Either the Rebel Belles were formed by Confederate sympathizers / white supremacists, or they simply demonstrated a deep lack of understanding of historical symbology and ignorance of their own white privilege.

I tend to go with Hanlon’s razor when it comes to this kind of thing: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

I say this not to impugn the overall intelligence of anyone with the Rebel Belles, but rather to point out that we’re all prone to doing stupid things from time to time. Some of those stupid things can stem from prejudices we didn’t even know we had, too—the difference lies in how we choose to recognize, address, and attempt to correct those things in the long run. And the relationship the U.S. has with its history—specifically the Confederacy and the Civil War—is fraught with whitewashing, misunderstanding, and worse (even feminist folksinger Ani DiFranco isn’t free from the pitfalls of historical and racial ignorance).

But that’s a whole other article. Let’s take a look at the facts in this particular case:
  • The Rebel Belles named themselves after the rebel yell, the term coined for a battle cry specific to the Confederate army during the Civil War (and Florida, for those of you less familiar with U.S. history, was a member of the Confederate States of America, which seceded from the Union in 1861 and was then forcibly beaten back into the U.S. after losing the war in 1865).
  • The Rebel Belles designed a logo using the gray kepi hat that was standard issue for Confederate soldiers during that war, with two crossed, red muskets underneath (also standard issue weapons during the war). The RB’s claim the logo was meant to emulate the Florida state flag, which does indeed feature a red St. Andrew’s Cross on a white field.
  • The RB’s have gray home team uniforms, accented with red and blue. To claim that the use of the gray uniforms, and then the gray kepi, is simply homage to their “historic theme” demonstrates a rather baffling lack of sensitivity to the admittedly complex but deeply hurtful history in question. There may be no actual rebel battle flag in their logo, but the Confederacy is still all over their branding.

In the end, it seems as though the anger spurred by the team’s name/image has forced them to seriously reconsider and rebrand, which is ultimately a good thing for everyone involved. No matter how well meaning they might have been in attempting to give a nod to Florida’s past, the fact remains that said past is inescapably tied to slavery and subjugation, and the continued prejudice toward and oppression of minority populations in the U.S. that are that evil institution’s legacy.

There’s no place for that in roller derby (or anywhere, of course), a sport founded on the principle of inclusivity and bucking the status quo. It’s good to call out these things when we see them. This kind of cultural and racial insensitivity is sadly not limited to this one case, either. Painfully enough, the skater who penned the original Tumblr post calling out the RB’s is herself the member of a team called the Cannibals, whose men’s derby analog are called the Head Hunters. There are deeply problematic and culturally insensitive elements in those names, too (glass houses, etc).

Clearly, this is a much larger conversation we should be havingwithin roller derby, within sports (ahem, the Washington football team, anyone?), within our lives in general.

The point isn’t to get caught up in name calling or knee-jerk defensiveness, though, but rather to speak up when something is harmful and/or hurtful, speak from the heart, push for constructive change--and always, always be willing to listen and make your own changes when it’s you who’s guilty of stumbling.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some things that I've been grappling with within roller derby have to do with the reality that a sport that prides itself on inclusivity and reflexivity enables offensive references to be used and utilized by its leagues and players.

There is a fine line between honoring cultural groups and historical events, and being ignorant to the problematic themes being glorified and used for "entertainment" (for example, using "Zyklon B" or "Jonestown Massacre" as derby names). I have been dealing with these types of issues within my own league, and have become disheartened since it is not being addressed and corrected.

I wonder, at what point do skaters say "enough is enough" and walk away from their leagues?

Great post!

The Lost Albatross