Black History Month is coming to end, but the conversation can't
Figure skating coach Asher Hill on barriers and biases he's seen in his sport
Asher Hill still remembers his shock at hearing a fellow figure skating coach say, ''This is why I don't coach black kids."
"As a young black kid, that's not the thing you want to hear," the figure skating analyst told CBC Sports.
For Asher, the comment typified much of the cultural bias he felt in his chosen sport, a bias he his intent on dispelling.
"I would even hear things from other white skaters like, 'Oh Asher, you're just whitewashed,' because I guess skating seems like a white sport. Even though I'm blackity-black-black," Hill said. "I would hear that I'm whitewashed and my blackness would be — not erased from me — but only [mentioned] because of what space I occupy, not because of who I am."
So while Black History Month is an important time to look back at achievements and strides made by the black community, it's also as good a time as any to look around at the work that still needs to be done. Especially in sport, one of the few spaces playing fields are referred to as equal and, no matter where you're from, hard work plus dedication is supposed to mean success.
From blazing trails like Willie O'Ree and Angela James, to becoming champions of the world like <a href="https://twitter.com/donovanbailey?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@DonovanBailey</a> & <a href="https://twitter.com/perditafelicien?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@PerditaFelicien</a> to inspiring the next generation like <a href="https://twitter.com/nursey16?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Nursey16</a> & Andre <a href="https://twitter.com/De6rasse?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@De6rasse</a> <br><br>We celebrate Black Sporting Excellence <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/BlackHistoryMonth?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#BlackHistoryMonth</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/BHM2020?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#BHM2020</a> <a href="https://t.co/dL4VGDnDSP">pic.twitter.com/dL4VGDnDSP</a>—@cbcsports
Hill spoke with CBC Sports recently about his experiences as a skater turned coach and what bias and racism looks like in sport in 2020.
"I think that when you are a visible minority you lose your own singularity, you lose your identity as a person," Hill said. "I'm not only Asher a black guy, I'm just eventually a black guy or a black figure skater.
"It's just like, you are always brought back to 'I am other.'"
Hill was introduced to skating at about three years old, following his twin sister Acacia around Scarborough Figure Skating Club in Toronto. But it wasn't love at first skate. Hill would cry and get off the ice as fast as he could. His father would have to bribe him with french fries to get back on.
But Hill kept at it and ended up having a knack for the sport. He started competing in ice dance at age 10 and made his first junior national team at 16. He'd go on to represent Canada at world championships, Four Continents events and on the Grand Prix circuit.
"A vast majority of my experience in skating has been positive with the friends I've made and the people I've surrounded myself with," Hill said. "But it's very naive to think racism doesn't exist in the sport when it does because it exists in the world."
And he's not only talking about the lighthearted jabs, such as constantly hearing comments like "Of course he can jump, he's black." Or having strange experiences of being in a foreign country and people asking for pictures with just him and not his teammates.
But it was the comparisons and different set of expectations skaters of colour faced that really caught Hill's attention, especially once he became a coach.
Not all athletes considered equal
In addition to the racism inherent in that coach's comments, Hill's also heard multiple comments about certain races of skaters being unable to express themselves on the ice because of the shape of their features.
"But when you see a white skater who is [unable to express], they don't say all 'white skaters can't express,'" said Hill. "But if an Asian skater doesn't express, it's all Asian skaters.
"They don't get painted with the same brush because they're white. It's like the default."
And it doesn't stop there. Hill also hears generalizing comments at the rink about certain races who "just can't skate."
"I would counter that with [the fact] my parents are Jamaican immigrants and, with that argument, there's nothing about me or my lineage that would make me good at skating," Hill said. "According to this person's logic, or lack thereof, I should have never made it as far as I did because of something as arbitrary as my ancestry and ethnicity."
Acknowledging the barrier
Hill now coaches at a school his sister started called the Brampton Hill Skating Academy and all the coaches are people of colour. And compared to coaching at other rinks, he says it feels nice to be in a space where no one has to worry about what other people will say.
"Mocking people's accents, mocking people's names, those kinds of things you really think you're past in the world but they still exist," Hill said. "They kind of shock you into remembering skating is still a part of the world, and even though it's a small microcosm of the world, it reflects the issues of the world as well."
Sport is still a place where institutionalized racism and bias exists, where athletes find recluse in some rinks and ignorance in others. Where comments create doubt whether athletes of colour are coached with the same expectations and passion as their white teammates. Where there's still a socially contrived baseline of acceptance that becomes an extra barrier athletes of colour face that their white teammates don't. Where many arenas, fields and rinks are still unconsciously considered a "white space" that athletes of colour exist in.
These claims raise more questions: How do we graduate from this phase? Can we? Is ignorance and bias prevalent in some sports more than others? Is this just a figure skating thing? (Instances like Akim Aliu's allegations against Bill Peters or LeBron James' house being vandalized suggest it's not.) They create more questions than we'll answer in this article.
But all of this is exactly why Black History Month is so important. Without looking back, it's difficult to conceptualize what the future could be like.
"It's just a time of reflection and to know that you are capable, you are worthy, we're resilient and can do anything," said Hill. "Seeing the people who have endured much more than you and look at their resilience to continue to fight and to continue what they did to occupy spaces that they were quote-on-quote "not supposed to" and make a name for themselves and make themselves known and to be seen and heard."
People like Mabel Fairbanks, who fought for minorities to compete in figure skating in the U.S. during the 1930's or Willie O'Ree becoming the first black NHL player.
"Colour isn't a barrier," Hill said. "It's only a barrier because of how society deems it to be."