You need to do better.
I came to Canada as a four year old who barely spoke English. In my search to find a place where I fit, I found you, sports. You welcomed me with open arms and I thought I had found my home. Little did I know that I would face a lot more bad than good during our time together.
I was five years old when I first picked up a basketball. I was seven when I laced up my first pair of skates. Both hockey and basketball played a large part in making me the person I am today. My experiences with both sports were so vastly different but they shared one commonality, my skin colour always seemed to matter.
The words of my elementary school basketball coach have played over and over in my head for a good part of the last 15 years of my life. “Resilience is your strongest weapon. You don’t like it? Then do something about it.” At 10 years old I didn’t take that too seriously. If something bothered me I wouldn’t do anything about it. I took it on the chin and moved forward. I didn’t realize that until I was much older that these things that bothered me were microaggressions and I couldn’t keep ignoring them.
We’ve all heard the words “hockey has a race problem” many times but how many people really believe it. Off the top of your head, can you name more than three Asian athletes in the NHL? No? I didn’t think so. This isn’t for the lack of trying. Marginalized groups including the AAPI and Black communities are fundamentally underrepresented in the league. I quit hockey when I was 13. I’ve got my list of excuses that I tell people like “I couldn’t manage three sports” or the infamous “it was too expensive.” The real reason I don’t tell people was that I couldn’t point out a single hockey player that looked like me.
I’ve had coaches tell me in angry fits of rage that “people like you don’t belong in this sport.” To this day I wonder why “people like me” do not belong in hockey. Why is a white kid’s sport? This is a question the major leagues have also failed to answer. In fact, most of them are convinced it isn’t even an issue. It’s not a race issue when Wayne Simmonds got a banana thrown at him. It’s not a race issue when Evander Kane is told to “stick to basketball” and it most definitely isn’t a race issue when marginalized players are addressed using racial slurs. This information isn’t hard to find, in fact, a quick google search of “hockey and race” will pull up an endless amount of BIPOC experiences with racism in the sport. I implore you, do your research to form an educated opinion and if you still think that hockey doesn’t have a race problem, then maybe do some more research.
The stereotype of Southasian women and long hair is one that I, unfortunately, have too many experiences with. At 13 I heard my teammates snickering about how I would “trip over my hair” on the court. I’ve had my hair pulled on during games and even had coaches that recommend that I cut it. The sad part is that wasn’t even the worst of it.
In high school, my darker-skinned teammates and I were described with our physical characteristics while our lighter-skinned teammates were commended for their intellect and calculation on the court. During my final basketball season, my coach chose me to be team captain. I had been told I was the perfect person for the job but not everyone thought so. Some of my teammates’ parents had taken it upon themselves to question my coach on whether I was fit for the role. Now I was ready to chalk it up to over-involved parents wanting to see their kid in my spot but in hushed tones, I heard the words “how would someone of her background know the first thing about being a leader?” To the average person that probably doesn’t mean much but to me, an Asian immigrant, it meant a whole lot.
Asians of all backgrounds are not represented very well in leadership positions. It’s a concept called the bamboo ceiling, while Asian-Americans are well represented in lower-level entry jobs, not many of them move up from there. Less than 14% of managers in America are of AAPI descent. It’s like the glass ceiling but for Asians, the high-level jobs are there and we can see them but they are not for people like us. They are not for Asians.
The parent then went on to assume I was a first-generation student (someone who is the first person in their family to go to post-secondary) amongst many other things. I wanted to turn around and tell her both my parents not only had two bachelor’s degrees but both of them also had master’s degrees. But I didn’t, instead, I kept walking into the locker room where my team was waiting for me.
It’s microaggressions like those that push BIPOC athletes to hate their sport. That season I pushed myself so hard to be the best that I fell out of love with the sport. I would wake up at 7 a.m. and start my day with a workout and sleep at 1 a.m. after ending my day with a workout. Whether it was playing through multiple injuries, pushing myself to work past what my body could handle or even simply neglecting school to work on basketball, I was trying to prove something that season. Who I was trying to prove it to? I still don’t know.
We won finals that year. I know we were winners but I don’t remember what it felt like. What I do remember is how my finger ached because I had broken it two days before finals while practicing layups and hid it from my coach. I remember the hammering feeling in my right knee that I would try to ignore every time I came down from a jump. Most of all, I remember the feeling when I heard the referee call time on the game. It was a feeling of relief, it was finally over.
Now three years later, I realize I shouldn’t have felt like that. I should’ve been elated that we won and I should’ve been upset that my basketball career was over but didn’t feel any of that. Now, all I remember as I lay on my physiotherapist’s table while she treats my right knee for that same injury from three years ago is that in trying to prove that I, an Asian woman, could be just as good as my white counterparts, I fell out of love with the sport I had called home for nearly my entire life.
May is AAPI month and while I think it’s important that discourse around our community is being started we must ensure that it continues on June 1st and every day after that. I’m not the first Asian athlete to experience racism and I definitely won’t be the last.
Resilience is our strongest weapon. There isn’t space for Asians in sports? Let’s do something about it.
We must all do our part in making space for the AAPI community in all facets of our society, including sports because one day when I sign my kids up for basketball or their first skating lesson, I don’t want to worry about if they’ll eventually go through what I went through.
Sports, please do better.
An Asian athlete.