Opinion | By Stephen Williams
Racism in hockey is nuanced. It’s not always abusive, although, as Tendo Kimuli explained in The Hockey Paper last week, it can be. Often though, it is disguised in the subtle use of language and implicit stereotyping. To see England Hockey release a statement, and for Nick Pink to reach out to Tendo in relation to his claims, is refreshing. Yet, to ensure hockey is free of discrimination we must be proactive, not reactive. There is no easy fix, but light must be shed on the issue. And more must be done to welcome all those from different backgrounds into hockey, so that it is truly a game for everybody.
To understand my view on racism in the sport I love, you need to appreciate my background. I was born and raised in England, with Indian heritage on my paternal side. My mixed race has meant I have had hurdles thrown at me that maybe other people wouldn’t have.
At an early age I became aware that the colour of my skin was being used as ammunition for bullies, and, as a result, I never wanted to be one of the people who hung around with the Indian kids in case I was stereotyped, and that was used against me. When I was seven my parents got married and I took my father’s surname, which gave bullies another reason to come at me. Aged 14, and already aware I wanted to be a PE teacher, I changed my name back to Williams, not wanting to give children in the future an opportunity to mock me.
I have gone on to make my livelihood in hockey as a coach, and I don’t believe being mixed race has stunted my progress. However, my experiences as a child and my observations over the years have shaped the way I behave. They have also influenced my understanding of how covert racial stereotyping exists in the sport. The global protests in the last few weeks have shown us that racism is a much wider issue than just hockey, but we need to take pride in ourselves and cut it out in our own community.
I initially came to notice racism in hockey when I was younger, and it was presented in an openly abusive manner. When I was 16 I was quite quick, so I would just knock the ball one way go the other way, and no one would catch me. I would hear people say “catch the Paki”. I don’t think it was necessarily meant as an insult but just a way to get under my skin, but it is quite clearly offensive.
Now, as a coach, I often overhear players make comments about an opponent’s race. Commonly, the comments are not made in an abusive manner, but as an explanation for someone’s ability. I often hear things along the lines of: “They are skillful because they are Indian” or “They have close ball control because they are Asian”. It does a disservice to their craft and the hours they have spent practising.
Perhaps it has come as a result of the success of India and Pakistan in the latter part of the 20th century. Imran Sherwani’s prominence in Great Britain’s 1988 Olympic gold medal winning side gave further rise to the belief that Asians were, and are, inherently good hockey players. It has got to the point that to be recognised as an Asian hockey player is a compliment, but, put simply, it is profiling. It has an effect on the individual, who doesn’t want the label of being the good Asian player, but just a good player.
It happens to the black community too. You hear people say things like “He is going to be fast, he is going to be rapid”. Well, actually, you are just stereotyping on the basis of someone’s ethnic background, and you may not consider yourself racist but you are racial profiling.
In a similar vein, when Rhys Smith, or Darren Cheeseman 10 years earlier, broke into the GB team, people were saying “have you heard about the black lad who broke into the GB team”, and it shouldn’t have been about his ethnicity. Rhys was young and breaking onto the international scene. That’s awesome; that is what should be being talked about and not his race.
In my experience, the comments are predominantly made by those at a grassroots level. I put that down to the better players not caring as much about the ethnicity of others. A good sportsman doesn’t care whether you are black, white, Indian, they are more bothered about ability. Stereotyping and discrimination, which can have a tremendous impact on individuals and dictate the way they live their lives, and the decisions they make, shows the perpetrator doesn’t have great knowledge of the game. If they knew more, they would realise anyone can be skillful.
It’s difficult to stamp out. The old adage of ‘change takes time’ exists for a reason, and I am not claiming to know the answers. If no one ever mentioned the fact that Indians are skillful or black lads are fast, then kids wouldn’t hear it and it might be eradicated, or at least suppressed.
The fact that racism in hockey can appear subtly means it is really hard to detect and to identify. Therefore, it is hard to fix. You don’t know what you are campaigning for – it’s not solely about cutting out abuse, although that is important, and Tendo should be praised for speaking so openly about his experience. I hope that his comments will encourage others to do the same, but equally as important is limiting the stereotyping and the inadvertently offensive comments.
I would like to see our national governing body actively campaigning to welcome people from all backgrounds, along a route of respecting others, regardless. England Hockey set up a diversity and inclusion working group a year ago, yet the visible work produced from it is negligible. They should be speaking to people like Tendo and Rhys, who has a voice with the Inner City community, as well as Asian and black players at the grassroots level to see what can be done.
To understand racism in hockey, try to understand our views and seek to realise how we feel. Do not presume that there are no issues because racism is not explicit and obvious in nature, or because issues are not being raised or spoken about. By ignoring racism, hockey is guilty of condoning it, and ceasing to be the welcoming sport that it claims to be. It is time to open the dialogue and fix the issue.
Stephen Williams, hockey coach and director of PerfX Hockey, was speaking to Oliver Godden.