In conversation with Janelle Joseph

KPE professor talks barriers to access, issues of equity in sport
MAKEN MWENDA/THE VARSITY
MAKEN MWENDA/THE VARSITY

The Varsity got an opportunity to speak with Janelle Joseph, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education who performs research in critical studies of race and Indigeneity in sport. Joseph spoke about many barriers that racialized people face in their local communities, as well as what organizers can do better to address these concerns. 

The Varsity: How did you get into studying race, multiculturalism, and Indigeneity in sport? 

Janelle Joseph: I’m sure I have a few different origin stories. One that probably applies is the fact that my brother was a professional baseball player, and I went to visit him at his training camp. I recognized that most of the players were Black. Most of the coaches were white and, in fact, a lot of the players only spoke Spanish. 

And so my brother was really a minority on the team, being the only Black player from Canada. And it really gave me an insight into how racially stratified sports are, and also how glorified professional sports are. I really started to think about how the systems that we celebrate are the same systems that end up creating racial hierarchies, and I wanted to dig into that even deeper. So that’s part of how I became a sports scholar. Also, as a Black woman I’ve always enjoyed physical activity. My passion has been martial arts, dance, and other physical movement practices.

TV: Can you describe what critical race theory is, and how it applies to sport? 

JJ: So critical theory is a way of understanding the world. Critical race theory views the world with the understanding that we live in basic structures and that there is an ongoing hierarchy that positions white people at the centre of the culture, and creates a hierarchy that marginalizes other groups. These other groups have shifting levels of power, but in Canadian society we generally see that Indigenous and Black people almost always fall at the bottom of those hierarchies. 

Because of that permanence of racism, critical race theory was also dedicated to discovering the stories of marginalized people and figuring out how the structure actually affects them. Mostly these are marginalized voices because they’ve been left out of the mainstream storytelling. So for example, within sports, the national narrative of hockey as a really inclusive coloquial pastime that everyone has access to ignores the fact that, for so long in residential schools, hockey was used as a tool of domination and Indigenous people, generally speaking, have been excluded from hockey in almost all Canadian centres. They’re starting to change now with specific initiatives to promote inclusion, and part of that goes into class, because hockey is such an expensive sport. But that’s just one example of how we need to actually talk to people who are racialized to hear their stories and their versions of events so that we can get a more complete Canadian history. 

TV: What do you think needs to be done to promote more Black and Indigenous people in sport?

JJ: I think there’s a multi-pronged approach that can be taken, and it really depends on the kind of sport or activity that you’re talking about. I’ve been approached by people who are with Rowing Canada and soccer at municipal levels. Those particular sports have usually one or two people of colour, and they see a lot of racism. Those are the kinds of people who often reach out to me for support. And things that can be done is bringing their stories forward and making sure that people understand that when they see discrimination in their sport, it’s not just the result of a few bad apples and some individually racist people. It’s usually because referees, coaches, athletic trainers, and a lot of people in positions of power think it’s just normal.

So making sure that everyone is aware that’s happening, that if there are policies then they are being followed. And if there are no policies in the books, then start taking a structural approach — making sure that every sporting organization has an anti-racism policy. 

It can sometimes get included with an anti-bullying or anti-harassment policy, but you need to make sure that the language about racism is explicit. So it’s not enough to say, “We have an anti-bullying policy.” It needs to be an anti-Black racism policy, and an anti-Indigenous harassment policy. Those things need to be based on that so that people can take those policies, and say that they are experiencing harassment. 

And then there’s also the issue of representation. If your organization has no people of colour on the board, or no coaches or referees of colour, that might mean that you need to do some training, and that might mean you need to go into those communities that have high proportions of youth of colour and introduce them to the idea of refereeing, introduce them to the sport of rowing. 

It’s going to be a long time before you have, say, Black leaders in equestrianism in Canada. If they’re not exposed to that sport and if it remains really class-exclusive and racially exclusive, then maybe we need work on a lot of different levels, from policies, to recruitment, to representation, to being really explicit that if you look around the board and it’s usually dominated by men and dominated by white men, you might need to set some quotas and might need to set some targets. 

Say “we can do better,” and, given that you are operating in the province of Ontario at the very least, you could add to match some of the racial demographics of the province or of the city on our board. And that includes gender demographics and other intersections such as disability or LGBTQ+ status. It’s important to remember that people of colour come in all different shapes and sizes and they need to recognize those intersections as well.

TV: What kind of challenges do you believe Indigenous people face in getting involved in sport? 

JJ: It really does depend on the area that they’re living in, first and foremost. So if Indigenous people are in remote areas and some of the issues they have come down to access, are there enough people to make up a team? Do you have the type of equipment that you need? Do you have the facilities that you need? You might have an idea that you want to start a basketball league, but do you have the gym space? Do you have the competitors and the coaches and the officials? 

All of the structural elements that go into generating sporting opportunities are limiting rural communities, and many Indigenous people in Canada are living in rural communities. So that’s one factor. But we also have many Indigenous people in our urban centres. In Toronto, some of the barriers that Indigenous people are facing do stem from racial exclusion. 

Assumptions being made about what kinds of activities they’ll be good at or be able to do. For Indigenous people, there are barriers connected with their ancestral cultures. They’d love to have opportunities to do Indigenous activities, dances, and Pow Wows, and those opportunities may not be made available to them. So they not only have to be athletes or physically active, but they may also have to be entrepreneurs and business organizers, and they need the leverage organization to get the space and the time to do the kind of activities they want. 

TV: What about immigrants and newcomers to Canada? What kinds of challenges do they face? 

JJ: I think there are a lot of similarities. Sometimes for newcomers, the biggest challenge is around finances and sense of economic status. And so they might not be able to afford the physical activities that they would prefer because their first priorities are food, shelter, and making sure that they can take care of the basics. 

We know that a lot of immigrants, when they come here, their qualifications and education combinations that they have come from are not honoured, or not recognized. And so you might have someone who has an engineering degree or a medical degree, and then in Toronto they’re driving a taxi cab or working in a factory. And so they don’t have the kind of income that would lend them to participate in sport because of their income or free time. 

We should lead them to participate in the kinds of activities they want, particularly for the next generation raising their children in the kinds of activities that those children are supposed to play. There’s also a language barrier sometimes, and they might not even be aware of the opportunities that are available because English is not their first language. Some local community centres have not made an effort to advertise their services in multiple languages.

TV: What do you think the media, including student media, can do to better foster inclusion and multiculturalism in sport? 

JJ: One of the things — and I’ll bring it back to critical race theory — is to ask those people. We have so many pockets of, for example, Somali communities. Where are they shopping? Where are they hanging out? How could we go to those communities, and figure out what it is that they need? Because if you don’t have those people on your boards and in positions of decision-making power, then you’re not going to know what those communities need. 

So the first thing that the media could do is profile the stories of those communities and ask them what they need. Profile all the good work that’s happening. I know of a few different Muslim women sports opportunities that have popped up in the last couple of years in the GTA. So rather than only printing stories about how these communities don’t have access, or don’t do enough physical activities, and blaming them for their own sedentariness, figure out when and where they actually are doing these things.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

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